Educating Sustainability Professionals: Learning By Doing

For many years, law schools, medical schools, social work schools and public policy schools have performed pro bono services as an integral part of their teaching and learning processes. As Columbia University's Earth Institute works with schools at Columbia to develop a comprehensive set of offerings in sustainability education, we have emulated these role models and developed a "workshop" requirement in our undergraduate program in sustainable development, our Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (with the School of International and Public Affairs), and our Master of Science in Sustainability Management (with the School of Continuing Education). Last week we posted a website that included reports and videos from student projects dating back to 2003.

According to Earth Institute manager and blogger Alyssa Rome:

A new Earth Institute website - Student Sustainability Solutions - showcases more than 200 projects that students have completed for some of the most notable governmental and non-profit organizations in the world. The website is also a repository of analysis and innovation across nearly every major sustainability issue, including biodiversity, climate change, and environmental justice. The students involved include both undergraduates and graduates, for whom the projects are integral component of their education at Columbia University. In undertaking these so-called capstone workshop projects, students integrate their sustainability knowledge and apply management and analytical skills to solve problems for real-world clients. At the same time, the students gain experience in managing and making their way through the complexity involved in solving such problems outside the classroom.

In developing a new profession, our faculty believe it is very important that a set of public service-oriented norms be built into the field and the curriculum that trains aspiring professionals. It is clear that over time sustainability will be integrated into operational organizational management as well as public policy and private finance. Nevertheless, a distinct, integrative field of sustainability policy and management is likely to remain. In our view, professionals in that emerging field should donate time, effort and brainpower to helping public and nonprofit organizations address sustainability issues. There will be plenty of money to be made in this field, but just as lawyers and doctors consider it their professional obligation to help indigent clients and patients, we believe that this norm should be "baked into" sustainability education and become a tradition in this new field as it matures.

This is not simply a matter of altruism and service. It is also an approach to education called learning by doing. The idea is that even highly technical fields include an important contextual dimension that requires a craft approach to learning. Aspiring professionals in our programs, under explicit mentorship by more experienced professionals, attempt to address real world problems for actual clients in real time. There are deadlines, comments, revisions and live engagement in real-world sustainability problems. Our students learn that the issues are less clear-cut than they thought. There are stakeholders with conflicting interests, uncertain science, and often-inadequate data. Our students also need to learn how to work effectively in teams, since all capstone workshops are group projects.

Sustainability is a multi-disciplinary field and sustainability professionals must learn how to work with experts from many fields. They need to address conflict and productivity issues within their teams and they need to learn to draw on the knowledge of experts external to the team. Sustainability professionals are often the translators of environmental science and engineering to lawyers and finance experts. Capstone projects provide an opportunity to integrate the subject matter knowledge they have gained as students in an effort to help address a tough sustainability problem. Our graduates consistently report to us that "Workshop" was the single most important part of their education.

As important as the pro bono dimension of the project may be, at Columbia we also engage in reflection with our students on the process of problem solving. Typically, we have 5-10 groups of 10-12 students working with individual faculty advisors and clients each semester. We brief our clients at their place of work at the end of each project, but we also hold mid- and end-of-semester briefings in class so that students can compare projects and clients, and learn from the wide variety of project experiences. I often tell our students that the subject matter they are interested in today may not be what they work on a decade from now, but the process of problem solving will remain the same. As a faculty advisor, I often select projects and clients I do not know much about, in order to expand my understanding of our growing and complex field. Our students reflect on the different methods used to address problems, the different type of experts consulted, and the varied needs of our clients. They develop strategies for overcoming obstacles, ponder failures and celebrate successes.

The capstone project typically provides a free source of high quality management and policy analysis for clients who otherwise might not have the resources to undertake this work. At its best, it often provides the capacity to do what the great political science scholar Aaron Wildavsky called "speaking truth to power." It can cut through the ideology and biases of the field with new information that helps decision makers see an issue in a different way. The anti-tax environment of the past several decades has stripped analytic capacity from many government agencies. While capstone projects are no substitute for full-time policy analytic shops, they can provide agencies with important and needed analytic capacity.

Many of the projects have been conducted for nonprofit service and advocacy organizations and have helped them in placing critical issues on the political agenda or in learning from the experiences from other organizations attempting to undertake similar tasks. A large number of our students were raised in other nations and many are fluent in foreign languages, societies and political processes. When coupled with the ever-decreasing price of communication and data, our project teams are often able to conduct research outside the United States and sometimes serve non-American clients.

I have been teaching and advising workshop projects at Columbia for over three decades. During the current semester, I am advisor to a group of Environmental Science and Policy MPAs studying the financial costs of marine debris--or garbage--in the water of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. Our students are researching the amount of money it costs government to keep garbage out of the water and clean it up once it washes up on the shore. Our clients are the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Our main client is Venetia Lannon, the head of DEC's New York City regional office, a former senior manager in NYC's Economic Development Corporation, who before that was a senior manager in the city's Sanitation Department. Ms. Lannon was also once a student in Columbia's MPA workshop; we have been learning by doing at Columbia long enough that our former students have become some of our best and most sophisticated clients.

I would be remiss if I did not mention how proud I am of our students and of the team that created our beautiful new website. The Earth Institute's Office of Academic and Research Programs initiated and brought the project to fruition. Arif Noori and Sunghee Kim of the Institute's Office of Communications designed and built the website. Keith Wong, an Earth Institute intern and M.S. in Sustainability Management student, collected all of the data. The site has organized information by education program, year and issue area. As always, I derive great hope and optimism from the dedication and brainpower of our students and from the willingness of our clients and faculty to invest time and effort in developing this first generation of sustainability professionals.