Taking Green Into the Workforce: Sustainable Degree Programs

In order to help prepare students for the workforce and the emerging jobs in green technology and other sustainable fields, many colleges and universities are turning to “green” education programs. Degrees in sustainable education programs, from the liberal arts to engineering, are becoming more common as institutions are turning what may have once been a campus initiative to recycle aluminum cans into a way of educating students. Sustainability has left the ecology department and now touches most aspects of higher education.

One institution taking steps to integrate sustainability into its curriculum to better prepare students for green building jobs is Edison State College in southwest Florida. Edison State was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $150,000 to help spur on new curriculum in green design and construction for the College’s Drafting and Design program.

We spoke with Albert Dambrose, a full-time professor for Drafting and Design at Edison State, and Dennette Foy, associate dean of Professional and Technical Studies for the College, about the new curriculum and their hopes for the future of the program.

What prompted Edison State to start a green education program? Also, why did you specifically choose Drafting and Design?

The thing is the economy is in a changing mode right now, and just looking globally and locally and then nationally, at the three different levels, you realize there’s a progression through a new phase of working with new environments, new energy, building and design to a higher standard — much more efficiency. When you look at the global, national, local things, you see those things are changing little by little, and in the long run, it will be changing dramatically.

The students that graduate our program go directly to work for architectural firms, engineering firms, construction management firms, and also continue on with formal degrees in architecture and engineering, and construction management as well. And we want our students to leave our program feeling as though they’ve learned all the current trends — not just what’s been around forever — the new trends in construction design and what’s happening outside our locality nationally, so they can be really competitive in the work force and be prepared for the future.

Foy: We already had a Drafting and Design degree like Albert had indicated, but the industry had changed. Because it’s an associate’s in science degree, it’s a technical field. We go with the industry, and the industry goes up and down. The major changed, and we adjusted our curriculum for that, and that’s why we decided to go for the green education because the industry led us to that.

Dambrose: Our program, we’re looking to modernize it. Our industry leads things, and we also have to take hints in the industry as to what is going to happen two, and three, and five years from now. It takes our students a couple of years to get through it. By that time, things have dramatically changed, and we just need to stay on top of things.

The other local factor is that in the state of Florida, our governor passed some standards that dictate that all of the governmental buildings under construction and during renovation have to be compliant to a certain design standard. Right now a lot of our local firms work in the governmental sector doing local governmental jobs or state jobs, and they employ a lot of our students, or we’d like them to employ our students, so we want to make sure they’re prepared to work in their environment as well.

How long was the program in development?

Foy: We’ve been working on the NSF grant for a year and a half.

Dambrose: Officially right now, there isn’t a green/sustainable program that someone could register for. That’s really in the development stages. We just recently were awarded the grants, and we’re trying to hit the ground running with it really quickly. We’ve been thinking about this for quite some time. We were talking about all the sustainable principles in all our coursework already, but it isn’t really formal just yet. That’s what we’re trying to work on.

Does the program involve classes across the curriculum, or do you see this as specific to the department of Professional and Technical Studies?

Dambrose: Both. The things that we’re dealing with, with our grant, are very specific to our design and building construction, but the topic of sustainability reaches across multiple programs. It can be seen in many other programs across campus from anything from the nursing program to how our facilities run their Facilities and Construction department, all the way to the Fine Arts department.

One thing that recently took place: a professor who teaches biology took it upon herself to start a sustainable committee on our campus. Together with our grant and her initiative, we’re trying to work to cross-blend initiatives, so there’s going to be some overlap of discussions in sustainability.

Foy: Also, we work across the disciplines with science and math and with the humanities in communications and writing. It is part of our goal to have students see what parts of science are applicable, like how to calculate the energy from a building or what kinds of math concepts integrate into sustainability. So we’re starting to work with faculty members across campus, outside of our department, to integrate that into our sustainable program.

Dambrose: And also that this is a NSF grant — NSF and AACC really put a big effort into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math courses). With the grant being a big push into STEM, and not just for our grant but nationally there’s a big push for STEM projects, we need to integrate all of the math and the engineering and the science classes together. We are talking about something that has so much science behind it that the students need to get exposed to that and learn that and see what happens behind the scenes, and also see the kinds of math and the calculations that we have to do.

Will the program see future expansions? And will Edison State seek to implement more green education programs into its curriculum?

Definitely, more so as of the past couple of days that I’ve been at this conference in D.C. There’s a massive switch into dealing with sustainability. And it’s such a global issue — that the whole world is trying to deal with — but the United States is behind on it. Our government and our president, and the current administration, push a lot more in green development of so many disciplines — it’s not just design and construction.

