Sustainability studies: Something for everyone


Sustainability. It has become such a common word, we take it for granted that everyone knows what it is and how to practice it. But what is it, really?

Sustainability is the concept that humans use natural resources to meet current physical, social and economic needs while maintaining adequate resources for future generations.

In our homes, schools, communities and businesses we incorporate sustainability into our day-to-day lives. Some things are so ingrained we hardly think about them anymore: flipping off the lights when we leave the room; tossing bottles into the recycling bin; taking shorter showers. University of Minnesota Twin Cities undergrads from any major who want to do even more can make sustainability part of their academic program — and eventually, their career — through the sustainability studies minor.

Why study sustainability?

There is a growing demand in the job market for people who understand the interplay of economic, social and environmental factors that lead to sustainable results. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists 82 Fortune 500 companies as partners, most of which have positions directly related to managing the company’s sustainability practices. Municipalities across the state and across the country are supporting the growth of green jobs; Minneapolis’ goal is to grow green jobs by 30 percent.

What is the sustainability studies minor?

The sustainability studies minor immerses undergraduate students in the study of real-world problems from a variety of academic perspectives across natural, social and applied sciences, humanities, and the arts. Opportunities are available for internships and practical experiences that can lead to fulfilling jobs upon graduation.

Faculty from five different colleges at the University came together to create an interdisciplinary curriculum for the sustainability studies minor that introduces students to broad sustainability concepts, diverse perspectives and systems thinking. The minor requires students to take two core courses and three elective courses from three of four broad categories: 1) biophysical sciences, 2) the social sciences and humanities, 3) design and technology and 4) economic and policy.

“A sustainability minor opens the door for students from any major, any career trajectory and any background to see how the environment, natural systems and sustainability are woven into their own particular sets of interests and, at the same time, to understand sustainability across disciplines in different communities and even at a global scale,” says sustainability education coordinator Beth Mercer-Taylor.  “From each other and from their faculty, who are themselves drawn from many departments, students come to see the breadth and possibility of sustainability in action. Students at the U of M use the minor to gain expertise in specific sustainability practices that work — in areas from technology to policy to the arts — while they come to glimpse the whole creative universe of action in sustainability at the U, in Minnesota and around the world.”

Grace Bjornson, an assistant residence director in the U’s housing department and alumna of the sustainability studies program, says the minor offers valuable lessons about connections. “I learned that everything is part of a system and interacts with many other components of the system on varying levels,” she says. “The minor took my critical thinking to a new level.  I have been able to bring these skills to all of my professional positions, as I am able to visualize seemingly unrelated interactions and relationships in a variety of settings.”

The minor requires two sustainability education core courses and three electives for a total of 15–18 credits. The core courses are “Sustainable People, Sustainable Planet,” and “Sustainable Communities.” Electives can be taken in a variety of disciplines, including economics, environmental science and policy management, social sciences, biological sciences, and design and technology. Students are also encouraged to expand their education by petitioning for other experiences, such as internships and directed study, to count toward the elective requirement.

“You are given the tools to think critically and outside of the box. You learn how to work well with others, regardless of the skills they bring to the table,” says Bjornson. “Completing this minor was one of the most valuable experiences I had during my college career.”

Learn more about the U’s Sustainability Studies Minor here.