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WIU faculty members who participated in the first WIU "Coneflower Project: Teaching Sustainability Across the Curriculum," first row (L to R): Timothy Collins, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs; Joel Gruver, School of Agriculture; Jongnam Choi, geography; Ranbir Kang; geography. Row 2 (L to R): Marjorie Allison, English and journalism; Vickie Livingston, biological sciences; Amy Patrick Mossman, English and journalism; Mei Wen, health sciences; Bruce Harris, instructional design and technology. Row 3 (L to R): Jim La Prad, educational and interdisciplinary studies; Bill Knox, English and journalism; Shazia Rahman, English and journalism; and Gordon Rands, management and marketing. Photo credit: Mindy Pheiffer, recreational, park and tourism administration
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Sustainability and Curriculum, Part 1: Coneflowers and Brownbaggers

February 28, 2012

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Recent research indicates advancing sustainability in the area of curriculum is falling behind other efforts to incorporate sustainability in the higher ed setting, such as in facilities planning. This two-part series will look at a few of WIU's curriculum-oriented and academic programs designed to help incorporate sustainability in formal instruction. Part one will provide a brief look at the recently established Coneflower Workshop at WIU, a dedicated initiative with a goal of infusing sustainability into the curriculum, as well as the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs' ongoing Sustainability Brownbaggers series. Part two will cover how the Brownbaggers series has been integrated into the environmental studies minor offered through WIU's Institute for Environmental Studies (IES), as well as provide an overview of the mission of the IES.

MACOMB, IL -- Faculty members from diverse disciplines at Western Illinois University are talking about sustainability and how to incorporate it into the curriculum at Western, and there's a very good reason for that.

"The most important thing that will happen between now and 100 years from now is sustainability," noted WIU Department of Biological Sciences Professor Eric Ribbens. Ribbens, like other faculty and staff at WIU, are coming together in various ways to educate each other and members inside and outside the WIU community about sustainability.

According to Amy Patrick Mossman, associate professor in Western's English and journalism department, sustainability is a concept that reflects society's acceptance of responsibility to future generations.

"As often quoted, the guiding principle in sustainability is to meet our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. To be truly sustainable, an action or decision must consider economic, social and ecological or environmental implications in both the short and, especially, the long term," Mossman explained.

Those familiar with sustainability-oriented activities and events often publicized and promoted at Western may recognize such events as the annual Environmental Summit (slated for April 3-4 this year on the WIU-QC and -Macomb campuses) or the regular "Sustainability Brownbaggers" speaker series sponsored by the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs (see "IIRA Sustainability Brownbaggers Spring 2012"). These particular events indeed provide a forum for faculty members to come together to discuss sustainability. But there is one event at Western solely dedicated to providing a collegial community for WIU faculty to get together, on an annual basis, to talk about concrete ways to integrate sustainability instruction across the curriculum at the University.

The Coneflower Project Workshop at WIU, which was held for the first time in May 2011, was spearheaded by Mossman. She noted this project at WIU is based on the tradition of Emory University's Piedmont Project and Northern Arizona University's Ponderosa Project.

"These workshops are held around the country, and because they are focused on place -- specifically, sustainability in a particular place -- the workshops have often been named after something that fits for a particular eco-region. 'Coneflower Project' fits in western Illinois, because some of the coneflower species are native to prairies in our region," Mossman explained. "The goal is to get faculty from different departments and different areas to come together and learn about sustainability and then talk about concrete ways they can work those concepts into their courses. So each year, the Thursday and Friday after finals week in May, we plan to have an interdisciplinary class of faculty members who will attend the workshop. Faculty members who apply to attend will come to the workshop with either an idea of new courses they want to develop or courses they want to modify to work sustainability concepts in," she added.

In the May 2011 workshop, 25 Western faculty and staff members, representing 17 departments or institutions across the University, participated in the workshop. Mossman, who also serves as an advisory board member of the WIU Institute for Environmental Studies (IES), noted it is significant that a diverse cross-section of the University's faculty and programs were represented at the inaugural Coneflower Project Workshop.

"One of the things recent studies have demonstrated, with respect to sustainability in higher education, is that we are making progress in facilities and in planning, and there are even sustainability majors and other programs starting. But, by and large, curriculum is not making comparable advances," she explained. "Sustainability-oriented programs are well and good, but they tend to attract a self-selected group of individuals who are already interested. So, for instance, we are not necessarily educating other majors -- most of our student population -- about sustainability. The Coneflower Project started as a way to help ensure all of our students, as community citizens, are getting exposed to what are really important issues for today and for the future," she added.

