How to Earn a Degree in Sustainability at Georgia Tech

<p>Georgia Tech classroom scene.</p>

Georgia Tech classroom scene.

In the latter half of the 1800s, there was no better career advice than to “go West young man.”[1] In the latter half of the 1900s, success was summarized and made famous in one word: “plastics.”[2] And so it is that every generation gets advice on how to succeed, and today there is no higher career calling than one that is “sustainable.” Nations concerned about security, scientists concerned about climate change, corporations concerned about costs, consumers concerned about value, and parents concerned about the world that their children will inherit are all pointing towards a future world painted green. It is no surprise then that the students now on the doorstep of our colleges and universities are wanting to prepare themselves to seize what could be the greatest opportunity since the first Industrial Revolution. At Georgia Tech, many enterprising students have already figured out how to get a degree in sustainability, even if those words are not stamped on their diploma at graduation. For the many more yearning for clearer direction, here is your roadmap.
There are a handful of universities and colleges that in recent years have begun to offer explicitly a BS, MS, or PhD degree in sustainability. Like any other discipline, students enter these programs and are introduced and indoctrinated into the theory and practice of the field, but at the same time, are isolated from the population of other students and worldviews that are being taught at the same place of higher learning. Within these schools and colleges, faculty are hired, courses are developed, and degree curriculum requirements are established. Follow the formula and one can earn her BS in four years, MS in two, and PhD in five. This is good. It offers students a clear means to a clear end. But it is not the Georgia Tech way (easy never is).
There is a long running series of commercials for canned tuna that always includes the lines: “Starkist doesn’t want tuna with good taste. Starkist wants tuna that tastes good.” With a twist of a few words, that could be Georgia Tech’s approach to sustainability education. “Georgia Tech doesn’t want practicing sustainable engineers. Georgia Tech wants engineers practicing sustainability.”  From the Institute’s first dalliances in sustainability in the early 1990s, a conscious decision was made to not create a new discipline within a new school and offering new courses and new degrees. Instead, it was decided to infuse and incorporate sustainability into all of the existing degree programs already at Georgia Tech. With a $1 million grant from the General Electric Foundation in 1992, the Institute leaped into the challenge and quickly accomplished this aim. Today, there are elements of sustainability in every program of study. Rather than just teach about technology, faculty will now challenge students to consider the social, economic, and environmental impacts of technology (and more often than not, it is the students that challenge the faculty). A couple decades ago, this was a radical change for a technological research university. Georgia Tech’s Dean of Engineering at the time characterized it as “a change in mindset, not just a change in problem set.” Today, it is probably safe to say that such integration is expected, and some other universities have even caught on and are taking the same steps that Georgia Tech did years ago. Their students are demanding it. Their young faculty are demanding it. The market is demanding it.
Today, empathy is still a necessary characteristic of sustainability, but it is not sufficient. Proficiency is also required, and for enterprising students, this is where Georgia Tech shines. Few universities have as few barriers as Georgia Tech – intellectual or administrative – to the movement of students, faculty, and ideas in and out of its schools and colleges. Such flexibility allows students to piece together programs of study that on the surface appear to be distant and disconnected, but are wholly necessary for the world they are entering. Take the college career path of one recent Georgia Tech graduate, a Udall Scholarship winner. Thomas Christian earned simultaneous degrees in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences and International Affairs while also serving in an internship with the CIA. One short generation ago, fresh graduates hit the streets as newly minted engineers, or scientists, or businessmen, or doctors, or lawyers, or any of tens or hundreds of other identities. I’m still not sure what Thomas is (Scientist? Diplomat? Information Analyst?), and by no means could a university bureaucracy be creative enough or nimble enough to create an a priori program of study like his. But to solve the most vexing problems that we might see in the next 50 to 100 years (like negotiating carbon emissions agreements between nations, or the humanitarian caring of environmental refugees, or understanding the opportunities that present themselves as variations in culture across a global economic marketplace), my money is much more on the men and women that have figured it out, like Thomas Christian, than it is on the focused single minded majority that are still the norm (no matter how competent they are).

Real degrees in sustainability don’t have the word “sustainability” scrawled across them in 32 point Old English type. But a fully credentialed graduate of sustainability is easy to spot. They are the ones that are using their choices in electives, minors, co-ops, internships, and research programs to reach outside of their primary degree disciplines. They are the ones leaving Georgia Tech with resumes that sport an abundance of “&’s” such as: BS degrees in Industrial and Systems Engineering & Public Policy; or MS in Mechanical Engineering & Minor in Economics; or PhD in Biology, Thesis: Honeybee Production & the Logistics of Industrial Manufacturing. And after they graduate, they are the ones that are making the greatest positive difference in the lives of people, & the health of the planet, & the wealth of all.
One day soon, Georgia Tech may be able to offer a clearer path to a degree in sustainability. In early 2011, a committee was formed to explore the creation of Georgia Tech’s 7th college. If the faculty can figure out how to make it work, the “X College” will join the Colleges of Engineering, Science, Architecture, Management, Computing, and Liberal Arts. “‘The X-College Initiative grew from the very strong recommendations from students and faculty in the strategic planning process that Georgia Tech needs to increase student-faculty interaction and allow more flexibility in curricula,’ said Richard Barke, an associate professor in the School of Public Policy and chair of the X-College planning committee. ‘For example, the X-College is considering whether to allow students — with strong faculty guidance — to compose programs of study that focus on particular grand challenges facing society, using knowledge from a wide range of relevant fields. The committee is investigating how to achieve these goals while balancing disciplinary and interdisciplinary learning, maintaining the traditional rigor of a Tech education, innovating in learning techniques and educational technologies, and respecting the expectations of graduate schools and employers.’”[3] Thus if X is the future, a few years from now, my advice to students seeking degrees in sustainability will be to “Go ‘X’ young man!” But until that time, “Go ‘&’ young man!” will have to do.
[1] Horace Greeley, Editor of the New York Tribune certainly popularized the phrase though there seems to be some uncertainty in whether or not he was the original source.

[2] From the movie “The Graduate” (1967). 

[3] Provost Forms Committee to Develop ‘X-College’ Initiative; GT News Release; January 7, 2011; Atlanta, GA;
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Michael Chang, Deputy Director, BBISS