Save the Earth (and Maybe Land a Job, Too) – 5 Questions for Steve Boss

A man in blue shirt is photographed in front of a window looking out on fall foliage.

Professor Steve Boss, director of Sustainability Academic Programs, is worried about the future of planet Earth. Sign up for his course, “Foundations of Sustainability,” to learn what you can do. Photo by Kristen Coppola.

What keeps Professor Steve Boss up at night? In two words: climate change, which he says is “accelerating … the whole system is out of whack, and it’s changing in ways we can’t predict.” Boss is actually doing something in response to this environmental train wreck. As the director of the U of A’s sustainability academic programs, his mission is to raise awareness among as many young people as possible, who can carry on the fight to preserve our planet. Want to sign on? Sign up for the Foundations of Sustainability (Sustainability 1103), offered in the spring, or Applications of Sustainability (Sustainability 2103), offered in the fall. Both are gateway courses to the sustainability minor, which is a surprisingly manageable, and very marketable, addition to your degree.

Question: Why should a student add a minor in sustainability?

Answer: Well, first of all, it’s an interdisciplinary minor that covers a broad array of topics that are relevant to the modern world and to the 21st century. It a pretty good value-added aspect to almost any degree. We’ve had about 60 students who have graduated with the minor so far, and some of those students got jobs predicated on the fact that they had a minor in sustainability, regardless of what their degree was in, which is a pretty impressive outcome for a minor!

Question: What kinds of jobs?

Answer: We had a student last summer who did an internship with a company in St. Louis that manufactures window shades. She was a marketing or communications major, and they hired her to develop a marketing plan for these window shades –they have a Mylar coating that provides increased energy efficiency for the building. She was doing the marketing for that, and trying to spin the sustainability story for the company. At the end of her internship, they offered her a full-time job. She’s graduating here in December, and she’s got a job to go to, and it’s mainly because she did that job working on sustainability for her capstone project.

We’ve got another student who graduated in environmental sciences with the sustainability minor, and she’s now working for waste management up in Rogers. She’s one of their sustainability staff people; she deals mostly with solid waste reduction and recycling types of issues. We’ve got a civil engineering student who interned with the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department. She did an internship with them over the summer, working primarily with their sustainability unit. They’re looking at different materials, reducing the quantities of asphalt that they use, different kinds of concrete – mixes of various kinds that have less environmental impact. And they’ve hired her – she has a full-time job with them. That’s just three off the top of my head, right in the last year, who have gotten jobs partly because they have a minor in sustainability. It’s a marketable aspect of almost any major right now.

In the business sector, Walmart certainly has a big sustainability division now, and so do all of their vendors. So if you’re in the business field, in marketing or finance or whatever, and have a sustainability background, there are opportunities to move into those companies, because they all need sustainability professionals, and there aren’t enough of them right now. And there are lots of entrepreneurial opportunities as well – there are new businesses starting up all of the time in the green economy sector.

Question: Okay, I’m sold. What’s involved in getting the sustainability minor?

Answer: The minor requires 18 hours total. It has two gateway courses: there’s one in the spring called Foundations of Sustainability, and then there’s a course in the fall called Applications of Sustainability; those are the two courses that students should take first in the sequence.

And then the students have to get nine hours of electives. There’s quite an extensive menu they can choose from, that fall into four domains:

• There’s Sustainability of Natural Systems, which are mainly the physical science, biological sciences and environmental science courses on campus.
• Then we have Sustainability of Built Systems, which is engineering and architecture.
• We have Sustainability of Managed Systems – we define managed systems as business and agriculture.
• And finally we have Sustainability of Social Systems, and that covers the social sciences and humanities, political science and law.

There are courses in each of those areas that students can select as electives, and students can choose to focus in a particular area, or they can select courses across areas, as they see fit.

So that gives them 15 hours. And the final three hours is what we call the capstone experience in sustainability. The capstone is either an internship, a service-learning project, or a research project related to sustainability. And there are ways that students can fulfill that requirement by meeting other obligations as well. For honors students, if their honors thesis is a research project focused on sustainability, they can use the thesis to satisfy the capstone requirement. So there’s not a huge amount of extra course work. It’s pretty easy to get the minor, and it’s open to all students, at any level, in any major; anybody can do this.

The photo shows a group of students working in a garden located in a courtyard surrounded by dorm buildings.

For her capstone project, honors biochemistry student Emily Crossfield (center) led a campus-wide effort to plant a community garden. The garden provides fresh produce and flowers to the Full Circle Campus Food Pantry.

Question: Can you give me a sense of the range of capstone projects?

Answer: Oh gosh. The scope of projects varies. So, for instance, students in engineering have to do a senior design project. Those are usually yearlong projects, and they’re working in close contact with an advisor in engineering, and the student gets a lot of guidance along the way. And then on the other end are projects that students think up on their own. They have to execute from start to finish, and they’re working entirely with their own idea, their own creativity, and their own interest in sustainability to make this go.

The purpose of the capstone is really just to engage the student in active work related to sustainability in the real world – the capstone is intended to give them practical experience. One of my favorite projects was done by a student we had last year. He helped a charitable group in Rogers start up a community garden; they were growing some of their own produce, and then using that produce in the soup kitchen. And they were composting the food waste and cycling it back out to the community garden, so they closed the loop on the thing. He thought that up, it was entirely his own idea. This was something he wanted to do for this charity. They actually hired him, as well. They gave him a full-time job managing that aspect of their community kitchen.

Question: What, in your opinion, is the most pressing environmental issue that we face – the thing that keeps you up at night?

Answer: It’s the climate change issue, for sure. In parts of the world the climate change is so rapid right now that there are changes annually that are documentable. I think that it’s hard for people still to connect to the idea that the climate is changing. We’re going to have to adapt to a very different climate here, and we’re not doing a good job with that.

You know, I think of the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, and glacial ice worldwide, and sea level rise that’s going on (and that’s going to accelerate in the future), and the changing temperature structure of the atmosphere, and how that’s affecting global atmospheric circulation and weather patterns worldwide. The whole system is out of whack, and it’s changing in ways we can’t easily predict. We continue with business as usual, and it’s just not going to hold up.

The good news is that there are lots of people in the world thinking of solutions. We have a really good handle in the scientific community on the nature of the problem. There are lots people trying to propose solutions and move things forward to try to mitigate a lot of these effects.

That’s what sustainability is all about––it’s got to be transformative. I just recently read a comment that I thought was really prescient: that said, ‘sustainability is not about making the world less worse in the future. It’s about transforming the way we operate entirely to create a whole different outcome.’

Interested in pursuing a minor in sustainability? Visit the Office for Sustainability and Academic Programs site to learn more.

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