Sustainability a “Pervasive Theme” or MIC (“Missing In Curriculum”)?

Posted on July 1, 2007


Q: To what extent is sustainability prescribed in computing curricula?

A: Not at all.

The ACM maintains a series of computing curricula documents (2005) for each of four bodies of knowledge (Computer Science, Information Technology, Computer Engineering and Information Science). Each is a significant document of around 100 pages. Unfortunately there is no mention of sustainability or the environment. Even a wider ethics is only labelled as “other requirements” and somehow sits outside the curricula:

Many institutions have other requirements that apply to all students, such as general education requirements. The size and content of this requirement varies widely, depending on the home country, the institutional mission, legal requirements, and other factors. Such courses often include subjects drawn from the humanities, social sciences, languages, and the liberal arts. In designing a computer engineering program, attention should be given to utilizing these course requirements to contribute to the students’ understanding of the social context of engineering and the potential impact of engineering solutions in a global environment. (Computer Engineering p34).

Some other concepts are described as “pervasive themes”:

Several topics have emerged that were considered essential, but that did not seem to belong in a single specific knowledge area or unit. We are of the opinion that these topics are best addressed multiple times in multiple classes, beginning in the IT fundamentals class and woven like threads throughout the tapestry of the IT curriculum. (IT p23)

One such theme is “professionalism (life-long learning, professional development, ethics, responsibility)”. An appended matrix identifies courses in which the themes might appear.

There is, however, always a danger that elements of the pervasive themes absorb so much time that they overwhelm the material of the main curriculum. At the same time, these pervasive themes are considered essential for IT students, and must be adequately taught. There are delicate issues of balance here, and curriculum and course designers must find the proper mix. (IT p29)

In summary of these curriculum documents: while general ethics is briefly mentioned, sustainability is not. Although ethics is included as part of a pervasive theme, it is not explicitly included in course descriptors and the advice we receive is that the themes, while essential must not take too much time.

(aka Shape of Education for Computing Sustainability: 2, see also 1).