Proposal to Add a GE Sustainability Requirement

  Proposal to Add a General Education Requirement for CLAS Students: Sustainability

Spring 2021

Background: Periodic Reviews of General Education in CLAS

Around every four to five years, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences reviews the GE CLAS Core, asking how the Core requirements support the UI and CLAS strategic plans and how the GE requirements and courses can better serve undergraduate students.

Past reviews have resulted in key changes to these requirements, including the removal of the Distributed requirement in 2011 and the addition of the Diversity and Inclusion requirement in 2017.  The 2011 change was the result of a year-long self-study done for the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) during the UI reaccreditation process; the study focused on the quality of undergraduate education at UI with the CLAS GE requirements central to the report since CLAS serves the majority of UI undergraduates.

That review process for HLC inspired the College to continue with frequent reviews of the GE CLAS Core requirements to make sure that they are constantly realigned with current knowledge and relevant learning outcomes.

In addition to the work of the GE Review Committee, the General Education Curriculum Committee and the Undergraduate Educational Policy and Curriculum Committee (UEPCC) are central to any changes in GE requirements, policies, or procedures since these faculty committees are charged by the College with oversight of General Education, now called the GE CLAS Core. For example, during the four years before the pandemic, the Diversity and Inclusion (DI) requirement was implemented after a two year approval process, with GECC overseeing and approving each new course proposed for DI status following the related guidelines; two listening posts were held to support instructors teaching Diversity and Inclusion courses; and a workshop was given on how to propose GE status for a course, with a focus in part on DI outcomes.

GECC members, as part of their role in overseeing the CLAS Core, frequently question the GE requirements and related outcomes, policies, and GE procedures, helping to ensure these align with GE principles and goals. Because of the approval process and the high standards by which GE status for a course is approved, GE courses often represent current best practices and pedagogy, with student engagement and reflection at the core of each course. For this reason, the GE program is framed by the overall concept that these courses teach students “to learn how to learn” and model how to engage in learning as an inclusive and enriching process.  

Because of this attention to the GE program in CLAS, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) during its last site visit in 2019 praised the high-quality of the GE program and its continuous development and oversight. HLC standards rest, in part, on the concept that a university should seek to articulate its goals and how to best meet them, particularly as related to the learning needs of students, which continually shift based on complex factors. In many ways, the review and changes to the GE CLAS Core are no different than the changes faculty make in course content and pedagogy over a number of years— inspired by new research or social issues, for example, or by the needs of a new generation of students.

Latest GE Review and Recommendations

The GE CLAS Core was last reviewed by those serving on the GE Review Committee in 2019-2020, below:

iGary Christensen, Electrical and Computer Engineering, College of Engineering
James Cremer, Computer Science, CLAS
Helena Dettmer, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs and Curriculum, Chair of CCRC, Classics
Andrew Forbes, Biology, CLAS
Matthew Hill, Anthropology, former Chair of the General Education Curriculum Committee, CLAS
Joseph Haggerty, Student member
Alan Huckleberry, School of Music, CLAS
Cornelia Lang, Physics and Astronomy, Chair of the General Education Curriculum Committee
Emily Manders (’20), Student Member
Mark McDermott, Teaching and Learning, College of Education
Dhananjay Nayakankuppam, Marketing, Tippie College of Business
Amy Strathman, Chemistry, CLAS
Roland Racevskis, Associate Dean for Arts and the Humanities, German
Maggy Tomova, Associate Dean for the Natural, Mathematical, and Social Science, Mathematics

During the first several meetings of the Review Committee in Fall 2019, members suggested that a focus on significant 21st century problems and how to solve them would help make GE requirements not only relevant but urgent. The group agreed to this approach and then decided that the largest problem facing the globe is climate change and that students must be made aware now of climate processes underway. At the same time, the committee understood that this focus should be broadened, using sustainability as the framework for the requirement since climate change cannot be understood or mitigated in isolation. This view aligned with scholarship as presented by GE Review Committee members and by the Office of Sustainability and Environment, and it was confirmed as a topic relevant to students when the UI Student Government (UISG) passed the following resolution in Fall 2019:

"BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the University of Iowa Student Government and Graduate & Professional Student Government support the addition of “sustainability” as a core value of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, College of Education, College of Engineering, College of Nursing, College of Public Health, and the Tippie College of Business and encourage listed colleges to advocate for creating a sustainability or a “systems thinking” general education component within the college to keep the University of Iowa on the cutting-edge of sustainability education. . . ."

Likewise the Office of Sustainability and the Environment and the UI Sustainability Committee have advocated for a GE Sustainability requirement, stating that requirement “would foster a learning environment that:

  • Builds sustainability literacy
  • Engages creative problem solving, using critical thinking, collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches and democratic dialogues
  • Encourages students to manage and analyze diverse data to produce useful and predictive information
  • Ties the classroom experience to building a sustainable campus and community and encourages experiential learning within and outside of the University so that students gain experience with the practical application of sustainability principles.

In Fall 2019, the GE Review Committee unanimously recommended the approval of a new GE CLAS Core requirement in sustainability. Further discussions within the committee led it to adopt a systems-thinking approach to the proposed requirement as suggested by experts on the committee and visitors to it, with these recommendations then taken to UEPCC and GECC; both committees unanimously endorsed the concept of adding this requirement with a systems-thinking approach. Student members and student visitors also advocated for this approach.

