A New Generation of Environment and Sustainability Innovators

Creating a sustainable tomorrow for people and the planet is one of the chief challenges of our time and one that is reshaping MIT education. “I want every MIT undergraduate student to ask themselves: while at MIT, what will they do to address climate change?” says John Fernández ’85, director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and a professor in the Department of Architecture. The multidisciplinary Environment and Sustainability (E&S) Minor, launched with the help of the MIT Campaign for a Better World, is one of the ways MIT is enabling students across the Institute to take up this vital question, and incorporate sustainability into their education and their future careers.

“The E&S Minor and the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), where the program is housed, are central components of MIT’s on-going climate action plans,” says Sarah Meyers MBA ’12, education program manager for ESI. “Together, they provide a formal framework and an institutional home for sustainability education.”

Though MIT has long offered courses related to environment and sustainability, Meyers explains, students with a particular interest in sustainability often struggled to find what they were looking for within the vast and ever-changing MIT course catalogue. Because ESI engages faculty and staff in every department, it can take a bird’s eye view of sustainability education at MIT and can help students cultivate “a holistic, cohesive view of sustainability,” she says.

Crossing the Disciplinary Landscape

Each student completing the E&S minor completes the core required class People and the Planet: Environmental Governance and Science fosters a holistic, systems thinking approach, exploring interconnections between environment and society at different scales through case studies, quantitative analyses and methodological tools. Students are also required to cultivate sustainable design skills and apply problem solving strategies to sustainability challenges in courses like 1.006 Tools for Sustainable Design or EC.719 D-Lab: Water, Climate Change and Health.

Students complete the program with electives, selecting from a list of approximately 120 courses from 23 academic departments. Some opt for courses related to their major; for example, 4.401 Environmental Technologies in Buildings for an architecture major, or 10.496 Design of Sustainable Polymer Systems for a chemical engineering major. Others explore broader issues in sustainability or integrate distinct but interconnected disciplines. “Sustainability is not an optimization problem,” says Meyers. “It’s a human problem, and that’s why the social sciences and the humanities are absolutely central to the E&S Minor.”

MIT’s curriculum includes 120 undergraduate subjects related to environment and sustainability, drawn from 23 academic departments.

MIT’s curriculum includes 120 undergraduate subjects related to environment and sustainability, drawn from 23 academic departments.

For E&S Minor alumni such as mechanical engineering major Geneva Casalegno ’21, the broad scope of courses was both inspiring and eye-opening: “In [the E&S] Minor, you can take classes in just about any major…. Sustainability isn’t just renewable energy or carbon capture. It’s about sustainable product design, waste management systems, and just thoughtful work. Realizing that I can bring that into any work I do is really empowering.”

Alejandro Diaz ’21, added two academic minors—E&S and Latin American Studies—to his degree in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), and is now a first-year master’s student in EECS. “After finishing up the E&S Minor, I feel like I have a lot of knowledge about climate science and technology [as it is] being implemented around the world.” Just as crucially, Diaz observes, he’s learned to examine the shortcomings of current technologies and the policies and societal factors that shape all technological solutions.

“This Is How we Train Students for the 21st Century.”

Since its launch in 2018, the E&S Minor has grown from a single student to more than 40. Meyers expects the minor, as well as subjects and learning opportunities in the E&S portfolio, to keep expanding. “A survey recently asked students if they had taken at least one sustainability class at MIT,” says Meyers. “Twenty-five percent said yes.” To Meyers, this underscores the need to think broadly about “how to reach students at different points and at different stages” and help students find the pathways that meet their needs.

The E&S Minor is part of a larger project Meyers calls “sustainability infusion,” which entails “bringing environment and sustainability to MIT education in the broadest possible way.” Meyers and her colleagues are working with faculty who want to build sustainability into the curriculum more deeply, and creating new learning opportunities such as Experiential Sustainability, a summer 2021 undergraduate class that allows students to grapple with real-world applications of sustainability while working in industry and research labs or on personal projects.

“We know that employers want to hire graduates who understand these tools and these frameworks and can help envision and create sustainable solutions.”

—Sarah Meyers MBA ’12, Education Program Manager, MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative

Meyers says, “We’re really looking to up our game in terms of educating students about how to ask employers about issues that are important to them,” including racial and gender equity, workplace culture, and sustainability.

Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” released in May 2021, represents a redoubling of MIT’s commitment to sustainability education, stating that “it will be crucial to educate and empower the members of the next generation, as they will inherit the impacts of [climate change] and the ongoing challenge of solving it.” Infusions of sustainability education across MIT, like the E&S Minor, are designed to do exactly that. As Meyers puts it, “This is how we train students for the 21st century.”

—Kris Willcox

This article was originally published in July 2021.