On March 14 in Washington, D.C., a group of business school educators and administrators gathered at the National Academy of Sciences to meet with leaders from the private and public sectors and have a conversation on an unlikely topic: climate change education for future business leaders.
The meeting was the result of a mandate in a 2008 federal appropriations bill that charged the National Academy of Sciences to investigate the far-reaching effects of climate change and make recommendations on how to respond to them. The ongoing study aims to engage a range of stakeholder communities, including businesses, in developing a U.S. response to climate change
Among the most interesting conversations that day (especially to me, in my role as a sustainability science educator at a business university) was the request made by industry leaders from the likes of BP America, DuPont, JP Morgan and Bayer. What did they ask of business educators and administrators? "Please give us business undergraduates and MBAs who are literate in science and energy. Give us managers conversant in systems beyond the narrow confines of individual business disciplines."
In effect, to address global problems of sustainability and climate change, industry is telling us that they don’t need scientists; they need future leaders that can grasp the science. Systems-thinking and science literacy help business leaders understand and manage uncertainty.
This type of education — covering the “big ideas” and core concepts of science in context of corporate and public decision-making — should be the goal of business programs at the undergraduate level to prepare MBA students for the unique challenges of sustainability. The economic and environmental impacts that arise from moving and changing matter for energy production and manufacturing do not fit nicely into artificial academic silos. As a whole, the business community knows this. It's up to us to make sure we are staying ahead of the curve in preparing our students.
Fittingly, what these business leaders are calling for is more closely aligned with the newly released Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 education than are most business curricula. What the standards refer to as “crosscutting concepts” among all science disciplines — such as the flow of energy and cycles of matter — are the heart of science literacy for business students. Creative problem-solving at every level demands critical thinking and science literacy.
This isn’t to say that universities aren’t making strides in integrating cross-disciplinary knowledge into foundational business courses. But we need to do it even more explicitly from the arts and sciences side of things. At Bentley, we’re trying to provide students with the core concepts of science by applying them in the context of sustainability-related problems. They need to get their hands dirty, learning systems thinking in applications. As a science faculty, this approach also helps us underscore the importance of core concepts in the sciences.
For business universities to transcend simple professional relevance industry tells us to send graduates into the workforce and MBA programs armed with science literacy. Science literacy obviates the need for remedial arguments about the “belief” in the existence of rigorously and scientifically tested phenomena like human-induced climate change (for an example of the contrary, look no further than historical up-and-down public polling data on climate change). We cannot expect future business leaders to address the real and complex challenges of climate change while remaining ignorant — or even worse, agnostic — about the science. This is one time that academia should take its cue from industry.
David Szymanski is assistant professor of Natural and Applied Sciences at Bentley University.