Diversity and Democracy

The Prairie Project: Faculty Development for Global Sustainability Education

Central College is situated in the heart of what was once the central Iowa tall grass prairie bioregion. Today less than one-tenth of one percent of the original Iowa prairie remains. (Photo by Tonia Bleam)
Central College is situated in the heart of what was once the central Iowa tall grass prairie bioregion. Today less than one-tenth of one percent of the original Iowa prairie remains. (Photo by Tonia Bleam)

Today there is an urgent need to provide global sustainability education to all college students through a curriculum that is integrative, transdisciplinary, and addresses all three dimensions of sustainability: ecological integrity, economic equity, and social justice. To accomplish this, colleges and universities need action plans for training and supporting faculty members and staff as they work to give students the tools they will need upon entering the work force, assuming leadership positions in their communities, and encountering complex, interconnected problems on a scale never before faced by humans.

Place-based global education is one key to a sustainable future. Success in providing this kind of education means that colleges and universities need to invest in, develop, and support educational resources, especially human ones. Central College made such an investment when it established the Prairie Project (PP), a faculty development opportunity. The project aims to create and nurture transdisciplinary learning communities of colleagues committed to helping each other develop strategies and activities for infusing global sustainability across the curriculum.

Place-Based Education

Central College is situated in the heart of what was once the central Iowa tall grass prairie bioregion. In 1853, the school was founded in Straw Town, Iowa (now known as Pella), where the grasses were said to be so high that one could barely see a rider sitting on a horse above them. Today less than one-tenth of one percent of the original Iowa prairie remains. With this history in mind, Central College's researchers are working, in the words of visionary perennial polyculturalist Wes Jackson, to "consult the genius of the place" (2010, 146) through a variety of research projects. These include prairie restoration work at Central's Carlson-Kuyper Field Station (a former farm) and through the Prairie Biomass Project, a new long-term research project conducted jointly by the biology and environmental studies departments.

This commitment to sustainability in research, combined with Central's twenty-year leadership in sustainable campus operations, has led Central faculty to rethink the curriculum as well. Central's mission and vision have provided the key connective tissue for that work.

Vision: "Central College will be a sustainable bridge to the future."

Mission: "Central integrates career preparation with the development of values essential to responsible citizenship, empowering graduates for effective service in local, national, and international communities."

In the early 2000s, students and faculty began seeking new ways to align the academic program with the sustainability and service commitments expressed in these statements. This momentum crested in November 2008 when the faculty voted unanimously to add a global sustainability component to our common core curriculum. Now all Central students (rather than a self-selected few) encounter sustainability in academic experiences that directly relate to their majors and career paths.

But implementing a new requirement is more than a matter of adding it to the formal curriculum. In order to build infrastructure to support the change, the new office of Global Sustainability Education developed the Prairie Project, which offers professional training, curriculum development opportunities, resources, and support for faculty creating new and redesigned courses with significant sustainability content. The PP experience emphasizes the value of connecting and collaborating with colleagues across the disciplines, as well as with community partners. It facilitates community-based learning and other action-based pedagogies in order to integrate sustainability across the curriculum.


In May 2010, Central College successfully launched the Prairie Project's first Sustainability Education Learning Community with an intensive three-day workshop based on the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education's (AASHE's) Sustainability across the Curriculum Leadership Training Workshops. The planning team had originally anticipated twelve to fifteen participants, but demand exceeded expectations. To ensure that no one was left out, the group decided by consensus to reduce each participant's stipend (funded by the president's office) in order to accommodate everybody. Ultimately, twenty-one colleagues—nearly one-fifth of Central's faculty, representing a dozen different academic programs and departments—joined the PP community.

With the importance of place in mind, I opened the first day of the PP workshop by asking participants to consider two questions:

  • How is a liberal arts college like a prairie?
  • How is sustainability education like prairie restoration?

The responses were creative and even profound. Participants examined how global and local communities of all varieties are connected, and how every place has intellectual, spiritual, social, and cultural dimensions that define its role within ecological communities.

Political sociologist Robert D. Putnam describes trusting communities as "breeder reactors" of social capital, innovation, and positive change. He advises community builders to nurture "networks that intersect and circles that overlap [to] reinforce a sense of reciprocal obligation and extend the boundaries of empathy [for the purpose of] creating virtuous circles of human connectivity" (2003, 289, 270). Sustainable communities foster connections based on deep bonds of respect and care. They are dynamic, welcoming environments, with different people contributing gifts of time, talent, experience, ideas, and resources.

Facilitating Ongoing Conversations

During the initial workshop, PP participants worked in collaborative pairs and small groups to share approaches and resources. They discussed ideas, participated in hands-on curriculum design activities, and forged ongoing partnerships with colleagues. By the end of the workshop, participants were already well on their way to finding new models for teaching and learning about sustainability within existing courses or through new curricular offerings. Participants developed and shared new assignments and learning activities. They also made new connections with community partners interested in helping them incorporate sustainability into the curriculum through community-based service learning and place-based, hands-on "learning by doing."

One of the project's most valuable outcomes is the ongoing conversation between faculty from diverse disciplines about how they have incorporated sustainability into their teaching and how their students and colleagues are responding. Participants reconnected for a half-day follow-up workshop before the start of fall classes in late August, and again in December in front of a roaring fire and a table full of homemade desserts. In March 2011, the group gathered to discuss a common reading, James Farrell's The Nature of College (2010). These lively discussions are likely to continue well beyond the official end of the first PP in May 2011.

As a result of the project, Central has already gained several new courses in various disciplines, including Germany and the Environment (modern languages), Biomimicry (biology), Literature of Peace and Social Justice (English), Environmental Chemistry (chemistry), Economics of Sustainability (economics), Elementary Science Methods (education), Sustainability in Chinese and Japanese Cultures (history and Asian studies), People and Land of South Louisiana (political science), Community, Consumer, and Global Health (exercise science), and Doctrines and Ministry (religion). More courses with a sustainability focus are being developed for the 2011-12 academic year.

Looking Toward the Future

Planning is currently underway for the second iteration of the Prairie Project. As the project expands, the planning team envisions creating dynamic bioregional networks of integrated teaching, learning, and service communities dedicated to nurturing welcoming and sustainable partnerships. As more and more learning communities are created and connected over time, we hope that such initiatives will send ripples across higher education with powerful multiplier effects. With more Prairie Projects, higher education can lead—as it must—in addressing the challenges of creating a more sustainable future.


Farrell, James J. 2010. The Nature of College: How a New Understanding of Campus Life Can Change the World. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Jackson, Wes. 2010. Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 2003. Better Together: Restoring American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Jim Zaffiro is a professor of political science and coordinator of Global Sustainability Education at Central College.


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