Engle, E., Barsom, S., Vandenbergh, L., Sterner, G., & Alter, T. (2016). AN EXPLORATION OF COMPETENCIES IN SUSTAINABILITY: Working Paper 2014-2015

June 7, 2016 | Comments Off


From the Executive Summary:

Over the past few decades, the general public has become increasingly aware of and concerned about a lack of sustainability in environmental, social, and economic spheres of our society. In that context sustainability has become a critical issue in higher education curriculum and organizational culture, as well as in workforce development at small and large businesses, agencies and government. The importance and contestedness of sustainability drives the need for a common understanding of sustainability concepts, including core sustainability competencies—the skills, knowledge, attitudes and behaviors (Davis et al. 2004)—that provide a distinct and recognizable language and mission across these various efforts.

In response to that need, this work aimed to develop and foster a common language for sustainability competencies and an overarching framework that may be applied in many ways across the University. The research methods included a literature review of relevant scholarly and grey literature related to sustainability competencies within higher education and workforce development; nine semi-structured key informant interviews with sustainability experts within and outside of Penn State; and four focus groups with members of the Penn State faculty and staff to construct and develop a conceptual framework of meta-competencies for sustainability.

The resulting conceptual framework included five meta-competencies for sustainability: systems thinking, temporal thinking, interpersonal literacy, ethical literacy, and creativity/imagination. The first four were identified by recurrence throughout the literature review; the fifth meta-competency was added after it was identified through a thematic analysis of the key informant interviews. Overall, the interview and focus group participants had a positive view of the need for common sustainability competencies and/or incorporation of these competencies into University operations and teaching. There was, however, general concern about top-level administrative buy-in and the potential top-down methods by which the competencies framework might be instituted.

From the outset, the goals of this project, and even the nature of the subject matter—competencies for sustainability—were intended to be evolving concepts, and the exercise was explicitly referred to as an iterative process. Therefore, our results offer a starting point for future exploration, discussion, application, and continued development of the competencies framework. We identify a number of future actions, including further research on the competencies framework itself; incorporation of the framework into administrative processes and curriculum across the University; and development methods for assessing the identified competencies.