Register for Spring 2015 Classes

Advising and registration are now ongoing (since Nov 1st) for the Spring 2015 semester at Roosevelt. RU students, please look over the Spring 2015 schedule using this coursefinder, check remaining course requirements on your curriculum checksheet, and email or call your assigned academic advisor with your planned schedule and any questions you have about your upcoming classes. Your advisor will provide you with an RU Access registration code so you can register.

Sustainability Studies courses offered in Spring 2015:

SUST 210 Sustainable Future (Chicago, M 1-3:30pm, Bryson)
SUST 220 Water (online, Jones)
SUST 230 Food (Chicago, T 6-8:30pm, Gerberich)
SUST 240 Waste (online, Bryson)
SUST 310 Energy & Climate Change (Chicago, W 6-8:30pm, Flower)
SUST 340 Policy, Law, & Ethics (online, Hoffman)
SUST 390 Sustainable Campus (Chicago, W 3-5:3pm, Bryson)

December is a super busy time of the academic year, but don’t neglect getting in touch with your advisor; it’s the best time to get signed up for classes. For additional useful info, see this Advising Resources page here on my website.

Best of luck during finals week!

Posted in Classes, Education, Roosevelt, Students | Comments Off

A Good Day for Strategic Sustainability Planning

The first RU of three sustainability planning workshops on 26 Sept 2014 (photo: M. Radeck)

The first RU of three sustainability planning workshops on 26 Sept 2014 (photo: M. Radeck)

Just a short note here to acknowledge what was a very productive day yesterday at Roosevelt. Several faculty, staff, and students gathered in WB 1017 to celebrate the completion of the university’s first-ever Strategic Sustainability Plan. We went over the plan’s highlights, discussed a communications strategy to coordinate our follow-through on initiatives the plan’s major goals map out, share conversation about our personal interests in contributing to this ongoing work, and ate a delicious lunch.

This was the third and final planning workshop in a series of three half-day sessions that started on Sept. 26th. In less than two months, we collaboratively drafted a 30-page strategic plan that sets the stage for RU’s sustainability work the next 2-5 years! That’s a pretty good job, if I do say so myself.

The Plan still requires final proofing as well as official endorsement from the upper administration, and we hope to have that in hand soon so we can release the final version to the university community. In the meantime, you can read Friday’s draft here as a pdf document.

I want to acknowledge the co-leaders of this planning process — Paul Matthews, Assistant VP of Physical Resources; Tom Shelton, Sustainability Coordinator in Physical Resources; and MaryBeth Radeck, SUST major and Independent Consultant/Facilitator — for their work in this endeavor . . . particularly MaryBeth, who organized led the workshops and took the lead in project communications and document editing. Also worthy of praise are SUST majors and Physical Resource sustainability associates Beeka Quesnell and Mary Rasic, who helped immensely with the workshop organization and set-up; and the many students, faculty, and staff who participated in the workshops. (Their names are in the draft plan!)

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Two Canadian Filmmakers Drop by for an Interview

Kyle Lennan and Geoff Norris (photo: J. Liebregts,

Kyle Lennan and Geoff Norris (photo: J. Liebregts,

This past Sunday, Toronto-based independent filmmakers Geoff Norris and Kyle Lennan came by my house in Joliet to interview me about the long-simmering Peotone Airport controversy in agricultural lands south of Chicago in Will County, IL. Norris and Lennan have been making a film about the proposed Pickering Airport project in the rural areas near Toronto, which has resulted in the government seizure of property and demolition of homes over the past several decades despite no tangible progress on the airport’s construction.

The story bears an eerie resemblance to that playing out in eastern Will County within the vast stretches of prime Illinois farmland near the rural villages of Peotone, Monee, and Beecher. Geoff and Kyle came across my op-ed series about the Peotone airport written for the Joliet Herald-News up through 2012, and were kind enough to include me as a local voice from the community on their road trip to the Chicago area, where they also filmed local activists/opponents to the project.

