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New certificates offer sustainability education for graduate students

The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability has launched two graduate certificate programs, in Sustainable Energy and in Climate Change. A third program in Sustainable Decision Making will be coming soon.

For Stanford graduate students who want to learn the fundamentals of sustainability, its connection between disciplines, and how to apply it in the real world, four courses may fit the bill.

Students and mentors working at interactive touch wall
Graduate students and mentors working at the touch wall, where they can engage with other teams in real-time. (Image credit: Linda A. Cicero)

The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability's new Sustainability Graduate Certificates provide a platform for graduate students across the university to engage with and learn about sustainability topics outside of their degree program. Starting this autumn, students can pursue certificates in Sustainable Energy or in Climate Change. A third option, Sustainable Decision Making, will be launching soon.

The certificates are structured around a core fundamental course and three qualifying electives that draw upon coursework from the entire school, including a project-based elective that brings the elements of learning to real-world application. The four courses need to be at least 3 units each and can be completed at any time while enrolled as a Stanford graduate student. 

“We are trying to meet students where they are and offer a lot of options,” said Anjana Richards, assistant dean for education and integration strategy. “I think of this kind of like bingo, where you hit all of these requirements to get the certificate.” 

The certificates are like mini minors that provide an accessible avenue for all Stanford graduate students to engage with the school’s goal of education that will impact the world – an aspiration that includes the opportunity for every Stanford student, across all disciplines, to engage in sustainability education.

“To tackle the sustainability challenges facing our planet, we need to educate as many students as we possibly can,” said Lynn Hildemann, senior associate dean for education. “That will greatly magnify our ability to have a really significant impact.”

Meeting demand

The decision to create certificates for graduate students stemmed in part from Stanford students seeking opportunities to learn about the environment through a lower-scale commitment than a degree from existing graduate programs, Richards said. 

The idea for certificates arose independently during the planning process for the new school, as well, Richards said. Among their recommendations in 2021, the planning team wrote: “As demonstrated by the success of the Sustainability Science and Practice co-term program in attracting Stanford undergraduates to a sustainability-focused masters program that is not specific to any department in the new school, there is student appetite for graduate work that is not connected to a doctoral program or departmental field of study.”

The Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources also reflects that rise in demand – it has more than doubled in size in the last 10 years and its MS-MBA students is the largest joint degree program in the Graduate School of Business.

“I think a number of people on campus are seeing tremendous interest and demand from students to engage in sustainability,” Richards said. Richards had previously helped carry out a strategic planning process with stakeholder engagement meetings and workshops to further understand what students are looking for.

“We liked the idea of a certificate rather than a minor because typical minors are six to eight courses – but four courses feels manageable, we hope, to many students,” Hildemann said. “With enough students graduating and infiltrating all around the world in all these different professions, these certificate holders will end up having a really huge impact because small steps will be taken at so many different places, in so many different types of firms.”

Interdisciplinary focus

The program launched with concentrations in Climate Change and Sustainable Energy in part because those topics are of interest to many students concerned about the sustainability of the planet. They’re also subjects with strong existing curricular offerings at Stanford. The third certificate, Sustainability Decision Making, which is currently in development, was motivated by thinking about non-STEM students, Hildemann said. 

“What about someone who doesn’t want to go deep in the science-y stuff – can they help with making our planet more sustainable, as well?” Hildemann said. “Of course they can, but we need to think about it in a different way, and we’re fortunate in the Doerr School of Sustainability to now have faculty affiliates who are also in the business school. That particular certificate is thinking both of non-STEM students who would love to learn about sustainability but don’t want to take science classes, and also STEM students who want to add a dimension to their education.”

Sustainability for all

The certificates are intentionally interdisciplinary, drawing on multiple fields to think about complex issues. They are meant to be outside of primary study, and courses required for a student’s degree program cannot count toward the certificates. 

As part of the larger goal of “education that will impact the world,” the certificate program is among initiatives like new courses and a PhD in Oceans offered through the school. But they are structured to go a step further than just taking a course here or there.

“The hope is to go beyond just understanding the science of why climate change is happening to helping students feel empowered that they can do something about it,” Hildemann said. “Every single person can make changes that will contribute toward making our planet more sustainable, and small actions taken by many are just as impactful as large actions taken by just one or two.”

Stanford graduate students can learn more and declare interest on the certificate programs website.

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