About the Research Project






            The idea of sustainability is arguably, as old as human kind, but a more adapt understanding of the concept has become emphasized over recent years (Gibson, 2005). The term sustainability, as accepted today, is most commonly cited from the definition of the Brundtland report from 1987. Since then, the term has become increasingly popular. However wide the use of the word, many have argued that the understanding of the term is surprisingly limited. Dickinson College prides itself on providing an academic atmosphere where students seek to “Remain mindful of the ecological, financial and social consequences of actions in support of global sustainability” (Dickinson Dimensions, 2007). Although Dickinson has taught about the concept of sustainability for quite some time, the focus on sustainability at Dickinson has been widespread and a driving force only in recent years.

During the first few weeks of Professor Wilderman’s Senior Seminar class on “Sustainability: Theory and Practice,” the students of the seminar informally interviewed peers outside the environmental major about the concept of sustainability. It was found that although many students were familiar with the term sustainability, many had a limited understanding of what the term actually meant.
This project was created to answer the question of how students at Dickinson College understand sustainability and where that knowledge comes from. Through surveys conducted in Dickinson classrooms, the perceptions of sustainability were explored. This website provides the results of this research.

 What is Sustainability?

Sustainability, by definition is "meeting the needs of the current generation without sacrificing those of the future generations" (Brundtland, 1987). The definition itself implies a concern for economics, society and the environment. A popular visual for sustainability displays just this concept (Adams, 2006):


If we accept this definition we also must accept that the idea of sustainability includes, at a minimum, studies of science, economics and sociology. I would argue that it implies further extension into the studies of history, psychology, religion, philosophy, chemistry, biology, and other disciplines that touch on social-ecological systems.  Many academics today are arguing for an interdisciplinary education on sustainability (Shephard, 2008).

    According to Robert Gibson (2005), the concept of sustainability is:

·         A challenge to conventional thinking and practice;

·         About long- as well as short-termed well-being;

·         Comprehensive, covering all the core issues of decisions making;

·         A recognition of links and interdependencies, especially between humans and the biophysical foundations for life;

·         Embedded in a world of complexity and surprise, in which precautionary approaches are necessary;

·         A recognition of both inviolable limits to endless opportunities for creative innovation;

·         About an open-ended process, not a state;

·         About intertwined means and ends- culture and governance as well as ecology, society and economy;

·         Both universal and context dependent.


The definition of sustainability is simple, but the implications of it are wide, variable and extremely complex. This study will address how Dickinson students understand the concept of sustainability, both the definition itself, and the implications they associate with it.


 The Need for Education on Sustainability


The Earth Summit report: Agenda 21 in Johannesburg in 2002 has been identified by many scholars as a call to attention for education on sustainability. In Agenda 21, the United Nations identified education as being “critical for promoting sustainable development.” The report also suggested an integration of “sustainable development into educational systems at all levels” because of its ability to be a “key agent for change” (Sitarz, 2002). This report helped to spark the concern for the urgency of sustainability. It also helped to move the issue of sustainability towards the education sector so that it could be further explored in its dynamic form.

In Reid’s research (2006), it was found that there was a lack of awareness of issues of sustainability among university lecturers. There was also a lack of integration of the topic into course work. Reid found that many of the participants in the study used simplistic language for explaining sustainability that reflected environmentally friendly actions such as recycling instead of an understanding of the concept of sustainability. This research brings up the concerns that many of our educators are not literate about the issue. If educators are not versed in the issue and not integrating it into their curriculum, how can we expect the new generation of graduates to understand the concept? The research by Reid is simply an example, and by no means conclusive for all university educators. In fact educators who specialize in the field of sustainability were excluded from the study group. However, it does approach the concern that many people, even in higher education, still do not understand the concept of sustainability.

David Orr (1996) argues that sustainability must become an integral part of education for students on all fronts. The fragmented structure of disciplines needs to unify under the idea of sustainability in order to create a mindful class of citizens. Fragmentation of education has allowed for people to only see pieces of problems, without understanding the total picture. Orr argues that institutions have not had an appropriate response to the issues of sustainability and that more attention needs to be made in educating about it. Although the study of sustainability has been linked to the environmental sciences, it is by no means an exclusive discipline, in fact quite the contrary.


Cross Curricular Study of Sustainability

            People in many studies are reaching out to cross educational borders. For example, Kroger and Scott (2007) argue that the integration of environmental issues into psychology courses is something that is of growing importance. They identify that knowledge about an issue does not stimulate subsequent changes in behavior. In spite of the fact that people know about global warming, few adjust their lifestyles because of it. Most avenues of academia are becoming increasing important in the issue of sustainability. The more we understand about sustainability, the better we can work towards it.

            In a case study at the University of California at Berkeley, a graduate program of Energy and Resources Group was investivated. This program is an
interdisciplinary study with the goal of integrating issues of technical, environmental, economic, and social into the curriculum (Norgaard, 2005). The results of this interdisciplinary study showed that students with training that focused on economics were able to speak to sophisticated environmental issues. At the same time, environmental students were able to understand technical engineering works. The idea of an interdisciplinary understanding of sustainability could lead to a greater realm of solutions to the issue.

            In spite of the examples of sustainability and other studies being intertwined, there are far too many examples where they are kept separate. Most science-based programs tend to keep their disciplines seperated, and in many there are often no references to sustainability in classes outside of the environmental field.  It is unlikely that these rigid studies will provide solutions to the dynamic problem of sustainability. (Sibbel, 2009). But the understanding of sustainability and the integration of it into other studies has been a concern among many academics, and even government bodies such as the United Nations.  Academic systems should provide students with the tools to live a sustainable lifestyle as well as the personal and emotional qualities required to do so (Shephard, 2008). The ability to do this is not exclusive to the environmental studies discipline, but rather the definition of sustainability implies that it is a study inclusive of many disciplines. It is only with a comprehensive understanding of sustainability, across the board, that we can begin to identify proper actions and changes that will lead us in this direction. The idea is interdisciplinary and inclusive to all, as should be the understanding and the education.