Posted in Agriculture, Economics, Land use, Peotone, Politics, Social justice, Transportation | Comments Off

Headwaters Conference / “Relative Wild” Writer’s Retreat

Western State CO Univ

Western State CO Univ

Today I’m en route to Gunnison CO, home of Western State Colorado University, to participate in the 25th annual Headwaters Conference sponsored by the university’s Center for Environment and Sustainability. This year’s conference focuses on the notion of “The Relative Wild,” and features a keynote address by acclaimed poet Gary Snyder as well as a full day of presentations and discussions on various aspect of wildness. I’m speaking tomorrow as part of a panel discussing the “urban wild” — in particular, the experience of urban nature and its relation to kids and environmental education.

Crested Butte, CO

Crested Butte, CO

On Sunday, I join a group of writers convened by Gavin Van Horn (Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago) and John Hausdoerffer (WSCU Headwaters Project) for a long-anticipated writer’s retreat in nearby Crested Butte. We’ll be sharing ideas, outlines, and initial jottings to kick off a new book project to be co-edited by Gavin and John that’s tentatively titled The Relative Wild — a collection of stories and essays that, as the editors describe it,

will explore how human and ecological communities co-create the wild. The ‘myth of the pristine’ — that nature is most valuable when liberated from human presence — is quickly being supplanted by ‘the myth of the humanized,’ the assertion that nothing is untouched by human influence, and therefore one may embrace ecosystem change, even extreme changes, as ‘natural.’ We suggest that both of these myths deserve equal scrutiny, and that one way to do so is by celebrating the common ground of the relative wild: the degrees and integration of wildness and human influence in any place.

Having participated in a previous CHN writer’s retreat at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for the forthcoming book City Creatures (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015), I know firsthand how extraordinary an opportunity it is to take time out from the busy schedules and harried demands of ordinary life to mingle with talented and creative writers all focused on a common project. The fact that this is happening in a beautiful mountain setting at the autumnal equinox is even better!

Posted in Arts, Conferences, Humanities, Literature, Sustainability, Urban nature | Comments Off

RU Offers “Four Freedoms” Student Fellowships for 2014-15

The Four Freedoms Fellowship offers Roosevelt University students a unique opportunity to develop leadership, public speaking, and advocacy skills to effect change on critical issues. Throughout the academic year, selected Fellows will participate in a series of interactive trainings to deepen their knowledge of the political landscape, learn effective strategies to influence decision-makers, and be able to powerfully articulate their personal stories as a tool for change. Trainings will take place on Friday mornings at the Chicago Campus starting on Sept. 26th.

Four Freedoms Fellows will be awarded $750 in the form of financial aid that will be divided between the Fall and Spring semesters. Both undergraduate and graduate students from all academic disciplines are encouraged to apply. Fellows will have the opportunity to take a leadership role in advocacy efforts at Roosevelt and have occasion to represent the University at press conferences or events with elected officials.

Interested students may apply here. The deadline for submitting online applications is Sept. 10th, 2014. For questions about the Fellowship, please contact Jennifer Tani, Assistant Vice President for Community Engagement at RU, at or 312-341-2375.

Posted in Education, Roosevelt, Scholarships, Students | Comments Off

Delta Institute Internship Opportunity for Fall 2014 or Spring 2015

The Delta Institute has posted an opportunity for a Development Intern for either the Fall 2014 or the Spring 2015 semester this coming academic year. Check out its website and the detailed description below for position details and application deadlines.

DELTA Inst Development_Internship_Description_April-2014

Posted in Education, Great Lakes, Internships, Students, Sustainability | Comments Off

Water, Climate Change, Science, & Literature

This month one of Chicago’s public radio stations, WBEZ (91.5 FM), has kicked off a fascinating and timely series about water, science, and the humanities. It’s called After Water, and according to the series’ website, the project asks “writers to peer into the future—100 years or more—and imagine the region around the Great Lakes, when water scarcity is a dominant social issue. It’s a cosmic blend of art and science . . . [that will feature] stories, research, photos and more.”

