A green education

New North colleges and universities add sustainable programs that help employers adopt new practices

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

For the sake of current and future generations – not only humans, but all life on Earth – sustainable practices have become increasingly integrated into how we run our lifestyles, homes, farms and businesses as we strive to reduce negative impact on our environment. To help meet employers’ need for workers with knowledge of or fulltime dedication to such practices in business, sustainability has become part of curriculums at area colleges and universities.

With some jobs the need for sustainability is obvious – corporate responsibility officers, physical plant managers, energy auditors, construction managers, environmental and civil engineering technicians, food service professionals, farmers, landscape designers, and so on. Others may not be readily apparent, such as an administrative assistant knowing to choose office products made locally or containing recycled materials, and restaurant and hotel managers attracting guests by using local food sources, renewable energy and green cleaning.

 

Teaming up with employers

In 2011 Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay created the Great Lakes Energy Education Center, where instructors with private industry experience provide education on energy production, distribution and conservation in formats ranging from workforce training and apprenticeships to certificates and associate degrees. In addition to traditional energy sources, students learn about alternative energies such as wind and solar power. Conservation and sustainable use are also components of programs like energy management, waste and water technology, and solar energy technology.

“Many of the programs offer training that is rare throughout the country,” said Amy Kox, associate dean of energy and sustainability. “Because of this, we have had employers from throughout the United States recruiting NWTC graduates. NWTC has stepped up to meet the energy workforce needs given the country’s increasing demand for power, the ethical implications of our power choices, and employers’ demand for skilled workers.

Employer feedback played a major role in the development of the programs. Kox said that in a 2008 survey, NWTC’s business and community partners recommended the addition of sustainability training as part of the college’s strategic direction.

“Another result is that the college is working to ensure that students in all degree programs are exposed to the concept of sustainability at some point in their education,” noted Kox. “Many programs such as landscape horticulture and architectural technology have infused sustainability into all of their courses.”

Input from energy-industry employers also shaped programs, with curriculums designed around what employers look for when they recruit qualified workers. For example, the associate degree in energy management, created in 2010, prepares graduates to help their employers manage and conserve energy in order to reduce cost and environmental footprint. The program produced its first graduates this past May.

Government funding supported the development of other programs. A grant from the U.S. Department of Energy funded a Smart Grid training program (a national network that coordinates the flow of both energy and information – see NIST.gov), in which NWTC will have a mobile lab and courses to be shared with other New North technical colleges.

Appleton-based Fox Valley Technical College recently began offering an associate degree in wind energy technology. It also offers certificate programs in areas of energy management and control for buildings, energy auditor and environmental compliance specialist.

Its campus features a Sustainable Technology Center that offers courses on sustainability and green technologies for a variety of fields including construction, landscaping and horticulture, energy and agriculture. Additionally, businesses can take advantage of customized sustainability training plus specialized offerings that include energy conservation, LEED certification, renewable energy systems, design and construction, carbon footprint reduction, biodiesel fuel systems, green energy for agriculture, and more.

FVTC’s philosophy is to integrate elements of sustainability throughout its curricula, noted Chris Matheny, chief academic officer at FVTC.

“It is part of the practice that nurses get in their clinical training. It is part of what our electricity and electrical apprentices get in their coursework and fieldwork. Our natural resource technicians work on the latest wildlife and wildland management practices – all with the focus of both sustaining our environment but also improving the value that they can add to organizations when they leave our programs.”

“I think that all students and all jobs can benefit from sustainability practices,” continued Matheny.  “Doing more with less is not just about being economically prudent. We teach our students and our workforce that by putting in place sustainable business practices they can actually improve the environmental, operational and human resources of their organizations. It really touches everyone.”

 

Unfolding 4-year degree initiatives

University of Wisconsin campuses in the New North have gotten involved in sustainability education as well. In fall 2008, the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay opened its Environmental Management and Business Institute, working with partners in the public and private sectors to increase sustainability and environmental leadership among companies and communities.

“Today’s public view has evolved to where ‘good business’ is not only profitable, but is also recognized for good stewardship of the environment,” said John Katers, associate professor of Natural and Applied Sciences and director of the Environmental Management and Business Institute.

A certificate in environmental sustainability and business is among the offerings at EMBI, which has seen a 50 percent increase in enrollment from 2010-11 to the most recent academic year. The coursework comes with a mandatory internship, carried out either on the UWGB campus or with various employers in the community.

“New internships are under way this fall with New North and the Oneida Tribe on bioenergy-related projects, with a number of other projects under discussion for the spring semester,” noted Katers.

In addition to business, environmental science and environmental policy courses, the EMBI certificate features a colloquium course that introduces students to a variety of perspectives as well as the latest sustainability topics such as carbon footprints and life-cycle analysis. The goal is to prepare graduates for participation and leadership in these areas when they enter the workforce. Fifty students have taken part in this course since the program’s inception.

“Approximately 20 students have graduated with the certificate to date, with many finding employment in the region,” noted Katers.

 

Part of the greater curriculum

The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is on its way to making sustainability an all-encompassing mission. According to Stephanie Spehar, sustainability leadership fellow and assistant professor of environmental studies and anthropology, UW Oshkosh has made sustainability a critical part of university studies, its new general education program that begins next fall. All students entering the school will have to complete the university studies program – in addition to the courses within their major – in order to graduate.

“UW Oshkosh’s incorporation of sustainability into the new university studies program is pretty remarkable,” added Spehar. “Very few universities nationwide have done this.”

Every year since 2008, UW Oshkosh faculty from more than 40 departments have been designing and teaching courses that incorporate sustainability, Spehar noted, to show a broad range of students that sustainability is relevant to more disciplines than just environmental studies.

Next year UW Oshkosh will offer a new master of science in sustainable management degree that will include social responsibility and sustainable business practices. The new master’s program will be offered in partnership with five other UW campuses, including UWGB.

The new MS degree builds upon the 2-year-old undergraduate degree in sustainability management, according to Steve Dunn, associate professor of finance and director of the school’s Center for Sustainable Enterprise.

“The need that is addressed is critical – how do we rapidly get a core group of people with the skill set to address a rapidly changing environmental and social atmosphere in global business?” Dunn said. “Most companies are struggling with how to approach the concept of sustainability – they are bombarded with examples from large firms such as Walmart and Proctor & Gamble and from firms that are being recognized for having a socially responsible core such as Patagonia, Seventh Generation and Stoneybrook Farms. The confusion is that they are not sure what to do as there are no formal guidelines.”

Dunn added that the College of Business at UW Oshkosh also has a new minor in sustainability management, available with any major and consisting of courses “in all three areas of the triple bottom line – social, environmental and profit. The importance of this minor is that it gives students in any major a background in how sustainability affects and is affected by organizations.”

Another degree program, environmental studies, has been around since the 1990s. It became a major in 2002 and was recently overhauled to create emphases in environmental science and environmental policy and values. The environmental studies program offers internships with private and public sector organizations that give students practical experience in environmental and resource management, policy and advocacy.

“I cannot think of any job in an organization that will not benefit from sustainability training,” said Dunn. “This is not a business, political or religious topic. It is a life topic on the only home we have, the planet Earth. It is about guaranteeing a quality of life for future generations.”

 

Robin Driessen Bruecker has 16 years experience in magazine and marcom writing. Contact her at robinbrueck@yahoo.com.