Diversity and Democracy

Faculty Perceptions on Teaching Sustainability in Undergraduate STEM Curricula

As part of its Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) initiative, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has noted the importance of several principles of excellence that could have a positive impact on twenty-first-century learning in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). These include engaging students in "big questions"—complex issues that require a combination of disciplinary expertise; knowledge of society, culture, values, global interdependence, and the changing economy; and commitment to human dignity and freedom (National Leadership Council 2007).

The integration of sustainability into STEM curricula is a comprehensive mechanism for meaningfully engaging students in such "big questions" and real-world problems. Additionally, sustainability offers a specific domain for implementing high-impact practices in contemporary undergraduate STEM teaching. These practices—such as service learning and community-based learning, collaborative learning, capstone projects, and learning communities—are known to both deepen learning and increase engagement, especially for students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education (Kuh 2008). Moreover, the applied and experiential learning required by many high-impact practices may be particularly effective for retaining women in STEM. Applied and experiential learning experiences can counter perceptions that STEM careers do not provide pathways to social change—perceptions that, according to Linda Sax (2001), sometimes deter women from pursuing undergraduate STEM majors.

Despite the benefits of infusing sustainability and related topics into undergraduate STEM curricula (Fry and Wei, forthcoming), limits in institutional resources and other barriers often inhibit widespread adoption of this strategy. Through the Sustainability Improves Student Learning (SISL) initiative, funded by the United States Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, AAC&U conducted seven listening sessions with STEM faculty members. Our findings not only lend credibility to the idea that infusing sustainability-focused content into STEM courses is an effective strategy, but also suggest insights into the perspectives of STEM faculty who implement this strategy.


As part of the SISL initiative, nearly fifty STEM faculty with expertise in a wide range of disciplinary areas participated in seven listening sessions, held either by teleconference or in person. Face-to-face listening sessions occurred at national meetings of the National Association of Biology Teachers and the American Association of Physics Teachers, and at the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education.

Using an inductive approach informed by grounded theory (Strauss and Corbin 1998), we analyzed transcripts of the listening sessions in order to organize the content and identify overarching themes. We also kept an inventory of the topics discussed by faculty participants. After organizing those topics into four major categories and further disaggregating the categories into nine general themes, we analyzed each transcript for the prevalence of the nine themes.


STEM faculty identify benefits of integrating sustainability into the curriculum, both for students and for faculty. However, they encounter significant challenges when implementing this practice. Within the broad categories of benefits and challenges we identified, several themes emerged, shown in figure 1.


In every session, STEM faculty commented that incorporating sustainability into the STEM curriculum allows their students to apply disciplinary content to real-world problems and solutions. Nearly all participants in the listening sessions also indicated a high degree of fulfillment as a result of using sustainability in their courses. Additionally, faculty mentioned that incorporating sustainability into the classroom helps to focus student attention and promotes better retention of course content.

The most significant challenges identified by STEM faculty related to time constraints. Nearly all participants noted having limited time to prepare lectures and assignments relevant to sustainability. Other limitations included a lack of resources (e.g., appropriate textbooks, lab space) as well as challenges associated with interdisciplinary collaborations. The potential for negative connotations attached to the term "sustainability," often emerging as a result of political differences, also posed a significant challenge for STEM faculty. Several faculty members noted their extraordinary efforts to avoid using the term altogether during class. Interestingly, faculty from the life sciences expressed little anxiety over the use of the term sustainability, while faculty in other disciplines expressed discomfort.


Despite the challenges noted above, sustainability remains an effective mechanism for engaging students in learning that connects to real-world contexts and involves high-impact practices. Yet, although sustainability content is now offered in nearly a quarter of disciplinary programs in four-year US colleges and universities (Vincent, Bunn, and Stevens 2013), it is often located within specialized minors and certificate programs. As a result, sustainability education typically is not included in mainstream STEM courses, thus limiting its use as a context for high-impact practices.

Our listening sessions suggest several strategies for faculty to overcome the barriers associated with sustainability-focused education. First, if the term "sustainability" is an obstacle, faculty can employ other terms—by, for example, focusing on the goal of building "resilient communities," or focusing on "big questions" or "big ideas," as the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Instruction does in its set of sustainability learning outcomes and habits of mind (n.d.). (Although instructors may opt to minimize their use of the term "sustainability," they nonetheless might want to help students explore controversies over the term's use in preparation for future professional work.) Second, faculty can use publicly available problem sets and case studies to mitigate time constraints. For example, the SISL initiative has compiled resources—currently available through the Science Education Resource Center of Carleton College (http://serc.carleton.edu/sisl/index.html)—that include a "beginner's toolkit" to assist faculty in infusing sustainability into existing curricula, teaching activities connected to a broad array of disciplines, and strategies for student empowerment. Third, faculty can use documented strategies to yield more effective interdisciplinary teaching, such as setting well-defined interdisciplinary learning goals and aligning those goals with assessment methods and with departmental and institutional priorities (see AAC&U 2011).

With these strategies, the benefits of incorporating sustainability into STEM coursework can outweigh the challenges. Rather than being an "add-on" or replacement for existing content, sustainability can provide a context through which to teach topics of central importance to a given discipline. We hope that the strategies suggested above will encourage more widespread integration of sustainability in the curriculum so the potential for improving student engagement and equitable representation in STEM can be realized.

Authors' note: The work described in this article was supported under US Department of Education grant P116B100142. The contents do not necessarily represent US Department of Education policy, and readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government.


AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 2011. What Works in Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning in Science and Mathematics. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Fry, Catherine L., and Cynthia A. Wei. Forthcoming. "Sustainability Matters for Undergraduate Teaching and Learning." Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 26 (3).

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Sax, Linda J. 2001. "Undergraduate Science Majors: Gender Differences in Who Goes to Graduate School." Review of Higher Education 24 (2): 153–72.

Strauss, Anselm, and Juliet Corbin. 1998. Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. 2nd ed. London: Sage Publications.

Vincent, Shirley, Stevenson Bunn, and Sarah Stevens. 2013. Interdisciplinary Environmental and Sustainability Education: Results from the 2012 Census of U.S. Four-Year Colleges and Universities. Washington DC: National Council for Science and the Environment.

Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. N.d. "Curriculum for the Bioregion Initiative: Building Concepts of Sustainability into Undergraduate Curriculum." http://bioregion.evergreen.edu/docs/learningoutcomes.pdf.

Catherine L. Fry is education manager at the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics; Kelly M. Mack is vice president for undergraduate STEM education and executive director of Project Kaleidoscope at the Association of American Colleges and Universities; Jennifer M. Blaney is a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles; and Catherine Middlecamp is a professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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