Professor Gary Wolfe

Professor Gary Wolfe

Kicking off the series this week was a Morning Shift conversation on WBEZ with my longtime Roosevelt colleague, Dr. Gary Wolfe (the guy who hired me, by the way), one of the world’s foremost authorities on the literature of sci-fi and fantasy. Gary was in the house to talk about the emergent genre of “cli-fi,” or fiction about climate change, and its relation to water issues. Not only was Gary completely at home in this milieu due to his many years’ experience doing his own radio show in Chicago, “Interface,” but this gig was an apt follow-up to his teaching of a Special Topics SUST 390 seminar this past spring entitled “Sustainability in Film and Fiction.”

I look forward to following the stories and images within this unfolding After Water series, as it’s a great example of the need to integrate science and the humanities in constructing compelling narratives about the crisis of climate change, a subject I addressed briefly in this short essay from last summer.

Posted in Arts, Chicago, Education, Faculty, Humanities, Literature, Roosevelt, Science, Sustainability, Water | Comments Off

June 2014 Guest Talks and Conference Presentations

The first part of June has been exceptionally chatty, academically speaking, as I think I’ve had my busiest week ever in my 20-year academic career giving presentations and hobnobbing with colleagues at other institutions. Thus far I’ve been right here in the Chicago area, though a nice little trip to New York City awaits later this week — which is exciting, since I haven’t been to New York since the fall of 2006 (for the SLSA Conference at NYU).

JJC greenhouse (photo: Steinkamp Photography /  Legat Architects)

The LEED-certified greenhouse at JJC (photo: Steinkamp Photography / Legat Architects)

Last Sunday, as we flipped the home calendars to June, I drove out to Joliet Junior College, the nation’s oldest community college, to give a guest lecture entitled “Sustainability and the Future of Cities: Connecting Curriculum to Community” (pdf), as part of JJC’s three-day faculty retreat for the Grand Prairie Project — an effort to encourage the integration of sustainability across JJC’s curriculum led by my colleague, friend, and fellow Joliet public school alum Maria Rafac, an architectural technology prof at the college.

Institute for Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago

Institute for Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago

Then on Wednesday, June 4th, I collaborated with an RU professor, Aaron Shoults-Wilson, on a presentation (pdf) about sustainability/environmental science education at Roosevelt for a “Research and Education towards Sustainability Symposium” sponsored by the Institute for Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University in Chicago. This small gathering was especially interesting, since the IES was hosting a group of Vietnamese environmental scientists and educators from Vietnam National University. Learning about their work in Ho Chih Min City and other locations throughout Vietnam was utterly fascinating, and they in turn were extremely excited by the chance to explore Chicago and meet like-minded colleagues here in the US. I also got my first tour of Loyola’s new IES facility in my old neighborhood of East Rogers Park, opened in Fall 2013, which is quite impressive indeed.

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago IL

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago IL

Finally, on Thursday, June 5th, I gave my first talk at the Field Museum of Natural History along the downtown Chicago lakefront, as part of the museum’s Interchange monthly lecture series sponsored by the Dept. of Science and Education. These gatherings are internal to the museum, and provide a chance for researchers to present data and report on works in progress from all the various disciplines of the museum in a friendly setting that encourages active discussion and cross-disciplinary connections. My talk, “Reading the Book of Nature: May Theilgaard Watts’ Art of Ecology,” (pdf), reflected on how the arts and humanities complement scientific discourse, in this case within the context of urban ecosystems wherein live over 80% of Americans and more than 50% of people worldwide.

Pace University, New York City (

Pace University, New York City (

Later this week, I fly to New York City for the annual conference of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, one of the academic tribes of which I’m an enthusiastic member. Hosted this year by Pace University in lower Manhattan, near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, the conference theme is “Welcome to the Anthropocene: From Global Challenge to Plantery Stewardship.” This smallish conference of 500-600 attendees is always notable for its friendly and informal atmosphere, great spirit of convivial networking among colleagues from many different areas of academia (from the sciences to the social sciences to the humanities), and fun field excursions. My talk about my teaching experiences in a service-learning course at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm is part of a panel entitled “Innovative Pedagogies for Environmental Justice and Community Engagement.” I’m eager to hear what my fellow panelists have in store for our session!

