Kristin Skelton returned home from overseas in 2014 when the economy of her home province of Alberta was at a low ebb.
“I was applying for a lot of jobs and not getting anywhere,” says Skelton, a sociology undergraduate with a work internship in Washington, D.C., and teaching experience in Asia.
She decided to return to school for a graduate degree, spotting an intriguing program at the University of Calgary. A 16-month Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development, offered jointly by Haskayne School of Business, Schulich School of Engineering and the university’s faculties of Law and Environmental Design, hit the right notes with its interdisciplinary approach to sustainable energy.
Across Canada, business schools and other faculties are joining forces to deliver new academic experiences that incorporate cross-disciplinary perspectives, hands-on projects, real-world applications and an emphasis on sustainability.
“We have huge problems in the world, and we have to get busy and all work together,” says Irene Herremans, a professor at Haskayne and Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design, with the Sustainable Energy Development program. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t talk much about sustainability,” she says. “Now when the students come in, they don’t know the ‘ins and outs,’ but they know we need to do something.”
The master’s program recruits from business, engineering, environmental studies and the humanities, enabling students from diverse disciplines to work on a required capstone project.
In 2017, one team worked with African non-profit groups to install a solar power system in a village in Burkina Faso, enabling local women to expand their shea butter cooperative.
The team-based, real-world focus “made me look at challenges differently,” says Lucas Barr, a geotechnical engineering consultant who joined the program at 37 for a career pivot.
After graduation, he joined Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, an industry group working to make petroleum extraction from bitumen cleaner. As senior technical advisor for tailings, Barr works to promote innovation and research on oil sands cleanup.
Like Barr, Skelton used her master’s degree to head in a new direction.
From her 2017 thesis project, she founded a Calgary-based social enterprise to promote crowdfunding of sustainable projects. Through Budfunding, Skelton organizes a biannual “sustainability expo” for environmentally conscious vendors and promotes “conscious consumerism” education initiatives.
She says the interdisciplinary master’s program, with out-of-classroom experiential learning on sustainability and Indigenous issues, taught her to see problems differently. “Creativity is what solves problems,” she says. “If you are just coming at something from one perspective it can be a lot harder.”
Stirring sustainability into food management at Guelph
A horizon-expanding experience is also what Jordan Legeard, a commerce undergrad at the University of Guelph’s Lang School of Business and Economics, gained from a one-semester, multidisciplinary course in restaurant operations management.
Hotel and food majors in Lang’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management work with nutrition students in the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences to run a LEAF-certified “green” on-campus restaurant, with real customers at lunchtime.
Six years ago, the course made sustainability an explicit focus, including banning plastic straws, switching to cloth napkins and auditing the waste of complimentary water and bread. Students learn to measure the nutritional impact of food and analyze the life cycle of restaurant food, including the carbon footprint.
Third-year commerce student Adriana Ovalle says working with nutrition students taught her a valuable lesson for a planned career in hotel management. “You are going to end up working with people who come from totally different disciplines,” she says. “The course opened my mind to things [nutrition students] know compared to what I know.”
The experience also heightened her interest in sustainability.
That raised awareness is essential for a changing job market, says Statia Elliot, interim associate dean of external relations at the Lang School and former director of the hospitality school.
“Restaurants today are looking for big changes and hiring sustainability coordinators,” she says. “Our graduates have the knowledge and understanding to move the needle forward [on sustainable practices].”
Mixing specialities at McMaster
Elsewhere, sustainability is gaining traction through new, multidisciplinary course offerings.
In 2014, McMaster introduced an Interdisciplinary Minor in Sustainability, for which students could choose among 58 courses. It now includes 73 eligible courses, representing the fourth-largest minor by enrolment at the Hamilton university. This year, 39 students graduated with the minor, up from three in 2015, not counting those who took the minor without officially adding it to their transcripts.
No one faculty dominates the enrolment profile, ensuring students from different disciplines work together on real-life projects.
“Sustainability is a complex problem, and we need interdisciplinary learning to tackle complex problems and sustainable solutions,” says Kate Whalen, senior manager of academic sustainability programs at McMaster. “Our mission is to inspire in all students a desire for continued learning through experiential education related to sustainability.”
Some in-class projects take on lives of their own after students complete the minor.
Last fall, Sabrina Dasouki and a diverse team of students in the minor looked for ideas to promote positive behavioural change on the environment. Knowing that only 10% of plastic waste is recycled in Canada, her team developed a kit of reusable eating tools made of bamboo to replace throwaway plastic utensils.
Once classes wrapped up, Dasouki turned the kit concept into a start-up. In November 2019, the 23-year-old made her first sale of the Essential Utensils kit, to the McMaster University Campus Store.
She says the learning experience of the sustainability minor was unlike conventional discipline-based programs. In the minor, student teams with diverse academic backgrounds worked through their differences to solve a problem.
Dasouki would like to see an interdisciplinary component to all undergraduate programs. “It is the closest thing that will get you to real life.”
Jennifer Lewington is an intrepid reporter and writes regularly on many topics, including business school news.
A version of this story appeared in the Winter Issue of Corporate Knights.