Details Related to Implementation

Although the CLAS GE requirements are small in number when compared to those at other universities, particularly since students may complete most and sometimes all GE requirements with transfer credit, members of the GE Review Committee understood that adding hours to the CLAS GE Core might create obstacles to graduation while curtailing students’ exploration of other interests. Any additional hours might also discourage students from completing a second major or a certificate. If additional hours were added, students from other UI colleges would have difficulties completing the CLAS GE requirements if those colleges also decided to add the sustainability requirement. Education and Public Health would be directly affected since those colleges already require all current CLAS GE requirements, with Tippie and Engineering in the process of adding a GE requirement in Diversity and Inclusion. The committee wrestled with implementation details, but finally and almost unanimously agreed that adding credit hours to the GE requirements was not an option.

By Fall 2020 and given the systems-thinking approach to the requirement, both UEPCC and GECC recommended that the new requirement could be added if interwoven with a companion GE course. The two GE content areas would allow specific interconnected systems to be examined while meeting the learning outcomes of each GE area and thus counting for two GE requirements. Using systems-thinking as a model for critical thinking, problem solving, and analysis also struck the committee members as crucial. UEPCC minutes state the following: “UEPCC endorsed the proposed overall strategy, stressing that a systems-thinking approach would help students to learn how to integrate concepts and skills from across disciplines, with this requirement modeling interdisciplinarity as well as intersectionality and making these more explicit for students. UEPCC members noted that such courses might encourage faculty to explore new research areas; likewise, team-teaching across disciplines and involvement with the Big Ideas courses would be enhanced by the requirement, generating exciting and creative classroom experiences while connecting faculty across units, a goal voiced in the 2016- 2021 CLAS Strategic Plan. UEPCC unanimously recommended the GE addition using this strategy.” GECC has also unanimously endorsed the recommendation.

The proposed learning outcomes below, if a GE in sustainability is recommended for approval to the College, will be used.

Learning Outcomes for the GE Sustainability Requirement

Courses in this area focus on sustainability by using a systems-thinking approach. That is, sustainability touches all natural and human life and in turn all human endeavors and activities, with courses studying the interconnectedness of human actions across complex natural systems, focusing on the consequence of these interactions over time and by place, including how these typically evolve, creating multiple, unintended outcomes. The GE in Sustainability thus fully integrates content and learning outcomes from one other course from these GE areas: Natural Sciences (with or without lab); Quantitative or Formal Reasoning; Social Sciences; Historical Perspectives; International and Global Issues; Literary, Visual and Performing Arts; and Values and Cultures. 

Foundational Understanding

  • Students identify foundational concepts and terminology associated with sustainability and systems-thinking.

Systems Thinking

  • Students investigate the interconnectedness of human and natural systems.

  • Students apply system thinking and evidence-based approaches to critically evaluate sustainability issues.

Application to Everyday Life

  • Students evaluate how their own actions affect and are affected by society’s ability to meet sustainability goals.

Choose one set of outcomes from the following:

Culture, Diversity, and Institutions

  • Students investigate how particular institutional and/or cultural processes support or interfere with sustainability goals.

  • Students understand how sustainability may change depending on perspective (e.g., local to global, near to long-term, resource-poor to resource-rich).                           


Natural System Dynamics

  • Students investigate the processes by which natural systems support human life (e.g., the production of food, clean water and clean air, promoting physical and mental health).
  • Students understand the processes that lead to climate change (e.g., the concept of greenhouse gasses and, in general terms, how this leads to increasing temperature and to more varied and intense climatic events).

GE Companion Areas: Additional Information

The above listed GE areas have been selected as potential sustainability areas with some GE areas omitted for pragmatic reasons, including enrollment management, but this list of GE areas could change as solutions are found and as involved units and faculty recommend inclusion of them.

However, if GE sustainability becomes a CLAS requirement, any department, school, or program would be invited to propose a GE sustainability course, following current CLAS policy. Approval is decided by GECC based on the course proposal and on whether or not it shows that students have every opportunity of meeting the GE learning outcomes as stated in the related GE rubric and if the course meets related GE policies.

Other Details

  • CLAS will approve the addition of the proposed GE requirement in sustainability, as described above, if recommended for approval by CLAS governance committees.

  • UEPCC and GECC have recommended this approval to date with these committees consulted throughout the process.

  • Faculty Assembly (FA) will hear and make a recommendation about the proposal on March 31, 2021.

  • A call for GE sustainability course proposals will occur if CLAS approves the GE Sustainability requirement, with implementation dates depending on the FA conversation.

  • A proposal for GE status for a specific course is required by GECC and UEPCC, in that order, before the GE course status can be added; standard procedures routinely used to approve proposals will be followed.

  • If the new requirement is implemented, students entering UI by a specific date will be held to the new requirement, with that date dependent on other details not yet decided.

  • Continuing students who enter UI before the above date will be “grandfathered in” and will not complete the sustainability GE requirement.

  • Transfer credits may be counted for the GE sustainability requirement, with guidelines for acceptable transfer courses provided by CLAS to Admissions. 

  • Credit by exam may be counted for the GE sustainability requirement. The College awards credit by examination for Advanced Placement (AP), Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams. This credit is  applied to the GE requirements based on the review of the related exams by the CLAS in consultation with related units as needed. See this page for more information.

  • Students who have received an Associate of Arts (AA) from a two-year institution participating in an articulation agreement with the University of Iowa are considered to have satisfied all requirements of the General Education Program, except World Languages and Diversity and Inclusion. See this link for more information.

  • Students who reenter the University of Iowa after an absence of more than 12 months will be held to the GE requirements under which they first entered the University of Iowa. If a student transfers within UI from another undergraduate college into CLAS, the date the student entered UI is still the date that determines the student's GE requirements.

  • Other details will be considered if the GE sustainability requirement is implemented.