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The importance of sustainability in university courses

This article has been put together with contributions from Deakin University’s Dr Trevor Thornton, Associate Professor Kelly Miller and Alfred Deakin Professor Brett Bryan. 

In a world that changes faster than your favourite Netflix series plot, sustainability has gone from a nice to have to a must-have. It’s not just about saving the planet anymore; it’s about saving our TikTok-scrolling future and avocado toast, café-frequenting generations through climate-forward action and education. The way we treat the environment has become essential to our future and the courses we enrol in should also have this at the forefront. 

We spoke to three Deakin University academics who are lacing up their eco-friendly sneakers and leading the sustainability marathon on how sustainability is embedded into university courses and why it’s important when determining where you study.   

How is it embedded into Deakin’s courses? 

Dr Trevor Thornton, Senior Lecturer at Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences (SEBE), wants you to know that sustainability isn’t just a buzzword, it it’s integral to university education. 

‘At Deakin University, the commitment to sustainability is not just an abstract idea but an integral part of our courses’, he explains. 

‘Our courses (especially within SEBE) emphasise the principles of sustainability both in theory and practice, ensuring that students are equipped with the skills and knowledge to identify effective strategies and implement them successfully,’ he says. 

Associate Prof. Kelly Miller continues that it’s embedded in everything Deakin University does in the Bachelor of Environmental Science course, with students developing skills to understand the processes that shape our environment, how humans value, use and change environmental systems and how we can use and develop tools to address environmental problems in complex social, economic and political contexts. 

But as Alfred Deakin Professor Brett Bryan, who teaches the Masters of Sustainability, points out, it’s about ensuring that everyone has the knowledge to take action, regardless of their background or major.  

‘We have two core units [in the Masters of Sustainability] that give people an introduction to sustainability. For example, we have got people with a background in shipping, geology, real estate, fashion, etc.’ 

‘We use these concepts to talk about sustainability as it expands society, the economy and the environment. We try and get the message across that there are hard limits on a lot of the key indicators and measures of social environmental economic sustainability,’ he continues. 

Why is it essential in Deakin’s courses? 

For Dr Thornton, it’s summed up perfectly by the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ approach to environmental decision making, where consideration is given to the Social, Environmental and Economic aspects.  

‘Our students are taught in many units that it is a central approach to decision making. It is then important for them to be employable and make meaningful actions to improve environmental outcomes with consideration of potential impacts or benefits for other aspects,’ he says. 

With sustainability in the spotlight, greenwashing reports becoming more and more common and job opportunities sprouting, employers are on the lookout for sustainability experts in ‘collecting and analysing data and then writing their reports’, and saving the planet, all before lunch time.  

But it’s more than this, explains Assoc. Prof. Kelly Miller. It is essential due to our unsustainable living habits. 

‘We are not currently living sustainably, and this affects every sector of our society and economy. 

‘We have a large and growing population, and our consumption of the earth’s natural resources is also growing’, she says.

Ecological footprint  data and tools like  Earth Overshoot Day  remind us of the significant impact we’re making on a daily basis.  

It is essential the next generation is made aware of the consequences now so we can start making changes to benefit our future and that of future generations.

‘If our consumption keeps growing at the current rate, ecological footprint data suggests that we will require equivalent resources of almost three planets to provide for our current lifestyle. This is not sustainable at all, so we need to act now and direct more attention and resources to these problems than we are currently,’ she explains. 

What impact will it have on our future? 

Remember the film WALL-E and the lack of resources available on Earth in 2110?

If we don’t consider the impacts and then actively implement solutions, then we will likely ‘continue down the path of rapid depletion of resources that will likely impact the way we live’, explains Dr Thornton, similar to WALL-E’s uninhabitable Earth.

‘It sounds doom and gloom but it is the reality, and this is why those who are studying these courses are learning about how to apply these solutions,’ he continues. 

‘If we don’t address these issues, we will see more extreme weather events, more bushfires, hotter and more dangerous summers, impacts on food security and much more,’ continues Assoc. Prof. Kelly Miller.  

What’s the next step for students? 

It is essential for students to actually be hands on and this is a key part of Dr Thornton’s teaching. 

‘Lecturers are active in the field and many assessment tasks are based on what we call authentic assessments – they reflect real world needs.’  

Instead of penning essays, students are out there, gathering data, analysing it, and creating action plans that could impress even the strictest sustainability judge, which means ‘they are more prepared to be efficient, work-ready from day one’, he continues. 

Deakin University knows that to succeed in the sustainability field, students need more than just theory. They need practice. They partner with government and industry to ensure students aren’t just dipping their toes in but developing practical and relevant skills.

‘With fieldwork and work integrated learning incorporated into all aspects of the course and opportunities to meet with industry and community partners’, explains Assoc. Prof Miller.  

Sustainability matters, regardless of your major  

‘Sustainability is such an important consideration for everyone and not just limited to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), as it affects every sector of our society and economy,’ explains Prof. Kelly Miller. 

It’s easy to consider just how sustainability is embedded into this stream of courses because they’re at the forefront.

However, it has impacts across all, including food sustainability and health to combat the rapidly expanding population and how to reduce ecological footprint in filmmaking, primarily through electricity and fuel consumption that leads to greenhouse gas emissions, and beyond.  

this. featured experts
Dr Trevor Thornton
Dr Trevor Thornton

Senior Lecturer,

Faculty of Sci & Built Env,

Deakin University

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A/Prof. Kelly Miller
A/Prof. Kelly Miller

Associate Professor of Environment and Society,

Faculty of Sci & Built Env,

Deakin University

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Prof. Brett Bryan
Prof. Brett Bryan

Alfred Deakin Professor of Global Change, Environment and Society,

Faculty of Sci & Built Env,

Deakin University

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