It’s also in how the college operates itself. There will be a lot more future degrees that will be coming out. And our NSF grant will open the door for other programs, such as IT or other types of science programs — there’s so much opportunity for that out there.

Foy: Not to mention just the industry need. Our industry partners, business partners, and our community are looking for that too. We’re right next door to the first solar city, Babcock Ranch, and we’re looking to partner with them with part of this grant, so there’s going to be more need for jobs in that area.

Dambrose: With the Babcock Ranch, there’s a large development taking place. We get to start from scratch and develop some amazing ideas for sustainability.

The educational side is another piece of the puzzle that helps support the industry and provides it with future growth. And for right now, our’s is dealing with design and building construction, and with all the construction that will be taking place. These buildings need to meet certain credentials, and we want to make sure that our students are trained properly for those mechanisms.

Sustainable programs have obviously shifted from campus initiatives to being integrated into a large portion of the everyday aspects of the university, from maintenance to curriculum. As institutions feel the push to make these changes, to implement green education programs, is there funding or other support available out there for a large number of schools to do this?

Dambrose: Yes there is. As a new grantee, we are at an introductory level of grants, but the door opens pretty widely if we are successful with this first grant. Then we can have a lot of future funding taking place.

Foy: That’s the NSF, but there’s lots of other sources of funding as well. The stimulus money is also pushing for green education, so there’s also going to be other opportunities to partner with that kind of grant. So it’s not just the NSF; there’re lots of opportunities for funding.

Dambrose: And what I was hearing at the conference is that the Department of Labor and the Department of Education and organizations that revolve around community colleges are trying to lobby for more money to deal with programs that include sustainable education and programs in sustainability.

What advice do you have for other schools looking to implement these programs? What are the best places to start?

The big piece of advice is to work with the community and work with as many organizations as you possibly can. Don’t go at it alone.

Foy: We have a very strong advisory committee just for the program, and they really have helped guide us through this process. And the community and the industry partners are what help us do this. You can also pair up with other schools in your area. Your K-12 system would help with that as well.

Dambrose: If you have other institutions in your area that are trying to develop the same thing, I think you eventually need to reach out to them and work together in unison because you’re both going after the same agenda and issue. It’s not so much in the sense that you’re competing for dollars, it’s so much that you’re doing something for the purpose of education, and working together you can collaborate with one another. At your own campuses you can bring your own unique qualities to the project.

Also, what we’re hearing at this conference is not to try to reinvent the wheel. Work with people that already have something started and work it into something that is personal to your locality.

Foy: You should also partner with your industry organizations like USGBC or your local chapters of AIA or the Society of Engineers because they’re all looking towards that goal of sustainability as well. Partnering with engineering/architecture firms who are already known for being in the green industry is also a great idea.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share about your new green curriculum and the program itself?

This grant isn’t just for the college students itself — it’s helping the community learn much more about the idea of sustainability and eventually reaching out to the local school districts in the area, so we can provide curriculum and programs at the high-school level.

We’re also using this as a way to help promote and create excitement for students who want to go into college, and this is one option they can go into, and it’s an exciting field. It’s a new field, and there’re lots of new roads it can take to different degrees and different futures and careers they want to choose. One big part of this grant is an outreach program to disseminate this information outside our community.

Foy: We’re starting our own STEM charter school, so we hope to partner it out that way with the curriculum and get it out there. We would like to be able to say that you can get a two-year degree, and this two-year degree can go into a four-year degree, but in the meantime, you can grab what we call “course clusters,” or industry certifications, along the way as you build. They will always have a stop-out point so that they have attainable job skills that they take out and get a job in the industry and go back and build on it. Like a plug-and-play type of curriculum.

Dambrose: Community college enrollment has increased. In our specific program, we have a lot of people in the construction industry who have been laid off. They’re looking to be in a class that teaches them something new that retrains them from something that has obviously disappeared in the area and to be prepared for what is going to come.

There are a lot of students asking me what’s going to happen in five years, what’s the field that I should get into that can be a starting point that will last 20 or 30 years, or what’s something that they can easily find a job in. They want to be competitive and separate themselves form the glut of people that are laid off. And they want to have more diversified skills.

This is one way of reaching out to them and saying, if you go this route and learn the subject matter here, you will be very competitive in the workforce and will hopefully get a job in these new industries that are coming into our area. But not just here — if they relocate anywhere else in the United States — because this [green building] is happening everywhere.