Why study sustainability? It's relevant to any major.

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Students work with Professor of Environmental Science Joe Bowersox

Our world is changing. As we think about the future, we must reconsider the way we live, work and play to make the best use of our natural resources. 

And that means drawing from a wide variety of perspectives — art, engineering, science — to find the most inventive solutions that maintain a quality life for everyone. 

Incorporating sustainability into an undergraduate program is a clear choice for students who have environment-related majors, but it’s becoming increasingly more relevant for other majors, too. 

A minor in sustainability makes sense for students who have an interest in the environment without dedicating their whole career to it. You don’t have to be an expert to find a job, either — organizations across the private and public sector incorporate the concept of sustainability in ways big and small, from adopting more social responsibility to controlling production costs to improve the bottom line, says Joe Bowersox, Willamette professor of environmental science. 

No matter the major — whether it’s English or environmental science — the sustainability minor gives students additional training that can help them pivot within a field, he said. 

Not every college’s perception of sustainability is the same. Willamette University has long focused on four ‘E’s’ — equity, education, environment and the economy — and students can find at least one of these ideas incorporated into classes across campus. Willamette's mix of courses set students up easily for a grad degree, whether in law, business or other fields. 

Professor of Theatre Rachel Kinsman Steck leads a collaborative design class that unites students with the Salem area and beyond to find solutions to community problems. Projects have included a Craigslist-type advertising site for farmers to share resources, trade products and exchange labor, as well as the proposal of a “living roof” — one composed partly or completely with vegetation — that monitors temperature within Willamette’s Smith Auditorium. 

In one psychology class, students study the connection between human action and environmental degradation, as well as how to incentivize pro-environment behavior. A service learning project, such as removing invasive ivy from parks or reducing food waste, is an essential component. 

Sue Koger, a professor who has taught the class for 20 years, says it makes one major point: “There are no environmental problems, just human behavior problems.” 

Sustainability opportunities at Willamette aren’t limited to the classroom. Projects and club activities are available at Zena, a 305-acre research forest and learning laboratory located about 10 miles west of campus. Student-run organizations also work there throughout the year to reduce waste or donate food to local shelters. 

The basic concept of improving and caring for others is consistent with Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born,” says Koger.  

“It’s about recognizing we are part of the Earth community, not just the human community, and how we can fulfill that responsibility,” she said. 

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