Posted in Conferences, Education, Faculty, Joliet, Literature, Research, Roosevelt, Science, Sustainability, Urban nature | Comments Off

Leonard Dubkin, Chicago’s Urban Nature Writer: A Short Biography

Leonard Dubkin (1905-1972) was a businessman, journalist, naturalist, and nature writer who lived and worked in Chicago.A contemporary of the much more well-known Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel, Dubkin is a long-neglected urban nature writer of the 20th century whose journalism and books provide a unique and fascinating window into Chicago’s environmental history and urban landscape during a period of immense social and biological change in America’s cities.

Dubkin’s life was both humble and extraordinary, rife with early obstacles and replete with fascinating episodes worthy of a melodramatic up-from-his-bootstraps narrative. His early years were marked by poverty and a dogged determination to make something of himself. Dubkin was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1905; his family emigrated soon thereafter to the United States and in 1907 they settled on the near West Side of Chicago, an area of the city that served as a portal for Jewish immigrants, particularly those of Eastern-European ancestry. One of seven children and the oldest boy of the family, young Leonard cultivated an interest in the natural world from the time he was nine years old, and spent a great deal of time exploring various neighborhoods in the city in search of birds, insects, and other wild creatures in the scraps of natural areas within the urban environment he would later recall as some of his “secret places.”[i]

An alley in a Chicago slum, c. 1908 (source: Chicago Historical Society)

An alley in a Chicago slum, c. 1908 (source: Chicago Historical Society)

Dubkin’s family knew poverty on a daily basis during his early years in Chicago, as did many in their tenement neighborhood characterized by overcrowding and economic hardship. Dubkin’s father was chronically ill with lead poisoning from his work as a housepainter in Russia, and was unable to work during his time in Chicago; his mother kept the family going by taking in sewing work and accepting the help of local Jewish charities. Though he left school before finishing eighth grade so he could work to help support his family, Dubkin nevertheless kept collecting animal specimens, exploring out-of-the-way pockets of urban nature, writing down his observations in a journal, and cultivating an ambition to become a naturalist. He also fought his own battle with a debilitating illness: around the age of 15, he contracted encephalitis and lapsed into a coma that lasted almost a year during which he resided at a sanitarium in nearby Winfield, Illinois. Awakening suddenly to the surprise of doctors and delight of his family, Dubkin built up his strength during a long recovery period by playing tennis — and such was his athleticism that he soon became a ranked player in the city public leagues.

From childhood onward, Dubkin worked a variety of jobs — from cleaning out taverns to driving a cab to starting his own businesses — to support himself and his family, and though a modest and relatively unassuming person in general, he possessed an undeniably entrepreneurial spirit. As a young man and aspiring author determined, in rather romantic fashion, to cultivate the attitude and garner the life experiences he felt were necessary to a writer, he left Chicago and traveled around the country by riding the rails, hobo-style. When he ran short of money, he would stop at a city of some size and drum up work as a reporter for one of the local papers for awhile, before catching another freight train for different pastures. In this way over a period of perhaps two years or so, he wrote briefly for papers such as the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Sacramento Bee, honing his journalism skills and soaking up impressions of different places and people. After his return to Chicago, he made the city his home the remainder of his life, despite the fact that his mother and six siblings all relocated to Los Angeles.

Dubkin once lost a job as Chicago Daily News reporter after blowing an assignment to cover a murder story (itself a fascinating and humorous anecdote he would later recount as the “Racine Case” in his two of his books) by watching squirrels in the attic of the primary suspect’s home while the latter returned to the scene of the crime and was caught by police. Ironically, he claimed to be grateful for being set free, as writing about human affairs bored him in comparison to his passion for chronicling the activities of the natural world. Yet the demands of paying the rent kept him hustling after work even as he nurtured his artistic inclinations and fascination with nature. After several months of fruitlessly searching for newspaper work, he started a one-man public relations firm which lasted a few years, and it was through his publicity work for a local radio station that he met actress and his future wife, Muriel Schwartz, at a radio industry party. During the early years of the Great Depression, he capitalized on (and further cemented) his intimate knowledge of Chicago’s streets and neighborhoods by working as a cab driver. In the 1930s, he started yet another business enterprise: a talent directory of Chicago stage and radio actors, which he updated and published yearly up through the mid-1950s.

