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Schooling Ourselves on Sustainability

Educating students about sustainability -- and training them to develop the solutions that will make it a reality -- has never been more important than right now. Unfortunately, without radical changes to the education system, the leaders we need may never appear.

Educating students about the environment and sustainability has never been easy, particularly because the reductionist paradigm inherent in the disciplinary structure of education inherently conflicts with the broad scope of the field, and the mixed backgrounds of students entering the programs. A globalized economy, ever more sophisticated technologies and systems, and rapid development in countries such as India, Brazil and China, are driving an explosive demand for competent professionals.

At the same time, the wave of baby boomers nearing retirement age means that record numbers of technically trained people at all levels are leaving firms and government agencies, taking with them important parts of institutional memory and irreplaceable capabilities. Moreover, many students find themselves initially faced with classes that are unnecessarily difficult, frequently boring, of unexplained relevance, taught by professors who are clueless about the way today's students -- many of them digital natives who are intimately familiar with synthetic realities, social networking sites, and mashups that their elders may not even know exist -- think, interact, and learn. The cognitive processes, systems, and mechanisms by and through which students learn have changed dramatically, yet for many professors it is still 1950.

The challenge is obviously complex, and calls for implementation of incremental palliatives -- individual courses on globalization, emerging technologies and sustainable engineering, industrial ecology, and the like, and redesign of introductory courses -- as rapidly as possible. But it is a mistake to believe that these incremental steps, important and necessary as they are, will either serve our students well, or provide competent professionals in an increasingly environmentally and technologically complex society. The unfortunate truth is that our schools are failing in their mission, and that radical change is necessary if we are to educate the sophisticated and informed leaders that firms, and our society, demand.

The first radical step that must be taken is to reconceptualize scientific and technical education. The current framework, with key training occurring in the four year undergraduate period, is no longer adequate given the complexity of the social, economic, environmental and technological context within which all of us must function. Rather, familiarity with technological and environmental systems, and the ability to manipulate them in rational ways for intended ends, needs to be integrated into elementary school, middle school, and high school levels.

University education should be a continuation of what has begun in lower classes, and rather than being an end in itself should prepare individuals to be able to follow a trajectory of integrated education, practice, and skill enhancement. Thus, the University curriculum should ensure that basis skill levels are present, and that students are able to absorb new information about social, environmental, technological, economic, and other relevant domains; it should not end with graduation. Rather, coursework, training, production and practice should continue, albeit with different emphases over time, as the individual continues whatever career path he or she chooses. This is not simply "continuing education;" it is life as education -- for, in a rapidly evolving world, there is no such thing as adequate knowledge; there is only continuing learning.

Finally, it will become necessary to shift from a time-based to an achievement-based system of education. The rapidity of social and technological change, combined with the need for the physical sciences and engineering to become more inclusive and diverse, thus drawing on populations that might not be exposed to computers and other technologies as a matter of course, requires that, for reasonable impact and to enhance personal growth and experience, education needs to be tailored to the individual.

The batch-processing mental model that underlies current practice is simply too ineffective and wasteful: it discourages those who are already well prepared by forcing them to go slowly; it discourages minorities and others who might not have the preparation of others their age by hitting them immediately upon entry to university with difficult "entry barrier" and "make up" courses. Current efforts to ameliorate this are commendable, but fall afoul of the basic truth that students are becoming more and more variable in their interests, skill levels, and ability, while we continue with a model designed for uniform mass production.

Fortunately, the same available information and communication technologies that have led to the dawn of the age of personalized medicine also enable an immediate move towards "personalized education:" it is only a lack of vision, and the profound conservatism of the educational system as a whole, that stands in our way.

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