student group on lawn

Learning Sustainability

Learning Sustainability at Penn

The 2009 Climate Action Plan set a goal to make climate change and sustainability part of the curriculum and educational experience available to all Penn students. Since that time, the Penn Sustainability Office has initiated new programs, collaborated with the Office of the Provost, and expanded opportunities for research and internships all with a primary focus on students. Climate Action Plan 2.0 expands upon this goal by putting forth recommendations to enrich sustainability resources and opportunities for the larger Penn community, with a particular focus on faculty support. Between 2014 and 2019, the intention is for student sustainability programs to continue to grow, complemented by an equally rich portfolio of programs for faculty.

Academic Opportunities and Initiatives



The Sustainability Course Inventory is a step towards the Climate Action Plan goal of expanding the awareness and availability of information about sustainability courses at Penn. This document is an effort to make public and centrally available the broad range of classes there are available that have to do with sustainability, and in departments and schools you might not expect. The Penn Sustainability Office hopes this document will help students to identify sustainability classes that fit into their particular curriculum or in order to increase overall sustainability knowledge and literacy.

ENVS 494: Towards Sustainability on Penn's Campus Toward Environmental Sustainability on Penn’s Campus, taught every fall since 2007, involves Penn students in exploring and proposing ideas and creating reports for the administration on the best methods of advancing the University’s sustainability goals.


The academic mapping chart linked here shows all sustainability-related majors, minors, concentrations, and academic centers at Penn. For more information on some of the specific academic programming offered, see below.
The Undergraduate Major in Earth Science is for students who want an understanding of the various physical, chemical, and geologic processes that work within our planet and on its surface. Students gain the skills needed to scientifically study and reconstruct Earth's history from the beginning of the solar system to historic times. Students gain hands-on experience in analyzing fossils, rocks, minerals, maps, aerial photographs, and satellite images in the laboratory and on field trips. Students concentrate in Environmental Science, Geology, or Paleobiology.  
The Undergraduate Major in Environmental Studies is designed to provide students with the skills to understand and address contemporary environmental issues. The major integrates studies in the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, policy and management in order to study complex issues of the environment and humans’ interaction with it. Students concentrate in Environmental History and Regional Studies, Environmental Policy and Application, Global Environmental System, or Sustainability and Environmental Management.  
Undergraduate Minor The Undergraduate Minor in Sustainability and Environmental Management allows students to learn the nature of environmental constraints which face organizations and individuals in the modern world, and to understand how these constraints can be effectively considered as part of the decision-making process in for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Students in any of the four undergraduate schools may elect to take the minor.  

The Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER) enrolls talented, prepared, and motivated students who are interested in energy science and engineering. A joint program of Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) and the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), VIPER leads to dual Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science in Engineering (BSE) degrees by combining majors from each school.

Masters of Environmental Studies Program Master of Environmental Studies, offered by the School of Arts and Sciences in addition to its Department of Earth and Environmental Science, draws together courses across the University in the natural, social, and biomedical sciences, as well as in humanities, engineering, law, and business.  
The Master in Environmental Building Design in the School of Design is a specialized, post-professional degree developed to train architects in the new skills and knowledge required for environmental design. The three-semester course of study, established in 2010, includes coursework on building performance simulation, integrated building design, building envelopes and systems, lighting, daylighting, and the theory and practice of environmental design. Coursework is complemented and extended by a Performance Design Workshop and then explored in depth in an intensive Environmental Design Studio in the summer.
Environmental Management at Wharton The Environmental and Risk Management Program, in the Wharton School, founded in 1998, coordinates the MBA in Environmental and Risk Management, the undergraduate concentration in Environmental Policy and Management, and the undergraduate minor in Organizations and Environmental Management.
Program on Law, the Environment, and the Economy

Law and Environmental Studies: The University of Pennsylvania Law School offers a program of study in the Specialty Area of Environmental Law, and a joint program conferring a JD/MES in Environmental Studies. In addition, students may earn a Certificate of Study in one of several disciplines as part of their three-year JD degree, such as Environmental Policy (regulation) or Environmental Science (hard science).

Organizational Dynamics Sustainable Development Concentration

Organizational Dynamics Sustainable Development Concentration
In collaboration with other Penn departments and external partners, Organizational Dynamics has created a series of courses designed to help leaders implement sustainabiity initiatives today.

