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Natural Awakenings Milwaukee

Setting Trends in Sustainable Education: The UW-Extension Offers Interdisciplinary Green Degrees

Apr 02, 2013 01:25AM ● By Linda Sechrist

Janna Rasmussen, UW-Extension Student

According to the recent Clean Energy Jobs Quarterly Report published by Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), an expected 110,000 new American jobs could be generated by the 300 clean energy and transportation projects that were announced in 2012 by 10 states: California, North Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Connecticut, Arizona, New York, Michigan, Texas and Oregon.

“It’s now crystal-clear that clean energy and clean transportation are helping our economy recover. The projects and job announcements like we saw in 2012 can continue—as long as we don’t let smart energy policies get hijacked by special interests,” says E2 Executive Director Judith Albert.

Green-collar jobs in renewable energy management and energy efficiency require special skills and experience. Others that fall within the realms of agricultural, manufacturing, research and development, administrative and service activities, which contribute substantially to preserving or restoring the environment, also demand new or retooled skills. In response to the current critical need for appropriately skilled individuals to fill job openings in this green economy surge, technical colleges and universities are making significant changes to accommodate individuals that want to compete in the marketplace. Locally, institutions of higher learning, such as the University of Wisconsin-Extension (UW-Extension), have geared up to offer continuing education, outreach and online learning for outcomes such as certificates, undergraduate and graduate programs in sustainable business practices.

Individuals seeking a financially, environmentally and socially competitive edge in today’s changing economy are discovering that the UW-Extension’s Sustainable Management programs are thoughtfully designed, thanks to input from 21st-century businesses across the U.S. With a hands-on curriculum and real-world problems that engage students during their undergraduate capstone project, knowledge and direct experience is gained from learning to develop triple bottom line (people, planet and profit) businesses that balance profitability with the needs of the environment and the wider communities.

The Capstone Project

“While it’s unusual for an undergraduate program to have a capstone experience, it’s even more unusual to offer it via e-learning,” says Crystal Fey, UWExtension Sustainable Management program director.

In architecture, the capstone of an arch is its final, crowning piece—the center which holds the arch together. In education, this significant “learning in action” experience provides students with a centerpiece of critical education, which puts study theories to the test in the field, with daily practice in real-time, unpredictable and complex real-world environments.

In student-driven capstone projects, individuals choose a business or nonprofit organization to work with. They also work with a UW faculty member, who provides mentoring and feedback. “Students participate at no cost to businesses,” advises Fey, who cites another unique aspect of the capstone. As a student of a UW System school, individuals have access to the faculty at all six campuses and can draw upon the knowledge of any expert in any related field of study.

A Cutting-Edge Leader in Higher Education

“We are a leader in online sustainability undergraduate and graduate degrees because we did a lot of market research to develop these cutting-edge programs. We also established valuable business partnerships with corporations and organizations such as 3M, Eastman Kodak, Ford Motors, FedEx, Johnson Controls and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, among others, that provided critical input in determining the competencies required. Most importantly, we have an actively engaged faculty, which was also involved in the process, and we planned the curriculums from a complex, whole-systems perspective,” says Fey. Additionally, adult focus groups provided valuable feedback about simplifying the number of course choices and relevant electives, such as supply chain manager and water resource management.

The undergraduate degree is available through UW campuses at Parkside, Stout, River Falls and Superior. A new master’s degree launched this spring through UW-Oshkosh and UW-Green Bay.

“There are 21 courses (63 cred its) in the bachelor’s program, which affords a broad understanding of the intersections among business, natural sciences and social systems. Created for working adults, the curriculum allows students to apply previously earned credits (or an associate’s degree) toward the online degree,” Fey explains.

Crystal Fey
Crystal Fey

An online Sustainable Management certificate program is designed to update a student’s skills and provide a current credential in today’s competitive job market. Certificates help workers retool and transition in their careers. Like the bachelor’s degrees, the Sustainable Management Science and Sustainable Enterprise Management certificates have been created for working adults and are offered by four UW campuses.

Student Demographics

Current UW-Extension demographics indicate that 75 percent of the students are from Wisconsin, with 11 other states and two countries represented. Gender is evenly divided, but age groups are not: 13 percent are 50 or older, 27 percent are 20-somethings, and 60 percent are between the ages of 30 and 40. “The majority of our students are adults that not only work, but also have families. I’m inspired by them because even with the challenge of caring for their families, they are dedicated to their education and excited because they know what they are doing will make a difference,” notes Fey.

As enthusiastic about the program as the students, Fey is always eager to share anecdotes about students that are retooling. “A student in the bachelor’s program runs his family’s organic farm. Even though it’s been in his family for many years, he wants to learn how to run it sustainably,” she explains. Another student, the sustainability coordinator for the Lac du Flambeau Tribe, has been in his position for some time. “He didn’t have the credentials, because he came up through the ranks. Now he’s not only getting credentials, but he’s also acquiring knowledge that will help him be a better manager,” enthuses Fey.

The University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), a higher education organization that recognizes achievements in innovative programming, granted one of its top honors in 2010 to UW’s Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Management: the 2010 Outstanding Credit Program. The UPCEA grants this award to only one institution per year.

UW is the first major university system to offer undergraduate students this online option for a degree in sustainable management. “The award confirms the importance of preparing people for green jobs. This groundbreaking degree will equip workers with the emerging management skills they will need to compete in a new economy,” says David Schejbal, dean of UW-Extension Continuing Education.

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