University courses to develop sustainability changemakers – how they do it at Dal

If you were to set up and run a degree programme to develop students as changemakers for Sustainability, what would that look like?

Steve and Georgia from Dal’s College of Sustainability

At the start of my trip to North America, I had an inspiring morning with Steve Mannell, Georgia Klein and Bridget Graham at Dalhousie University’s College of Sustainability in Halifax, Canada to hear about just that.

Their programme, Environment Sustainability and Society (ESS), is one of a handful in North America that brings together students and staff from diverse backgrounds to study the practice of taking action for sustainability alongside a disciplinary specialism. Students take ESS as one part of a ‘Double Major’ – this means that it is always combined with developing another specialism and that classes have a genuine inter-disciplinary flavour.

ESS has a big focus on developing collaborative and problem-solving skills to address complex sustainability issues. A key part is an extended placement with community organisations or businesses to work on a real-life challenge put forward by these partners. This is combined with a great deal of reflection on these experiences, in writing and in discussion, so students can track how they’ve developed skills and developed insights over time.

ESS is run within Dalhousie’s ‘College of Sustainability’, which was set up as a new college to run the programme around a decade ago. The programme very much sits within its community, with other outward-facing activity. There are public lectures every Thursday night (providing a topic for students’ Friday classes, ensuring good attendance), Monday morning coffee mornings (how I came to make the link) and a Sustainability Leadership Certificate open to all current students and graduates.

Around 500 students have graduated over the past decade, going on to develop social enterprises like Halifax’s first zero waste shop, or working on sustainability within government, in businesses via graduate recruitment schemes or the voluntary sector. They keep in touch with their Alumni, drawing on them as guest speakers and using their future work to show where the programme can take you. This provides reassurance for parents who are sometimes concerned (or at least curious) about the career prospects for someone doing a vocational sustainability degree.

The course and the College of Sustainability look to me like an excellent example of the principles of Education for Sustainable Development in action. There seems to be a collaborative ethos, interdisciplinary working, links to the local community, a focus on learning through practice and, perhaps most importantly, students leaving the programme motivated and able to make a real difference in a range of contexts.

It was fascinating to hear what made this possible:

  • some hard work ten years ago, when a group of motivated students and staff from a range of disciplines collaborated via weekly meetings to shape and launch a new course over just one year
  • some good fortune that this work aligned with university leaders’ goals of developing a pedagogically innovative programme that would enhance Dalhousie’s reputation (which it successfully did, increasing recruitment to other programmes)
  • setting the programme up outside of any existing college, to avoid ownership and content being too strongly shaped by one discipline.

Linking this experience to DMU, I see the programme as embodying much of what’s strongest about teaching and learning at our university – in particular our local partnerships, learning-by-doing and commitment to the #UNSDGs. The key difference is that the ESS programme stands out from many of the other courses at Dalhousie through its applied focus, in contrast to traditional programmes such as history, sciences and languages. The following week at the AASHE conference (on sustainability in higher education), I heard of a few other degrees geared towards developing students as agents of change for sustainability, and others in development that are learning from Dalhousie’s model.

I joined Dal staff and students for a bring-your-own-mug coffee morning

Dedicated sustainability programmes looks like an area of growing interest within the community working on Education for Sustainable Development, at least in North America. As one AASHE delegate said, you will reach many more people by embedding sustainability within existing programmes (and I strongly agree with this approach!), but I also see great value in having centres of expertise that can complement an embedded approach. DMU’s Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development (IESD) where I’m based is close to this in many ways, although with a disciplinary orientation towards energy and the built environment rather than a more general approach.

I should add that though our conversation only touched upon the Sustainability Leadership Certificate, this also looks like a very promising approach. It was designed around developing students’ competencies for sustainable development like Systems Thinking and Interpersonal Skills, drawing on Wiek et al’s (2011) framework of five competencies (see below and other posts on this blog). A peer-reviewed evaluation by Savage et al. (2015) highlighted a successful approach, integrating personal development with learning about sustainability.

This makes me wonder about the potential to set up a programme similar to ESS, or the non-credit bearing Sustainability Leadership Certificate, as part of DMU’s emerging work to put the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the core of what we do. Certainly, many of the elements that we’d need, like the motivated staff from many disciplines, community links and commitment to the SDGs are there already. As is often the case with sustainability, the key challenge would be smartly linking things together.

Further Reading:

Savage, E., Tapics, T., Evarts, J., Wilson, J. and Tirone, S. (2015) Experiential learning for sustainability leadership in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. 16 (5), pp. 692-705.

Wiek, A., Withycombe, L. and Redman, C.L. (2011), Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development, Sustainability Science, Vol. 6, pp.203-218.

Dalhousie College of Sustainability Website: