Engaging your students in making your and other organisations more sustainable – 5 questions with Raintry Jean Salk from Viterbo University

Many business schools and universities are exploring ways to make their campus more sustainable. The challenge is often that the resources, both financial and time, just aren’t available. At the Dahl School of Business at Viterbo University, they are using their students to make the campus and local businesses more sustainable through a course offered as part of the MBA programme. Sustainability Monitoring and Measurement is an advanced graduate-level course that is designed to expose learners to various sustainability metrics and provide real-world experience with measurement, analysis, and reporting. In the past, the course has also been a requirement for all students enrolled in a Viterbo MBA programme.

I recently had the chance to speak to Professor Raintry Jean Salk, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Management, who was responsible for the development of this course and is now teaching it at Viterbo University.

1. Why did you decide to develop this course?

This course was viewed as an important offering, due to its practical nature. While it is increasingly important for business students to have a conceptual understanding of sustainability, it is equally important to move beyond a theoretical foundation and garner first-hand knowledge of how it is applied in organisations. The success of the course, in terms of deliverables and impact on student learning, has fostered wide support for the course. On many occasions, students have informed me that it was the most beneficial and rewarding course in their MBA programme.

2. How did you go about starting it?

I tried to model the course based off of current business practices – by developing course projects that were directly tied to commonly reported metrics. I collaborated with various organisations that had an expressed need for assistance in measuring their sustainability efforts.  The course has been offered three times since its inception in 2010. I typically coordinate three to six different projects each term, depending on student enrolment. Some projects have only been conducted once, while others are on-going. For instance, an energy use monitoring project for a particular organisation was done in 2010 and again in 2012. This enabled the organisation to assess if changes in their energy use had occurred over time.

3. What are some of the projects that students have worked on?

Students have engaged in a variety of projects over the last three years on campus, for other academic institutions, as well as government entities and local businesses. Projects have included analysis of energy usage, water usage, recycling and waste production, greenhouse gas emissions, green product purchasing, among others. My students spend an inordinate amount of time analysing their data, and when they know it will have a direct benefit to the organisation, it provides immense gratification.

4. What kind of projects have your students done on campus?

Several course projects have been tailored to provide insight regarding campus operations and have included data collection and analysis of water and sewer usage, green product purchasing, paper usage, fuel consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. These projects have been the whole mechanism of collecting sustainability indicator data on campus, given limitations in both resources and allocated staff time. Their analysis has been useful for administrative decision-making, policy, and management. Further, their engagement in sustainability has fostered an increased awareness on campus. For instance, this past semester, two groups focused on energy use on our campus, while two other groups focused on energy use at another academic institution in our area. Both institutions have very different orientations and approaches to sustainability, and their analysis brought forth some interesting, yet unintended comparative findings. At the institution where sustainability is viewed as a core strategic initiative, energy use had decreased over a five year time period. Conversely, at the other institution, where sustainability was not a focal strategic initiative, energy use had gone relatively unchanged over the same time period. This illustrated for students the direct effects of a systematic, integrated, highly focused, campus-wide effort.

5. What are your plans/hopes for the course moving forward, and what recommendations do you have for other schools thinking of putting in place a similar course?

As more local businesses become engaged in sustainability, my hope is to expand projects to other organisations. Sustainability, as it is practiced in the field, is rapidly changing, and one of my main objectives is to ensure that the course reflects the changing practices in the field.

My major recommendation would be to conduct a feasibility assessment before starting. The course requires working with organisations that have access to sustainability indicator data.  While many organizations have an expressed commitment to sustainability, they may not yet be adequately prepared to systematically analyse their efforts.


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