Applications for the 2012 Coneflower Project Workshop at WIU (slated for May 17-18) are being accepted from faculty members at Western, as well as faculty from other area higher education institutions. According to Mossman, the deadline to submit an application is Friday, April 20. Applicants should each submit a one-page description of why they are interested in the workshop and how they plan to change old courses or develop new ones to Mossman at Download the Coneflower Project 2012 call for applications at

Sustainability Conversations Every Semester

In Fall 2011, Mossman and other faculty members who participated in the first Coneflower Project at Western shared the goals of, and information about, the project as one of the IIRA's Sustainability Brownbaggers sessions. The Sustainability Brownbaggers series -- described as "conversations for the natural and social sciences, business and the arts and humanities" -- is held for about seven weeks during both the fall and spring semesters at Western. The series is comprised of approximately seven lunch-hour sessions on Tuesdays, and each session features a speaker or speakers who address a sustainability-related topic.

"The IIRA started sponsoring the Brownbaggers series in 2006," noted Timothy Collins, IIRA assistant director. "It has been a slow and steady process of engaging interdisciplinary conversation and the campus community about these issues here on campus and the larger area. It was my intention to make it not just the biological, chemistry or physics perspective, but also to bring in English, to bring in history, to bring in political science, to bring in business -- to make it where you could really begin to try to take this complex issue of sustainability and think about it from different perspectives."

Collins, who is also the sustainability coordinator at the IIRA, was among the faculty and staff who participated in the Coneflower Project last May. He noted that showcasing such campus-based sustainability initiatives in the Brownbaggers series provides a way to help integrate sustainability into the curriculum at WIU.

"The Coneflower Project is another thread that we are weaving into this sustainability garment, so to speak, on Western's campus," he said.

Sustainability Brownbaggers and Environmental Studies

Still another way the IIRA Brownbagggers series is woven into curriculum at Western is through the environmental studies (ES) undergraduate minor, offered through the Institute of Environmental Studies at WIU. According to Collins, in Fall 2011, the Brownbaggers series was integrated into one of the class sessions for the students enrolled in "Introduction to Environmental Studies 201," one of the required courses for the ES minor. The course description for ES 201 states that it covers dimensions and scope of environmental studies, including the relationship of humans to nature, ecosystems, earth resources, population, environmental economics, politics, health and biodiversity.

"Last fall, Environmental Studies 201 was taught by Professor Eric Ribbens from Western's biological sciences department, so within a formal structured course, we wanted to give students an opportunity to have access to a variety of perspectives regarding sustainability," Collins said. "One of the underlying reasons for doing this is to have students be able to interact with members of the general public or campus community who attend the Brownbaggers events, so they can hear some of the questions people outside the classroom might have about the sustainability issues presented there."

This semester, students in Ribbens' ES 401 course, the capstone course in the environmental studies minor, have participated in three Spring 2012 Sustainability Brownbaggers sessions so far. The variety of perspectives presented through the Sustainability Brownbaggers series -- this semester, ES 401 students have attended sessions featuring speakers who have talked about local food issues, as well as faculty speakers from Western's School of Agriculture; the dietetics, fashion merchandising, and hospitality department; and the recreation, park and tourism administration (RPTA) department -- runs parallel to one of the curriculum goals of the ES undergraduate minor.

"One of the most important aspects of the environmental studies minor is that it is interdisciplinary. We are purposefully trying to combine a diversity of perspectives and majors. In my environmental studies class, I have had students majoring in law enforcement and justice administration to RPTA, to economics to sociology. It doesn't matter to me whether you are an econ major or an RPTA major, you should be able to apply environmental ideas to your major and your experiences," Ribbens said.


Coming in March… Part two of "Sustainability and Curriculum at WIU," will take a more detailed look at how the Brownbaggers series provides a real-world learning forum for Ribbens' students minoring in environmental studies. Also, Institute for Environmental Studies Director and Biological Sciences Professor Roger Viadero will explain how the IES supports interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate academic programs and provides campus and community services to address environmental sustainability.

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Office of University Communications & Marketing