Undated photo of Dubkin in his office at Lerner Newspapers in Chicago (source: P. Dubkin Yearwood)

Undated photo of Dubkin in his office at Lerner Newspapers in Chicago (source: P. Dubkin Yearwood)

Finally, from the late ’50s onward, he worked full-time as a reporter and columnist for Lerner Newspapers, which produced a diverse offering of neighborhood weeklies for various Chicago neighborhoods. This great variety of experiences and jobs exemplifies not just his industriousness and entrepreneurship, but also the scope and depth of his creative energies. While his day jobs limited his natural history and creative writing activities to being after-hours pursuits rather than his primary focus, they provided him a measure of middle-class economic stability and even supplied him with a narrative theme he would explore in several books — the ongoing tension between the impulse to observe and commune with urban nature and the demands of earning a living in modern America.

As his keeping of a childhood nature journal indicates, Dubkin carved out an early identity as a naturalist-writer, and his facility with language earned him a journalism gig as a young teenager when he started writing a weekly nature column in the Saturday children’s page of the Chicago Daily News. Not only did this employment eventually lead to life-long work in journalism as a reporter, columnist, and urban naturalist, it provided the occasion for a transformative meeting between young Dubkin and one of Chicago’s greatest historical figures. As Dubkin recounts, he would take his handwritten drafts to nearby Hull House to type them up, for the staff allowed him to use their office equipment. When one of these times the “head lady” asked him what he was working on, he stunned her by replying he was typing up his articles for the Daily News and showed her a copy of his latest column which he happened to have in his pocket for just such an auspicious occasion.

She read my article, which was about migratory instinct in birds. “Do you always write about nature?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m going to be a naturalist when I grow up.”

“Don’t you think you need a typewriter to be a naturalist?”

“Sure I do. And some day I’m going to be able to afford to buy one.”

She asked me where I lived, and after I told her she walked away. A few days later a man delivered a package to our house, addressed to me. Inside was a brand new typewriter from the kind lady at Hull House. Her name was Jane Addams. (My Secret Places 17)

Because his formal education was cut short, Dubkin never became a professional scientist as he once fantasized; instead of fretting over this missed opportunity, though, he transformed it into a narrative theme. His writings are peppered with amusing encounters between himself, as the amateur naturalist/narrator, and professional scientists from Chicago-area institutions. The contrasts he drew between the two perspectives illustrate not just his respect for (and, to some degree, insecurity about) the authority of science as arbiter of knowledge, but also his view that institutionalized science could be cold and detached.

Nevertheless, Dubkin was as much enthralled by science as he was by nature itself, and from an early age steeped himself in the writings of naturalists from Darwin to Ernest Thompson Seton. He also held scientists such as Darwin, Mendel, and Einstein in the highest regard — not just for their technical acumen and writing ability, but for their ability to think critically and experimentally, to “come to . . . [nature] with a question, with just the right question, and who have the kind of minds that know how to go about getting an answer” (Natural History of a Yard 55). Consequently, Dubkin always grounded his observations of the natural world in his extensive reading of both popular and technical scientific literature, which he accessed not through formal training but in the diverse collections of Chicago’s public libraries — his substitute for a university experience.

Dubkin Wolf PointIn contrast to his experiences with science, Dubkin’s literary ambitions were much more fully realized and he carved out a singular niche as an urban naturalist-writer. His early dreams of becoming a naturalist and a writer were fulfilled most resoundingly by his string of urban nature writing books, published between 1944 and 1972, which creatively fused autobiography and natural history. These works included The Murmur of Wings (1944), Enchanted Streets (1947), The White Lady (1952), Wolf Point (1953), The Natural History of a Yard (1955), and My Secret Places (1972). Dubkin was a dedicated and prolific writer who kept a daily journal throughout his life; wrote hundreds of letters to family and friends, most notably to his wife, Muriel, who was both his muse and sounding-board; published hundreds of newspaper columns and scores of book reviews; and developed a variety of creative projects that never saw the light of day, including novels and a natural history from the viewpoint of the family dog amusingly entitled “Letters from Pepsi.”

