Diversity of Disciplines: Sustainability Program

Students at Narrow RidgeMike McKinney is always up for a challenge. When the environmental studies program he developed became part of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in 2011, he was on the lookout for a new venture and decided to write a proposal for an interdisciplinary sustainability program.

“The thing that differentiates sustainability from environmental studies is it’s more policy-oriented,” says McKinney, professor of geology and co-chair of the Sustainability Program. “It’s also more holistic than environmental studies. I wanted to address the bigger global and social issues environmental studies did not cover.”

In 2012, the Sustainability Program appeared in the undergraduate curriculum as an interdisciplinary program. The first year, nine students majored in sustainability. With more than 40 students majoring and 15 students minoring in sustainability today, the program is one of the larger interdisciplinary programs in the college.

“One challenge for this major is that it’s kind of about everything,” McKinney says.

Courses within the major focus on two main areas: social sciences and natural sciences. Students take courses in environmental ethics, sociology, and economics, as well as courses on resource management, urban ecology, and other global science issues.

Another challenge McKinney faced with this program was how to define sustainability.

“There’s a lot of debate about the definition of sustainability, but the simplest definition I use is sustainability means meeting today’s needs without harming future generations,” McKinney says. “It means we’re feeding ourselves and living in cities, but we’re not creating climate change or starving other people or using up water. It’s really a lifestyle issue and that is what makes it different from environmental studies. The old-school tree-hugger mentality was more about nature than about people. Sustainability means you have to make people happy while you’re saving the trees.”

McKinney’s holistic approach to sustainability provides students with plenty of opportunities to explore different applications of a sustainability degree through service learning projects in the Knoxville area with organizations like Beardsley Community Farm or the city of Knoxville Office of Sustainability.

Students at Narrow Ridge“It is inspiring to teach sustainability students and see the learning and impact that takes place when they engage in experiential learning activities on campus and in the community,” says Melissa Hinten, lecturer in the Department of Geography and co-chair of the Sustainability Program. “The program offers a way for students to view the human-environment relationship from many different perspectives.”

Before they graduate, each student is required to complete an internship in energy or sustainable agriculture or with another organization where they learn first-hand the role sustainability plays in the world.

“Sustainability is a source of employment and a growing academic field,” McKinney says. “Our program attracts some really bright students to UT who want to change the world.”

One of those students was Candice Lawton, who graduated with a degree in sustainability in December of 2015 and began her career as a brand partnership associate for TerraCycle in February of 2016.

“I have a huge advantage with my sustainability degree,” says Lawton, whose job is to broker partnerships for recycling programs with some of the largest consumer package companies in the world. “Because of my background in sustainability, I am far more credible in my job. I am not just a salesperson who got trained on what our programs can do; I have actually studied the science. I can speak to sustainability and the types of things companies need to be doing from a corporate responsibility standpoint to become more sustainable.”

Lawton originally majored in chemistry, but her experiences with the Project Veggie Community Garden on campus exposed her to environmental issues, sustainability, and the challenges facing society.

“I began to look into the types of environmental programs offered at UT and found out about the Sustainability Program,” says Lawton, who was one of the first students to major in sustainability. Because the program was so new when Lawton declared her major, a lot of people questioned why she chose it and if she would have a job after graduation; including her parents.

“Professor McKinney would always confirm the value of the degree and the multitude of opportunities it would give me upon graduation,” Lawton says. “When I was finishing up my studies, I did not think, ‘What am I going to do?’ I had more options than I could even fathom.”

Lawton encourages any student interested in economics, sociology, or environmental science to give the Sustainability Program a try for at least one semester.

“Sustainability is an up and coming field that is becoming more lucrative day by day. Nearly every company in the world is focused on how to enhance their sustainability efforts in a variety of ways,” Lawton says. “If a student walks out of UT with a degree in sustainability, they have the world at their fingertips.”