This program is funded through Dow Chemical Company and is a Master's Degree in Organizational Dynamics focused on applying sustainability principals broadly across an organization.


Initiated in 2012, the Integrating Sustainability Across the Curriculum program (ISAC) is an eight-week summer program teaming undergraduates with faculty to refine an existing course or develop a new course that incorporates sustainability as an academic theme. Over the course of the program, the students participate in mini-workshops and field trips to provide an opportunity to exchange ideas and share experiences with fellow participants. 
The Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships (CURF) supports projects that lead to environmentally sustainable programs and policies, contribute to scientific innovations related to sustainability, or deepen our understanding of the social, cultural, artistic, and humanistic aspects of sustainability through Undergraduate Sustainability Action Research Grants (previously known as Undergraduate Climate Action Research Grants). Grants range from $2,500 to $5,000 and the projects are conducted under the direction of a Penn faculty member. 
Learn more on the CURF website »
The Hayden Scholars program aims to build a community of undergraduate researchers in the geosciences at Penn through extra-curricular, independent research experiences affiliated with the Department of Earth and Environmental Science. The program will train students for success as future geoscientists through mentoring and in doing so, encourage students to go on to pursue advanced degrees in Earth science; develop collegial relationships and interactions amongst students and faculty as well as other professionals; and cultivate scientific, data analysis, presentation, networking and other workforce skills, while strengthening the Earth and Environmental Sciences undergraduate programs.
Ben Franklin Scholars (BFS) Course Design Grants are awarded to faculty for exceptional proposals for the development of new BFS seminars. Since 2009, the Penn Sustainability Office has sponsored three BFS Course Design Grants to foster the development of seminars that include innovative approaches to sustainability.


The Penn Program in Environmental Humanities aims to generate knowledge appropriate for this time, which many natural scientists call the Anthropocene, the Age of the Human.  Our era of rapid climate change calls for new forms of knowledge creation bridging the sciences and the humanities, the natural world and the human.  Penn intends to be among the leaders in this field, and is seeking active engagement from our undergraduate students.

Environmental Humanities Undergraduate Research Fellowships: Program Fellows will collaborate to build a digital platform to showcase work in this emergent area and to launch a gallery show featuring Environmental Humanities art and literature open to all Penn students and faculty.

IGEL The Initiative for Global and Environmental Leadership (IGEL) is a global initiative on business and the environment that brings together business leaders with professors at Wharton and other Schools at Penn to discuss and research selected topics concerning business and the natural environment.  
The Biosphere at Kings Court English House The Penn Energy Research Group unites researchers to create fundamental scientific understanding and technological solutions that enable the development of new alternative-energy sources and improves energy capture, conversion and use, while disseminating knowledge and educating an energy-aware community.
PennPraxis The PennPraxis Project, created by Penn's School of Design, works directly with the City of Philadelphia on its new, state-of-the-art, pedestrian-friendly waterfront area.
TC Chan Center The Center for Environmental Building & Design is a faculty research unit at the School of Design dedicated to improving the environmental future of contemporary buildings and cities. We must look beyond building efficiency standards and net-zero formulations to design truly resilient buildings and cities. Over the coming century we must use the knowledge, technologies, and expectations of the twenty-first- century metropolis to return to the renewable resource base of pre-industrial economies. The challenges of environmental design occur at multiple, interacting scales and can only be approached systemically, so the CEBD works in interdisciplinary teams on projects at a range of scales.

The Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, in the School of Medicine, acts to create change in environmental and public health policies, often working directly with local communities to improve environmental health, medicine, and justice, especially around issues of environmental exposure.  



Environmental Sustainability Advisory Committee (ESAC) Subcommittee on Academics has issued two documents that help to outline and clarify Penn's perspective on environmental sustainability:

Penn ESAC Academics Subcommittee Statement on Climate Change [Download PDF]

Definition of Sustainability at Penn [Download PDF]

In spring 2014, the Sustainability Office collaborated with Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) to organize two Faculty Discussion Groups on “What It Means to Teach Through the Lens of Sustainability.” In particular, the discussion groups considered how incorporating sustainability as an intellectual frame into courses can help shape what and how one teaches. CTL facilitated the discussions with the goal of developing key ideas and/or questions that could be shared with faculty across the University. The aim of these, and future, discussions is to inform and enhance the ability of faculty both to teach sustainability and to teach students how to examine diverse topics through a sustainability lens.