A Step in the Right Direction: The University of Vermont’s Sustainability Requirement

The University of Vermont (UVM) is amongst 20 other American institutions to implement sustainability general education requirements for their undergraduate students. In 2015, in the efforts of contributing to students’ environmental awareness and global sustainable development, UVM implemented a sustainability requirement, which mandates that all undergraduate students must meet the requirement in one of three ways: complete an approved course, curriculum, or experiential learning opportunity that is focused on sustainability. Through the implementation of the sustainability requirement, UVM enables students to learn about the ecological, social, and economic aspects of sustainability, develop critical thinking skills, and become interdisciplinary changemakers for sustainability. 

Post-secondary institutions, such as the University of Waterloo, will often promote their contributions to sustainable development that are solely led by their faculties of environment. Rather, what is entangled in the university-wide sustainability requirements is the implication that sustainability considerations are embedded in and required from every discipline. UVM’s requirement ensures that each undergraduate student, regardless of faculty affiliation, will be exposed to topics of sustainability. The university offers introductory courses on sustainability, climate change, and environmental processes, but they also offer interdisciplinary courses that are specific to different faculties, such as Health and Sustainability for nursing, Comparative Environmental Policy for political science, and Introduction to Civil and Environmental Engineering for engineering.

The University of Vermont has been commended for their commitment to sustainability. In 2020, UVM received a Gold rating for the third time in a row by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), which evaluates the sustainability performances of post-secondary institutions. Hill and Wang found that UVM’s sustainability requirement was a successful model of implementing sustainability across different faculties. However, Coleman and Gould recommend that the university makes greater efforts to embed discussions of environmental justice as they found that only 17% of proposed courses in science, technology, and math departments addressed environmental justice.

The UVM’s sustainability requirement exemplifies one of the many pathways for the University of Waterloo to integrate sustainability considerations across all faculties. In 2018, UW received a Silver STARS rating. However, the comparison of the two schools’ academic integration of sustainability illuminates the University of Waterloo’s room for improvement. STARS found that 20% of UVM’s courses were sustainability-related, compared to 10% for UW and 75% of departments at UVM have sustainability course offerings, compared to 56% for UW. In order to become a leading institution in sustainable development, the University of Waterloo should seek to develop a university-wide sustainability requirement.

A Note from the Author

In my first year, I was enrolled in the Faculty of Arts, but once I recognized the lack of interdisciplinary focus between the social sciences and sustainable development, I transferred to the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability. In my first year, I took a sociology course called “Social Problems” and was shocked when there was no mention of environmental racism, climate change, or how the environmental crisis will exacerbate global poverty, resource availability and military conflicts. My first-year academic experiences and my conversations with students in other faculties have supported the general trend of an absence of integration of environmental concepts at the University of Waterloo (UW). This reflects the university’s failure to promote sustainable development and to create interdisciplinary eco-literate changemakers. Although the University of Vermont’s sustainability requirement is imperfect, it is a step in the right direction.

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