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Why Business Students Need Sustainability


Why Business Students Need Sustainability

For profit and the planet, educating future business leaders in sustainability is critical.

Where is the action on climate change? The answer may surprise you.

It’s in business.

It wasn’t in politics this year: Climate change received scant attention during the 2012 election, and rhetoric still runs deep in conservative corners. But in business, it’s a different story. A recent survey of more than 3,000 global executives by the MIT Sloan Management Review and The Boston Consulting Group found that more than 70 percent of companies have now “placed sustainability permanently on their management agendas.” 

And it’s not just for good looks; two-thirds of the businesses said sustainability is a competitive necessity, up from 55 percent just two years ago. Reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, along with implementing environmentally cleaner practices, is quickly becoming the norm, especially among resource-intensive industries.

As a science faculty, we see data like these from the MIT Sloan report as an answer to the question sometimes posed by students in non-major courses: “Why do we have to learn this?” The answer is simple: How competitive do you want to be in the marketplace? A future executive who understands how the physical and biological world functions in business decision-making has an edge in a job market that increasingly values sustainability management.

Not only that: it is becoming clear, with each new “superstorm,” massive heat wave, and other climate disruptions, that business, along with the rest of society, faces a new landscape. Rebuilding and reforming infrastructure, moving energy and transportation to greener methods, and creating more efficiency throughout the economy are just some of the issues that represent both challenge and opportunity for businesses of the future.

And that’s where the business school curriculum comes in.

At Bentley, we’re trying an approach that integrates basic science literacy with a study of complex, multi-disciplinary problems across the curriculum. Stemming from a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop technology-enhanced laboratory and classroom modules that apply basic science concepts to real-world problems, a group of Bentley faculty recently designed a case-study type module titled “Will Corn Ethanol Fuel U.S. Energy Needs?” for use in a number of different courses. With expertise in  diverse fields — natural sciences, accountancy, economics, political science and geography — the group created an exercise to introduce students to ethanol and the ethanol industry from a variety of perspectives. 

Of course, the problem of developing a globally sustainable alternative to gasoline is inherently messy and complex. The goal is not to teach students a particular solution, but rather to give them a capacity for problem solving by recognizing the interconnected nature of scientific, political, and economic components of the problem. In other words, the program focuses on “connecting the dots” across the curriculum.

After two semesters of employing the module in our courses, we’ve learned that assessing students’ abilities to recognize these connections is a challenge in itself. Although differences in pre- and post-tests show that some students improve their ability to identify connections among scientific concepts and those from other disciplines, we still don’t have a clear picture of how — or if — students are integrating disciplinary ideas. 

But we are determined to find a model that works. We will be presenting the results of the research and reflections on assessment in a number of upcoming professional meetings, including the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America and the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

As we continue refining our pedagogies and methods for assessing student learning, one thing is clear: it is incumbent upon business schools to prepare future business and civic leaders to make responsible, strategic decisions that move us toward a more sustainable world…and a more sustainable global economy in the process. It’s not just a privilege to do so anymore; it’s a responsibility.

And it’s good business.

David Szymanski is assistant professor of Natural and Applied Sciences at Bentley University.


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