CLAS students learning about their impact through new sustainability requirement

A photo of Cornelia Lang and Stratis Giannakouros

Monday, January 8, 2024 | Story by Emily Delgado | Originally posted in the CLAS Newsletter

A curriculum change is equipping students to be mindful of how their actions have an impact on society. Under this new requirement, students will be able to investigate connections between humans and natural systems.

The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is emphasizing the importance of sustainability in its curriculum—and is the first college at Iowa to require sustainability as part of its general education coursework needed to graduate.  

Students who entered CLAS in the 2022-2023 academic year were the first cohort to experience this change in the CLAS Core, which is the college’s general education course requirements. This curriculum is designed to ensure students have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed when entering their major and exposes them to topics they haven’t studied that can contribute to lifelong learning.  

“The sustainability requirement gives students an opportunity to reflect on how their own actions will impact the ability for society to meet longer-term sustainability goals,” Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the College of Liberal Arts Cornelia Lang said. 

A student led initiative  

As part of the University of Iowa’s Student Government’s 2019 Declaration of a Climate Emergency, students asked administrators to add a requirement in sustainability to the undergraduate curriculum so all students would have the opportunity to learn about their impact on society and nature.  

This new requirement in the CLAS Core is helping students become better problem solvers and thinkers, challenging them to ask questions and create solutions that will benefit society and the environment beyond what many view as “traditional” approaches to sustainability—like recycling, composting, or veganism. 

Students continue to emphasize the importance of this requirement. CLAS adopted the requirement in 2021, and the UI student government passed an additional resolution in October 2022 again urging all colleges at Iowa to add a sustainability general education course requirement. Since then, Education and Public Health have added requirements modeled off the CLAS curriculum.  

How the requirement works  

Students can take courses that interest them or are connected to their major. Courses that meet this new requirement also meet other requirements for general education, so extra hours are not needed or added. Students in the college can currently choose from a variety of courses, and the college is quickly working to approve more. Examples of titles of just a few of these courses include, “Sport and Globalization”, “International Politics of Environmental Issues”, “Natural Disasters” and “Energy, Sustainability and Society”. 

“We want the courses to be designed around relevant and exciting topics that help students explore the interconnectedness between the human experience and the natural environment over time,” Lang added. 

Director of the UI Office of Sustainability and Environment, Stratis Giannakouros, says the general education requirement in sustainability exposes students to the realities and challenges of the 21st century, which will prepare them as they live more independently and enter the workforce.  

“Sustainability is a concept that lends itself to this idea of broader systems thinking,” Giannakouros explains. “That's perfect for general education. It helps students think differently about their place in the world.”  

Recently, Giannakouros and Lang gave an invited presentation at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education in Boston, MA. Over 1000 participants attended the event and many of them were interested in learning about how Iowa is working to engage all undergraduate students with sustainability as a core part of their education.  

The University of Iowa Strategic Plan set a goal that 75 percent of all undergraduate students complete a sustainability-related course by 2027.