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How Dow educates future sustainability leaders

The company's Sustainability Fellows program hopes to reach a broader student base.

More than 2.5 billion people lack access to proper sanitation. By 2030, the United Nations estimates that 40 percent of the world’s population will lack adequate housing. By 2050, global energy use is projected to grow by two-thirds and global demand for food could increase by 60 percent.

These monumental challenges cannot be solved with the same kind of thinking or training that created them. Corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations, individuals and academia need to push aside standard thinking and create new models to address them.

We’re in the early stages of witnessing what ultimately will be a monumental shift in behavior. Sustainability is no longer being relegated to a single department of a company, government entity or civic organization. Those responsible for implementing sustainability may not even have the word in their job title. Instead, sustainable thinking is increasingly embedded in the culture of entire organizations.

That’s the way of the future. And we need to ensure the emerging workforce is prepared for these expanded responsibilities. If we expect a wide variety of fields to contribute to sustainability, universities need to train future leaders to work across disciplines and sectors in collaborative ways that will foster action and ultimately drive progress.

Educators have an opportunity to expand sustainability education to include both theory and practice, evolving it from a niche discipline to an interdisciplinary field that brings together diverse minds to solve problems. Research suggests that by distributing knowledge, groups of learners can solve more complex problems than individuals could solve alone.

Sustainable thinking is increasingly embedded in the culture of entire organizations … and we need to ensure the emerging workforce is prepared for these expanded responsibilities.

With this challenge and opportunity in mind, The Dow Chemical Company and the University of Michigan (U-M) created the Dow Sustainability Fellows program  a groundbreaking departure from how students have been educated about sustainability.

In 2013, we brought business and academia together and turned their ideas for future needs into action. The first-of-its-kind six-year, multidisciplinary program reaches across the entire campus. To date, more than 175 fellows at the master’s, professional, doctoral and postdoctoral levels from schools across the university have engaged in this action-, problem- and project-based experiential learning model.

The program brings together unconventional fields of study  from social work and business to the sciences and the arts  to address real sustainability challenges. And it complements traditional academic pedagogy with experiential learning. Dow Fellows do not work in a bubble.  

Faculty advisors encourage students to learn from peers in other fields and collaborate with partners who come from different backgrounds and approach problems from different points of view. Students have worked on everything from water-quality issues in rural Sub-Saharan Africa to urban farming in Detroit.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 620 million people lack access to electricity, which is critical for emerging countries to improve opportunities to work, learn and thrive economically. Regions without access tend to rely on inefficient, pollution-producing diesel-fuel generators.

To address the challenge of maintaining sustainable energy systems, Dow Fellows installed solar-powered water pumps on the plantation of the Liberian Agricultural Company, a rubber company that provides water to its 4,500 employees. The project team studied the use of the impact of installing diesel pumps versus solar energy pumps.

They concluded that, while it is impossible to create a standard manual for successful implementation, each case needs to incorporate social, economic and environmental concerns to increase the viability of renewable systems, as well as enhance community ownership and autonomy.

In Detroit, Dow Fellows helped develop a sustainable business plan for a start-up dedicated to turning blighted abandoned land into a specialty urban farm.

Fellows worked with RecoveryPark, a non-profit organization that strives to create jobs for people with barriers to employment, to build a business strategy for RecoveryPark Farms. Using academic research and relevant business case studies, the project team tested assumptions and proposed recommendations to scale RecoveryPark Farms’ operations.

Fellows proposed RecoveryPark Farms increase the growing season, grow specialty vegetables and focus on harvesting vegetables that grow year-round. It also advised the business to promote and market its crops as locally grown and reduce per-unit costs as production increases to deliver lower-priced produce to customers. Starting this spring, the farms will open sales of their produce to more than 400 local chefs.

The Dow Fellows work has been innovative and potentially groundbreaking because that’s what the long-term solutions of the future will require.

U-M defines sustainability as a "solutions-driven scholarship and practice that seeks to safeguard the planet’s life-support systems and enhance quality of life for present and future generations." The university’s definition is broad because it believes the field is defined by the problems it addresses, rather than the disciplines it employs.

U-M has learned that this co-curricular work requires complex analysis  which cannot be adequately addressed within disciplinary confines  to both inform traditional research and execute real-world projects. The program’s distinction is that it builds on, rather than distracts from, traditional disciplinary training.

Dow and The Nature Conservancy were viewed as unlikely partners. ... However, they were committed to the same cause: Assigning value earth’s ecosystems, such as water, land, air and oceans.

The program is preparing U-M engineering, urban planning, public health, public policy, business, natural resources and education students to become professionals who can use holistic thinking to address complex societal problems.

Dow is already practicing this principle by redefining the role of business in society. As a company, Dow realizes that global challenges are not solved in silos. Unique collaborations between the public and private sector, academia and non-governmental organizations must be developed to find solutions.

Consider Dow and The Nature Conservancy: Just a few years ago, they were viewed as unlikely partners. The organizations, however, were committed to the same cause:  Assigning value earth’s ecosystems, such as water, land, air and oceans. Dow and The Nature Conservancy learned to work productively together to make progress toward joint missions. This work aligns directly with one of Dow’s 2025 Sustainability Goals, valuing nature, which seeks to deliver $1 billion of net present value in projects that are good for business and good for ecosystems by 2025.

The goal of the Dow Sustainability Fellows program is to embedded this way of thinking into the culture of U-M so fellows and others are inspired to create game-changing collaborations that transform the way research is conducted, drive change across all sectors, and ultimately help us transition to a sustainable planet and society.

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