The Project-Based Sustainability Curriculum

At Georgia Tech, experiential learning is the key to preparing students to apply sustainable business practices in the real world.

RESEARCH FROM THE Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning indicates that project-based learning deepens students’ understanding of difficult concepts and better prepares them to assess business challenges and design solutions. Additionally, studies show that students in project-based classrooms are more likely to view learning as a way to acquire valuable skills—not simply as a means to pass a test.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Scheller College of Business in Atlanta, we have made experiential learning a priority for teaching sustainability, an area in which companies face especially complex business challenges. Our Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business, founded in 2013, acts as an experiential learning hub, coordinating projects and programs that enable students to apply their knowledge of sustainable business practices to real-world issues in professional settings.

HANDS-ON PRACTICUM

The center has created a strategic sustainability concentration, as well as an educational track that encourages students to develop deep expertise in emerging areas of sustainability. The Innovating for Sustainability track includes the Sustainable Business Consulting Practicum, co-taught by the center’s managing director and professor of sustainable business and a managing director of information and technology services at global consulting firm Accenture. In it, students form teams and work with a volunteer coach to solve sustainability problems submitted by companies.

For example, one team of MBA students worked with software company Autodesk on the design and implementation of an internal carbon pricing scheme. Another provided recommendations to Coca-Cola on its World Without Waste initiative. A team of undergraduate students helped a local startup market its pet food protein that it manufactures from grubs instead of fish.

SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING

The center’s Sustainability Fellows program, launched in 2015, offers MBAs opportunities to learn about sustainable business outside their coursework. Our Sustainability Fellows complete self-directed projects that are designed to benefit a community or business partner.

Each fellow is assigned an advisor and provided stipends when permissible. The center provides fellows with opportunities to network, work with nonprofits, and attend career development events. At the end of each semester, fellows present their projects in a forum open to peers, professors, and industry professionals.

For his project, Mark Jacobson, a 2016–17 Sustainability Fellow, developed a model to help executives at Walmart forecast the economic viability of solar energy projects. Blais Hickey, a 2018–19 Sustainability Fellow, helped organizers of the AJC Peachtree Road Race, the world’s largest 10K race, improve the sustainability footprint of the event while maintaining low costs.

Another 2016–17 fellow, Eric May, collaborated with an undergraduate engineering student, Ben Ibach, on a project for the Mattress Recycling Council (MRC), which promotes mattress recycling efforts throughout the U.S. May and Ibach provided the MRC with recommendations for diverting mattress components away from landfills by identifying viable uses for their components. The MRC’s president, Ryan Trainer, noted that the students’ insights would help guide the organization’s future market development efforts.

The Sustainability Fellows program has proved so popular among MBAs that we created the Sustainability Ambassadors program for undergraduates. The 2019–20 academic year marks the second in which undergraduates have access to co-curricular experiences that mirror those of our Sustainability Fellows.

AN INTERNSHIP CHALLENGE

The center extends its experiential learning offerings to non-MBA students via an immersive learning initiative pioneered in collaboration with Georgia Tech’s Global Change Program. Known as the Carbon Reduction Challenge (CRC), this competition places students in summer internships, where they identify areas where their employers could reduce carbon emissions and save costs. They then present their recommendations to executives for approval.

In 2017, students on the first-place team came from the Scheller College and the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Together, these students incorporated the CRC into their internships at SunTrust, a financial institution located in Atlanta. The students discovered that the company could encourage employees to rent compact cars instead of midsize cars while on business trips. SunTrust executives implemented the team’s proposed changes, which are projected to reduce the company’s carbon emissions by 100,000 pounds and save US$40,000 each year. Four of the six students on the team were subsequently offered fulltime positions with SunTrust and are now working to scale up the program.

In 2018, the first-place team recommended that the restaurant chain Chickfil- A install new dishwashers in 500 restaurants and LED lights in 12 parking lots. In another project, students helped Delta Airlines reduce the weight of its planes by decreasing the number of inflight Sky magazines on board each flight.

Since its inception, the Carbon Reduction Challenge has placed more than 75 students as interns at 23 organizations. Their application of sustainable business practices has helped companies reduce carbon emissions by 20 million pounds. The CRC has inspired similar programs at the University of Buffalo in New York and Emory University in Atlanta.

EMPOWERING LEADERS

To teach students to become sustainability champions, we must provide them with multiple opportunities to gain exposure to sustainable business strategies and solve the environmental and social problems that companies face. Through its experiential learning portfolio, the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business fulfills its important mission: empowering tomorrow’s leaders to create sustainable businesses and communities.

Learn more about Georgia Tech’s CRC.

L. Beril Toktay is a professor of operations management and Brady Family Chair, ADVANCE professor, and faculty director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Michael Oxman is a professor of practice in sustainable business and the center’s managing director.

Advertise With BizEd