A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
November 9, 2006 Volume 37 / Number 3


CELT Keynote: Teaching Sustainability

The centerpiece of the 12th annual Conference on Excellence in Learning and Teaching in October was the keynote presentation, “Sustainability and Civic Responsibility: Engaging Students for the Future,” by Dr. Geoffrey Chase, who has been the dean of the Division of Undergraduate Studies at San Diego State University since 2004.

Chase knows the challenges of integrating sustainability into the higher education curriculum. He also knows that it is possible. At Northern Arizona University, as director of English Composition, he redesigned the composition curriculum to give it an environmental focus. He also became a leader of the Ponderosa Project, designed to help NAU faculty work issues of environmental sustainability into their courses. The project has served as a model for similar programs at other colleges and universities nationwide. Chase currently serves on the Board of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

One of the most difficult things about teaching sustainability is the impossibility of knowing what a sustainable future looks like, said Chase. “Teaching sustainability,” he said, “is teaching about a future that does not exist.” He compared the task to teetering on a precipice and being asked to build a bridge to an unseen other side we know nothing about. “How do we get our students to build that bridge, while we are walking on it, without debilitating them?” he asked. “How do we inspire our students to greatness instead of terrifying them?”

Chase believes the answer is in a focus on community, a focus on ways of thinking, and a focus on student learning. Teachers need, he said, to start thinking of the university and classroom as a community. Teachers need to help students recognize and build connections and begin a conversation with them about imagining a new future, “teaching to create a community to solve a problem.”

A shift in ways of thinking means less focus on conveying expertise in the classroom and more emphasis on problem-solving and thinking strategies. “The student who really stands out,” said Chase, “knows how to ask a question.” Good questions lead, eventually, to connections made and, finally, to solutions. “We need to encourage students to make connections. To do this, we—faculty, staff, and administration—need to make connections as well.”

Chases 3rd step in teaching sustainability is a focus on students’ need to learn how to improve the state of the world, how to be innovative citizens, said Chase. In the end, said Chase, sustainability is “a way of thinking and a way of beginning.” And what better place to begin than in the classroom?

—Anna Harris