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The S-Word: Meaningful Implementation of Sustainability as a Theme in Curricula

By Lindsey Lohwater, Science Faculty

The S-Word: Meaningful Implementation of Sustainability as a Theme in Curricula

For some, sustainability is a buzzword – a current trend in both popular and educational culture. However, viewing this topic as just the next trend does it a disservice. We are all familiar with those trends that promise to elevate our teaching and help us churn out those elusive well-rounded, critical-thinkers that will change the future of our nation and world. Most of those trends inevitably fizzle out. We cannot allow sustainability to do the same. Inherent in the concept of sustainability (defined as able to last or continue for a long time[1]) is the understanding that it deserves to be methodically infused into our curricula with the goal of remaining a central component for years to come. I have personally found it to be a wonderful cornerstone around which to build a curriculum that helps me to ‘educate students for lives of leadership and service’ as the St. Mark’s Mission Statement encourages us to do.

As all of the students who have taken or are currently taking the Biology 30 course can attest, the curriculum heavily emphasizes sustainability. The transition to the current curriculum can be traced to the National Science Teacher’s Association conference in 2011 when Kimberley Berndt and I were introduced to a new Biology textbook entitled Science and Global Issues. According to the preface of the book, “Issues of science and sustainability directly affect your personal life, your community, and the world as a whole.”[2] While the course has diverged away from solely using this textbook, the authors encouraged me to understand that I have a responsibility to teach science in context, rather than for content. In doing so, I believe I am helping to prime the thinking of our current St. Markers and hopefully helping to create the active, aware global citizens of our future.

Sustainability can be broken into three components: economic, social, and environmental. However, there is intense overlap between these distinctions, hence the formation of terms such as socioeconomic that aim to account for the intense overlap between an individual’s economic situation and their position within society. Ecovironmental and envirosocial could very well be the next hybrid terms suggesting the significant interplay between these concepts. How can we separate economics from the environment that provides all the raw materials to produce goods? How can we separate the impact that environment has on the social and cultural aspects of any given society? Therefore, students in Biology 30 are taught about three distinct aspects of sustainability with the understanding that none exists in a vacuum.

Environmental sustainability is the one branch of sustainability that most students are familiar with before they enter my classroom. Climate change, recycling, bleaching of coral reefs, deforestation, depletion of fossil fuels – all of these concepts fit squarely into this category. When I first bring up this branch of sustainability we read an excerpt from Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, in which he describes the rise and dramatic fall of the Polynesian society on Pitcairn Island between 800 A.D. and 1600 A.D. Diamond describes, “a fertile land blessed with apparently inexhaustible resources”[3] that is eventually completely destroyed through population growth beyond the island’s carrying capacity, rampant deforestation, careless use of resources, and a general lack of forward thinking. The society ends with civil war, isolation from trade partners, and the last islanders resorting to cannibalism before perishing on a patch of dry desert in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I ask my students to consider the consequences of our society’s current behaviors and whether there can be similarities identified between our treatment of the environment and its resources and those decisions made by the Pitcairn islanders. When we study food webs, I often ask students to consider how the extinction of a species would have an impact on the animals, plants, and overall ecosystem it leaves behind. When we learn about evolution, students may spend time discussing how the rapid change in climate and the warming of our planet will impact the ability of organisms to adapt. When discussing genetics, our class explores the impact of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on the environment and whether bio-engineered plants that can survive drought and/or deep freeze in the hopes of increasing crop yields are really going to help humans undo the damage we have done to the environment.

Economic sustainability is simple math. A country, state, town, family or individual must earn more money than they spend to be considered sustainable. Any situation in which an entity is in debt (say, the 14+ trillion dollar debt of the United States) is not economically sustainable. This branch of sustainability enters our discussions mostly in relation to how place of birth often impacts your economic status and how this often impacts your access to some of the resources we take for granted in the United States: such as doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and access to clean drinking water. When we study cell structure we do so by studying six world health epidemics. It is not unusual for the conversation to drift away from mitochondria and Golgi apparatus to address the economic inequality that persists when an individual who lives in a developing nation is afflicted with a debilitating disease. This individual can no longer work, and if they are the breadwinner for a family the entire family is thrust deeper into economic insecurity – insustainability, as it were. The cycle is vicious and the biology of disease can quickly become a platform for a much broader discussion about economic sustainability.

The last branch of sustainability we focus on is social sustainability which “occurs when the formal and informal processes, systems, structures, and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and liveable communities…[that] are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life.”[4] Utopia, by these standards, is a society where each individual is loved and respected for who they are and their individuality and uniqueness. Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and classism are completely absent. Furthermore, in this ideal society, equality extends beyond interpersonal relationships. All members of the society are cared for and access to basic human rights is guaranteed. In our class we use social sustainability as a lens through which to examine disease, famine, genetics, and the impact of environmental decisions on native cultures. Biology can be studied through the lens of a microscope; it can also be studied through a lens of social sustainability. In exploring the biology of the Rotaviruses[5], my students are expected to learn the mechanism by which a virus impacts cellular function and how the vaccine prevents illness. The discussion also broadens to include an exploration of why every year 450,000 children die as a result of these completely preventable viruses [6]. Giving our St. Mark’s students the information they need to understand the science behind these issues is part of the course, but asking them to think about the context and the causes allows them to continue shaping their individual evolution into what I hope is an engaged, thoughtful, responsible global citizen.

Most sustainability issues – social, environmental and economic – are the result of the use, misuse, and overuse of the resources available to us on this planet. Sustainability is not something that I have built into my curriculum because it is a requirement of an outside testing metric. In fact, it is the exact opposite, as those tests often more focused on the content rather than the context. I focus my curriculum around this central idea because if we don’t all start increasing our thought in this area, as part of the fabric of everything we do, we risk the same fate as the Pictairn Islanders.

With a relatively new focus on sustainability (helped in part by the 2014-15 Gray Colloquium topic on the subject), the St. Mark’s community is on its way to having a meaningful, formal emphasis on this topic. Within our classrooms, St. Mark’s offers courses such as Social Justice, Environmental Science, and Micro/Macroeconomics – courses that by their very nature address and explore the many facets of sustainability. Furthermore, individual projects encourage students to tackle problems related to sustainability. This is evidenced by the Studio Art assignment currently on display in the Taft Gallery, which required students to learn about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and then create art from plastics. Another such project is The Global Seminar assignment that asked students to learn about the role of globalization in the spread of infectious diseases. The concept of sustainability is undoubtedly becoming more ubiquitous in the curricula offered at St. Mark’s. The next step for our community will be to further promote and support sustainability initiatives on our campus that allow our students to put their academic knowledge into practice.

Lindsey Lohwater is a member of the science department and Director of the STEM Fellowship. She received her B.S. in Biology and M.Ed in Curriculum and Instruction both from Boston College. She serves as the St. Mark’s Sustainability Coordinator, coaches JV field hockey, and loves spending time with her family.


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sustainable

[2] SEPUP. (2011) Science and Global Issues. Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley. Published by Lab-Aids ®, Inc., Ronkonkoma, NY.

[3] Diamond, J. Collapse. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

[4]Adams, W.M. (2006). “The Future of Sustainability: Re-thinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century.” Report of the IUCN Renowned Thinkers Meeting, 29–31 January 2006.



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