As a journalist, Dubkin worked for several papers penning nature columns over the course of his life, including that youthful gig the Chicago Daily News and a brief stint at the Chicago Tribune that ended abruptly when he offended the Tribune’s publisher, Robert R. McCormick, by impugning the character and motives of life-list-constructing “bird lovers” — one of whom was McCormick’s wife. Later on, from the late 1950s until his death in 1972, he maintained a long-standing position at Lerner Newspapers in Chicago as a news reporter and nature writer; his popular “Birds and Bees” column containing his folksy yet scientifically informed observations on urban nature ran for nearly 30 years, and enjoyed a wide and dedicated readership throughout the city.

Carbon copy of the dust-jacket blurb by Loren Eiseley, c. 1972 (source: P. Dubkin Yearwood)

Carbon copy of the dust-jacket blurb by Loren Eiseley, c. 1972 (source: P. Dubkin Yearwood)

Once established as an accomplished naturalist-writer, Dubkin was in demand to pen reviews of books by his contemporary nature writers for such venues as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. He also maintained friendships and regular correspondence with important writers, naturalists, and scientists of his day, from legendary Chicago writer Nelson Algren to biologist and environmental writer Rachel Carson to anthropologist and essayist Loren Eiseley. In fact, it is Eiseley who penned what might be the most eloquent tribute to Dubkin’s skill and craftsmanship as a naturalist-writer. In a 1972 letter to Dubkin he included a carbon copy of a dust jacket blurb for Dubkin’s final book, My Secret Places:

Mr. Dubkin has no parallel as the naturalist of the city and its environs. An able and expert journalist, he has the heart and eye of a child. It is this which convinces those of us lost in adult affairs that there is still truly a hidden place between the last billboard and the viaduct, a place as worthy of preservation as a forest. In such spots a rare human gentleness can sometimes be nurtured. Leonard Dubkin is a graduate of that kind of innocent back lot school which Americans are close to losing forever. His work is not only readable, it is utterly sincere.[ii]

Eiseley concisely and poetically captures here several salient qualities of Dubkin’s perspective on nature and his literary voice. An esteemed member of the scientific establishment (an establishment that both inspired and intimidated Dubkin) and a writer who produced hard-to-categorize yet utterly compelling works that blended natural history, evolutionary theory, philosophy of science, and autobiography, Eiseley recognized not just the singularity of Dubkin’s unique perspective and literary ability but also the value of Dubkin’s lifelong efforts to bring the neglected yet fascinating manifestations of urban nature to light.


[i] The biographical information in this essay on Dubkin is culled from the author’s interviews with Dubkin’s daughter, Pauline Dubkin Yearwood, as well as from Yearwood’s short essay “Family Memoir: The Urban Nature Lover.”

[ii] This letter is part of the extensive manuscript collection of Dubkin’s writings and correspondence — including letters, journals, newspaper columns, book reviews, book manuscripts, fiction, poetry, and unpublished manuscripts — maintained by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood.

Works Cited

Dubkin, Leonard. Enchanted Streets: The Unlikely Adventures of an Urban Nature Lover. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1947.

—. The Murmur of Wings. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1944.

—. My Secret Places: One Man’s Love Affair with Nature in the City. New York: David McKay, Inc., 1972.

—. The Natural History of a Yard. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1955.

—. Personal papers. Pauline Dubkin Yearwood, Chicago, IL.

—. The White Lady. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952.

—. Wolf Point: An Adventure in History. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1953.

Eiseley, Loren. Letter to Leonard Dubkin. 12 February 1972.

Yearwood, Pauline Dubkin. “Family Memoir: The Urban Nature Lover.” Chicago Jewish History (Fall 2005): 4-5.

—. Personal interview. 15 March and 18 April 2007.

*  *  *

This essay was written in August of 2008. It is an expanded version of the biographical information contained within my scholarly essay, “Empty Lots and Secret Places: Leonard Dubkin’s Exploration of Urban Nature in Chicago.” ISLE 18.1 (Winter 2011): 1-20.

