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Dow, University of Michigan on driving sustainability education

This multidisciplinary approach encourages students to roll up their sleeves on real-world projects.

Sustainability leaders of tomorrow must navigate complex systems and collaborate across disciplines to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Are we as a society prepared?

If the University of Michigan Dow Sustainability Fellows Program has anything to say about this question, the answer is yes. Started in 2012, this groundbreaking approach to education brings together students from across the university to solve local-global scale sustainability challenges in partnership with others in academia and practice. Though other university-corporate partnerships certainly exist, this one focuses on multi-disciplinary education focused on real-world problems as they relate to sustainability. We hope it will be a model for others to follow.

To date, nearly 300 students have received fellowships, and 360 have been supported through project grants. Program alumni are now applying the transferable skills they gained in more than 100 businesses and organizations. As we mark the five-year milestone of the program (video), Dow recently extended support for this effort through 2020.

Collaborations like this fellowship provide opportunities to correct misperceptions, build bridges and create stronger solutions together.
This renewed support affirms how the university, Dow and project partners have each realized benefits in supporting and collaborating with students in the following areas. Here are four of the benefits.

1. Tearing down silos

Sustainability requires a multidisciplinary approach. But more often than not, cross-disciplinary collaborative opportunities are rare within universities, especially for graduate and professional degree students. The Dow Sustainability Fellows Program aims to break down silos between academic disciplines and multiple organizations working with students to create innovative sustainability solutions.

And it works. Early in the program, a doctoral student declared that he would never have worked in the private sector. However, after receiving the fellowship and interacting with other fellows and professionals in the corporate sector, he changed his tune. Upon completing his fellowship, he declared it was the most transformational experience of his academic and professional career. He saw opportunities for working with the private sector on building a sustainable future he never saw before. Collaborations like this fellowship provide opportunities to correct misperceptions, build bridges and create stronger solutions together. 

2. Preparing better employees

Fellows roll up their sleeves and work on groundbreaking projects. The information they learn through collaborative projects, workshops and other program-sponsored efforts contribute to a portfolio of skills to advance their careers that they often cannot find elsewhere. Topics include how to develop a social media presence, how to talk to journalists, how to talk with government and how to do community engagement.

Through such training, the program provides graduate and professional students practical experience in addressing real sustainability challenges and prepares them to become effective leaders.

Taking advantage of his educational background, a fellow majoring in business and working on a solar implementation project developed the financial structure for the project. Then, with his interdisciplinary team he managed the technical hurdles to get to an acceptable price point. In the process, he was also exposed to potential policy implications and various social issues. This interaction provided him with multiple viewpoints and the experience of considering stakeholder needs that will last throughout his career.

3. Tackling sustainability issues

Solving sustainability issues requires collaboration across disciplines and sectors. Fellows are funded to undertake a real-world project with a real-world client. In the process, project clients gain valuable assistance to tackle difficult sustainability challenges, and students gather information about critical sustainability trends.

University students gain by being connected to real-world issues and engaging in public discourse, seeing the real-world impact of their projects. Dow and other organizations gain by helping them along on this process and learning as they learn.

Fellows are funded to undertake a real-world project with a real-world client.
For example, students bring sustainability to relatively untapped opportunities. One project, for example, combined the professional insights of dental and medical students with impact evaluation methods from engineering, natural resources and business students; legal guidance; and social approaches from public health and social work. Students conducted pilot efforts to recycle plastics and switch to durable materials and developed a toolkit. Currently, they are working with national partners such as Practice Greenhealth and TerraCycle to increase the impact of this effort.

4. Seeking the best and brightest

The Dow Sustainability Fellows Program supports the best and the brightest students through a competitive application and selection process. It provides tuition support for future sustainability leaders to pursue their studies. Although not intended as a recruitment initiative, Dow and other organizations gain insight into the needs of new hires, and can tap into the pool of enthusiastic and high-achieving future employees. A number of fellows have interned with Dow with several securing long-term employment.

The program also provides an opportunity for the university to become more relevant and connected to real-world issues, and to engage in public and political discourse. As the program continues to evolve, it serves as a model for how interdisciplinary education and academic communities can work together with corporations, nonprofits and the government to address complex challenges.

Building relationships and networking are key elements of the fellowship program. Intensive collaboration among students, faculty and real-world professionals over time has resulted in the highly successful fellowship program today.

The alignment of Dow and the University of Michigan's interests to prepare the next generation of sustainability leaders, to progress an interdisciplinary model of education, and to make a difference in the world will continue to be hallmarks of the program.

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