Interdisciplinary collaboration key for sustainability-focused curriculum redesign program

The team of experts behind McGill’s Sustainability Education Fellows reflects on the challenges and successes of the program’s first year
Group discussions and collaboration among the Faculty and Student Fellows are a cornerstone of the programKatya Teague

When the inaugural cohort of the McGill Sustainability Education Fellows (SEF) gathered for their final event in May 2023, the presentation topics ranged from regenerative agriculture and sustainable supply chains to biodiversity in Barbados and how climate change impacts respiratory illnesses. While all 23 faculty and student participants shared the common goal of embedding sustainability in the curriculum, it was clear that a group representing seven faculties and 11 departments across two campuses offered a broad range of ideas for how to achieve that goal.

“Developing our courses in silos denies us the opportunity to learn from one another about strategies that could improve our practice,” said Blane Harvey, an Associate Professor with the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, who served on the SEF program’s Coordinating Committee. “This is especially true when trying to teach sustainability in disciplines that haven’t traditionally had this topic as a focus — including education.”

As part of its research, McGill’s Leadership & Learning for Sustainability Lab, which Harvey leads, identified the need to create a sense of community for instructors. Sustainability and climate change are inherently interdisciplinary subjects, and yet, as Harvey explained, much of course development and teaching preparation traditionally happens alone behind closed doors.

“I hoped that creating this space through the Sustainability Education Fellows would spark some much-needed honest exchange about our challenges and experiences as teachers,” he added.

Infusing sustainability into the way we teach

Developed as part of the University’s 2020-2025 Climate & Sustainability Strategy commitment to help instructors embed sustainability into their courses, the year-long SEF program brings together a cohort of McGill instructors and graduate students who work in pairs designing or redesigning a course to infuse sustainability principles into the curriculum, pedagogical practices, and assessment approaches.

The initiative was developed and managed by a group of experts from Teaching & Learning Services, the Office of Science Education, the Office of Sustainability, the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), and the Department of Integrated Studies in Education (DISE). Early in the process, the team grappled with how to offer flexibility for those with a busy schedule while ensuring participants could commit enough time to properly dig into the task at hand.

“Faculty members face so many competing demands on their time; it can be hard to carve out space for meaningful exchange and reflection,” Harvey commented. “Our approach was to spread out our sessions so they wouldn’t be too overwhelming for participants.” In the end, however, nearly all the Faculty and Student Fellows expressed a desire for more time to meet and connect.

Holistic sustainability

Another aim of the SEF is to present sustainability as more than just an environmental concern. The program’s workshops emphasize the interconnections of environmental, social, and economic factors, which aligns with the internationally recognized definition of sustainable development published by the United Nations in its 1987 Brundtland Report.

“Our program, and McGill as a whole, follows this holistic idea that sustainability is a balance between meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” said Jessica Latus, a Sustainability Officer who also led the development of an online sustainability module available to all McGill students. “To achieve this, our efforts must support not just environmental sustainability, but a healthy society and a just, equitable economy.”

“Ensuring all participants had a strong grasp of concepts related to social sustainability was very important when designing the SEF’s programming,” added Charlene Lewis-Sutherland, Senior Advisor, Faculty Development and Inclusive Pedagogies, Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic). “Too often, different disciplines think their work doesn’t overlap with social sustainability. But the reality is that social sustainability intersects with all disciplines and education writ large. It’s just a matter of illuminating how.”

Student input

With a year to reflect on their course, SEF participants were encouraged to go beyond supplementing the existing curriculum with sustainability content. The program’s working sessions provided guidance for how to rethink their approaches to teaching, the way they assess students’ understanding of the content, and the underlying values and worldviews represented in their course materials. Student involvement in each of the course redesigns proved essential to gain a first-hand understanding of what and how students want to learn. This helped ensure that McGill is not only increasing the number of sustainability learning opportunities it offers, but that these opportunities meet the needs and expectations of its students.

“This is very much a process of learning by doing,” Harvey commented. “We’re trying to transform practices, and there’s no blueprint for doing that. We have to be willing to experience false-starts, growing pains, and be open to change.”

With funding recently confirmed to extend the program beyond its pilot year, the Sustainability Education Fellows will build on these lessons learned in the 2023-2024 academic year.

For more information about the Sustainability Education Fellows program, visit the Office of Sustainability website. Applications for the next cohort will open in September 2023.