Posted in Books, Chicago, Criticism, History, Humanities, Literature, Science, Urban nature | Comments Off

Assessing Sustainability Literacy at RU

Yesterday I took part in an event at Roosevelt sponsored by its Office of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Reaccreditation on academic program assessment. Faculty and staff from over a dozen academic departments across the six colleges of the university presented data and conclusions from the 2013-14 academic assessment work that was supported by a “microgrant” program for the Spring 2014 semester.

I gave a short presentation (see this pdf of the slideshow) on the assessment work we did in the Sustainability Studies Program in 2013-14: the Sustainability Literacy Survey that was administered to all Fall 2013 SUST classes as well as to a sub-sample of other CPS undergraduate courses in Criminal Justice and Professional & Liberal Studies gen ed seminars.

This preliminary survey was a key part of the SUST Program’s Assessment Plan for 2013-14, and was based on the “Assessment of Sustainability Knowledge” survey instrument developed in July 2013 by The Environmental & Social Sustainability Lab, The Ohio State University. This survey was endorsed as assessment tool by AASHE and has been promoted on the AASHE blog to other universities wishing to gather comparable data about the general level of sustainability literacy among US undergraduates.

Goals of the Sustainability Literacy (SL) Survey

  • Determine baseline SL of RU undergrads in 2013
  • Compare groups of students (by class, age, major, etc.)
  • Facilitate program assessment in relation to SL at other US universities
  • Provide one means of assessing the current SUST curriculum


Despite the rather small sample size (173 surveys will returned) of this pilot study, some useful data resulted from the effort. The graph below displays how different majors performed on the survey in terms of overall % of correct answers out of 28 questions that covered environmental, economic, and social topics related to sustainability. SUST majors outperformed all other groups by a wide margin here.

SUST Literacy Assmt 2014-05-09 Avg Score by Major

Another useful way to view the data is to convert the % correct scores of each respondent to a letter grade, using the traditional scale of 90% = A, etc. This provides a more nuanced look at how students in different groups do on the assessment beyond the mean score. Notably, almost two-thirds of SUST majors scored a B or higher on the survey, while only 6% failed. In contrast, 87% of non-SUST majors scored a C or lower on the survey.

SUST Literacy Assmt 2014-05-09 SUST vs non-SUST Grades Conclusions

  • Sustainability Studies majors as a group score significantly higher on this sustainability literacy survey than non-SUST students at RU as a whole, or any other sub-group of undergraduate majors.
  • RU students as a whole score slightly lower than undergrads at the Ohio State University (64% vs. 69%, respectively), but their performance is comparable.
  • Overall, undergraduate students at RU are relatively illiterate about basic sustainability facts and issues, as their average score is a “D” when converted to a letter grade.
  • SUST majors scores potentially indicate the value of the curriculum at improving basic sustainability literacy at the undergraduate level, though some such students may enter RU with a higher baseline level of SL.
  • There is a real need for sustainability education across the board for all undergraduate students, regardless of major.

Next Steps for SUST Program Assessment

  • Continue analyzing results of SL Survey and share with SUST part-time faculty.
  • Explore feasibility of administering the student to a representative sample of all RU undergrads in 2014-15.
  • Contribute assessment data to RU’s Environmental Sustainability Committee and discuss relevance STARS 2.0 reporting for overall university sustainability efforts.
  • Follow up with other assessment activities: curriculum review, alumni survey, writing/communication/critical analysis skills, etc.

Special Acknowledgment: The “Rogers Factor”

Key contributions to this survey assessment and analysis were made by two invaluable people at RU, who together constitute the “Rogers Factor”:

Ester Rogers, RU’s Office of Institutional Research: helped with survey design & implementation, suggestions for modes of analysis, and Microgrant funding support during the Spring 2014 semester.

Scott Rogers, junior SUST major in the College of Professional Studies: performed key data entry work and contributed a wide range of preliminary analysis of survey results.

 Resources on Sustainability Assessment

Posted in Education, Faculty, Research, Roosevelt, Students, Sustainability | Comments Off