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Bentley professors Dave Szymanski and Tracy Noga, center, with Ellen Glazerman (left), Executive Director of the EY Foundation and Cathy Scott (right), chair of the AAA award committee.
Bentley professors Dave Szymanski and Tracy Noga with Ellen Glazerman (left), executive director of the EY Foundation, and Cathy Scott (right), chair of the AAA Innovation in Accounting Education Award selection committee.

Do accountants have the power to advance sustainable business practices? 

Tracy Noga thinks so.  

That’s why the professor and Accounting department chair decided to integrate sustainability into the syllabus of her Federal Taxation class (AC 350), which helps students understand how tax policies influence a company’s business decisions.  

Noga worked with Bentley colleagues, including Associate Professor of Geology Dave Szymanski, to create course activities introducing the concept of a circular economy — a model of production and consumption that focuses on eliminating waste and pollution, extending the life cycle of materials through reuse and recycling and regenerating natural resources — and demonstrating how tax incentives and penalties can encourage companies to adopt more sustainable practices and policies.  

“I expected it to be a hard sell, since sustainability isn’t something they’d typically encounter in an accounting class,” Noga says of her students. “So I was really surprised by their enthusiasm and passion for the topic.” She notes that the final assignment she developed, which asked students to propose a federal tax policy change for businesses or individuals to promote a more sustainable economy, yielded “really thoughtful and impressive ideas.”  

The American Accounting Association (AAA) was similarly impressed by the interdisciplinary curriculum initiative, and Noga and Szymanski were selected as recipients of its 2023 Innovation in Accounting Education Award. “It’s quite an honor,” Noga says of the prestigious annual award, which recognizes educational programs or materials for their “innovation, demonstrated educational benefits or value and adaptability by other academic institutions.”  

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For Szymanski, the award is further validation of Bentley’s longstanding efforts to integrate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and business education. In 2019, Bentley and two partner institutions — Wittenberg University, a small, private liberal arts college in Springfield, Ohio, and Northern Illinois University, a large, public research institution in DeKalb, Illinois — received a five-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop, implement and evaluate curricula to address global sustainability issues. Categorized by the United Nations into 17 distinct Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), these issues include poverty, gender equality, climate change and other “wicked problems” — a term used to indicate issues so complex, there’s no easy way to solve, or even uniquely define, them. A daunting proposition to be sure, but one Szymanski feels can be achieved by “reshaping the way we educate the next generation of decision-makers.” 

As lead principal investigator for the project, Szymanski has coordinated the efforts of 53 faculty members from Bentley and its partner universities to develop and evaluate innovative, interdisciplinary and sustainability-focused educational materials. Collectively known as BASICS (Business and Science: Integrated Curriculum for Sustainability), it currently consists of two distinct course modules — one focused on water quality, the other on developing a circular economy — that are available to educators from other institutions and can be modified for use in any discipline. 

To date, Szymanski estimates that more than 1,000 students from Bentley, Wittenberg and Northern Illinois University have experienced the BASICS modules, which have been incorporated into more than 30 different courses, ranging from Business Analytics and Cultural Anthropology to Principles of Microeconomics and Human Biology. He notes that all modules have been evaluated by the Science Education Research Center (SERC) at Carleton College and have demonstrated strong learning outcomes for students: pre/post survey responses indicate students uniformly identify more fields as being important to tackling sustainability problems after completing a module. 

 “It’s been amazing to see them have these lightbulb moments where they grasp the interconnectedness of the SDGs and realize that no single discipline has all the answers,” Szymanski explains, noting several instances where students with no prior interest in the topic leave the courses feeling “empowered to find ways to incorporate sustainability in their careers.”  

 It’s been amazing to see students have these lightbulb moments where they grasp the interconnectedness of the U.N. SDGs and realize that no single discipline has all the answers.
Dave Szymanski
Associate Professor of Geology

The project has proven similarly eye-opening for faculty. In addition to increasing her own awareness of sustainability issues, Noga says collaborating with colleagues from other disciplines has deepened her appreciation for their respective areas of expertise: “It’s been really exciting to learn from each other.” She was so inspired by the experience, in fact, that she enlisted colleagues from other departments to help her create Bentley’s new Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) minor. For Szymanski, breaking down inter-departmental silos is a critical element of the BASICS curriculum. After all, he says, what better way to emphasize the importance of engaging multiple perspectives than by modeling it in the classroom? 

Currently in the final year of the five-year NSF grant period, the project team is focused on bringing BASICS to universities around the world. Faculty from all three partner institutions have given presentations at professional conferences, Szymanski notes, and Bentley’s Badavas Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning is helping to facilitate partnerships with universities in other countries, including Ahmedabad University in India.  

Recognition from the American Accounting Association, he says, will further raise awareness and support for BASICS within the broader academic community and “ensure that we’re equipping the next generation of business leaders with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to realize a more sustainable future.”  

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