Overall Rating Gold - expired
Overall Score 68.55
Liaison Daryl Pierson
Submission Date Feb. 11, 2011
Executive Letter Download

STARS v1.0

Portland State University
ER-5: Sustainability Course Identification

Status Score Responsible Party
Complete 3.00 / 3.00 Noelle Studer-Spevak
Sustainability Coordinator
"---" indicates that no data was submitted for this field

Has the institution developed a definition of sustainability in the curriculum?:

A copy of the institution's definition of sustainability in the curriculum?:

Portland State University defines sustainability as an integrating concept that encompasses the interaction of humans both with each other and with the natural environment, guided by the objective of improving the long term health of social, economic and environmental systems.

Has the institution identified its sustainability-focused and sustainability-related course offerings?:

A brief description of the methodology the institution followed to complete the inventory:

For academic year 2008-09, a graduate student at the Center for Academic Excellence collected a sample (of the 184 syllabi analyzed from across campus, 53 courses had an explicit connection, 74 were implicitly related, and 57 had no connection). The courses were rated using the following criteria:

Sustainability-Focused =
"E": Explicit-- any of the following criteria are met:

-Discusses sustainability in course description
-Sustainability included in learning objectives/course goals
-Major reading focuses explicitly on sustainability
-Sustainability in explicitly included in a major assignment or major section of the course

Sustainability-Related =
"I+": Implicit +:
-Sustainability themes throughout the syllabus (course content, assignments, learning objectives, etc.), but not explicitly stated in a prominent way.

"I": Implicit:
-Syllabus makes connections between elements of sustainability in course description, learning objectives/course goals, major readings, assignments, but does not explicitly use the term "sustainability."

None =
"N": No mention of sustainability:
-No implicit or explicit connection to sustainability is made in the syllabus.

The following collection methods were used:
1. During winter and spring of 2009, GAs for the Center for Academic Excellence collected syllabi from professors identified as "best practice" teachers in sustainability.

2. We requested all syllabi from classes identified on the EcoWiki as sustainability classes. These classes were determined to be sustainability classes by a volunteer who read the course descriptions in the bulletin.

For all of these methods, if a prof did not respond after two attempts at contact, we assumed them to be self-selecting out of the study.

The goal was to get a snapshot of sustainability courses at PSU at one particular time, not trying to determine the percentage of classes offered that are sustainability-related. Therefore, the sample is not likely representative.

In another study conducted in 2009 approximately 400 courses were analyzed. The courses constitute the “Upper-division Cluster” portion of the curriculum and are taught by departments and designed to address the goals of the University Studies Program.

The working group asked faculty to self-identify their sustainability courses via a web-based survey. The reasoning in employing this approach, as opposed to developing a priori criteria for identifying sustainability courses, was to let the criteria for what constitutes a sustainability course in the University Studies Program to be reflective of the work that faculty had already done in course development.

Of the 413 survey invitations sent out, 247 were returned.
Three clear themes emerged from the completed surveys:

1. The majority of respondents identified sustainability as an element of their courses. In response to the question “Does this course in some way address the recently-adopted campus wide learning outcome in sustainability as you understand it?” 58% answered yes, 32% no, and 9% were uncertain. The 145 positive responses represent approximately 35% of all courses offered in the Upper-division Cluster portion of the University Studies curriculum and included courses from 33 different departments and programs.

2. Several sustainability “Big Ideas” were commonly identified. Drawing upon the work of the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education (2008) and Sherman (2008), faculty were asked to identify the sustainability concepts or principles in their courses from the following list:

Sustainability “Big Idea” Courses Identified -
Interconnectedness and interdependence (systems thinking) 48%
Social/economic equity 48%
Cultural diversity and traditional knowledge 45%
Intergenerational thinking 35%
Environmental/ecological literacy 30%
Environmental/ecological ethics 27%
Environmental justice 19%
Bioregionalism 15%
Assessing sustainability (e.g. “triple bottom line”) 14%
Ecological design (cradle to cradle design, green building) 12%
Other 7%

3. Categorizing courses by the amount of emphasis placed on sustainability was difficult. To attempt to determine the relative emphasis placed on sustainability in courses identified by faculty, a taxonomy was used as proposed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) as part of their Sustainability Assessment, Tracking & Rating System (STARS) program (http://www.aashe.org/stars/index.php). The 145 faculty members who identified their courses as addressing sustainability were asked to classify their courses as either sustainability-focused (courses where student application of sustainability concepts and principles to better understand multi-faceted issues and problems that integrate economic; social; and environmental aspects is a primary focus) or sustainability-related (courses that incorporate sustainability as a distinct course component or module; or concentrate on a single sustainability principle or issue). In response, 29% chose sustainability-focused, 54% sustainability-related, and 17% neither.

However, the wide range of faculty responses to the prompt, “Briefly describe your rationale for classifying this course as sustainability-related or sustainability-focused” suggests that applying this distinction with any consistency across the curriculum would be difficult. For example, some faculty described their courses as sustainability-focused because they involved study of something that has been sustained over time (e.g., “The National Parks are the ultimate sites of sustainability in that we want to sustain them into the future as they have sustained themselves for generations”). Other faculty, in contrast, described using approaches in their sustainability-focused courses that explicitly integrated economic, social, and environmental aspects into addressing multidisciplinary problems (e.g., “Use public policy and participatory processes to balance, environmental, economic, and social concerns”). Another group of faculty described their courses as providing theoretical bases for understanding sustainability without addressing sustainability explicitly (e.g., “Elementary Ethics offers a theoretical knowledge of normative ethical alternatives to proper conduct within society”).

In general, the results of this survey were encouraging in that many faculty members indicated an interest in sustainability and openness to receiving support in incorporating sustainability more explicitly into their courses.

During 2010-2011 academic year we continued to identifie sustainability-related courses by reviewing the course descriptions and titles available in our published class schedule. Given the limited information available in this medium, there was a concern that there might be a high-degree of error associated with this method. Accordingly, we reviewed the syllabi and learning outcomes of a sample from this list and identified the sustainability-focused and sustainability-related courses within this sample and the proportion of the sample which was composed of each type course. These proportions were then applied to the original list of sustainability-related courses to estimate the total number of sustainability-focused and related course offerings at PSU.

Does the institution make its sustainability course inventory publicly available online?:

The website URL where the sustainability course inventory is posted:
Data source(s) and notes about the submission:

Neither of the following online inventories are complete as PSU has no comprehensive sustainability course inventory.

http://ecowiki.pdx.edu/class-projects/fall-2009.html (Other quarters are available in the side bar)

Also, try http://www.pdx.edu/sustainability/students

Neither of the following online inventories are complete as PSU has no comprehensive sustainability course inventory.

http://ecowiki.pdx.edu/class-projects/fall-2009.html (Other quarters are available in the side bar)

Also, try http://www.pdx.edu/sustainability/students

The information presented here is self-reported. While AASHE staff review portions of all STARS reports and institutions are welcome to seek additional forms of review, the data in STARS reports are not verified by AASHE. If you believe any of this information is erroneous or inconsistent with credit criteria, please review the process for inquiring about the information reported by an institution or simply email your inquiry to stars@aashe.org.