For Berea College, “sustainability” refers to the capacity of individuals, communities, and societies to coexist in a manner that maintains social justice, environmental integrity, and economic well-being today, and for future generations. Established in 1999, the Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS) Department is an interdisciplinary academic department centered on ecological design – the purposeful integration of human actions with the structures and functions of the natural world. The department views conservation, as well as environmental justice, to be equally important initiatives.
The goal of the SENS department is to help its students acquire the knowledge and practical skills necessary to thrive. Our department strives for the development of justice-minded individuals, resilient communities, and more a sustainable society. Initiatives of the department take place both inside and outside of what are traditionally viewed as purely academic spaces.
On-campus, faculty from a variety of disciplines, including the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences teach courses that allow students to pursue their particular interests within the broader field of Sustainability and Environmental Studies. SENS courses often emphasize experiential learning, and the administrative inclusion of SENS in Division II facilitates close collaboration with other “hands on” departments including Agriculture and Natural Resources, Engineering Technologies and Applied Design, Economics & Business, Entrepreneurship for the Public Good, and Computer Science. Examples of partnering with these areas have included offering ecological design courses and economics courses focusing on the environment, creating sensors to monitor utility usage in homes, and working to make business and agricultural models more sustainable. In addition, SENS offers cross-listed courses with Appalachian Studies, Biology, Chemistry, African and African American Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and the Peace and Social Justice department. Students from across a spectrum of various disciplinary backgrounds may want to enroll in various SENS courses or pursue a minor in the field.
The department also maintains the SENS House Complex, which encompasses 1.5 acres within the Berea College Ecovillage. The Complex includes an ecologically-designed residence (SENS House), an aquaponics facility, the Natural Building Shelter, edible landscapes, and a permaculture food forest. Labor students in the SENS labor program operate and maintain these facilities and play a key role in their use for teaching and outreach. Other College assets, including the College farm and gardens, the College Farm Store, and the 8000 acres of College forest with several reservoirs, ponds, and streams, serve as ecological laboratories for SENS classes, internships, and projects. The SENS department is also an important part of Berea College’s overall efforts to develop a more sustainable campus. The on-going “greening” of the Berea campus, (in partnership with The Office of Sustainability), provides another set of active learning opportunities for students.
Internships and other experiential learning opportunities move students out of the classroom and into the real world of complex problems and solutions. The landscapes and human communities of Appalachia offer endless opportunities for student engagement in efforts to increase community resilience, help to transition the local economy, and lead environmental justice efforts.