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Interdisciplinary curriculum offerings are critical to our future

Heather Lovell draws on expertise across the University for our new Bachelor of Science sustainability major.


The study of sustainability traces its origins back to the 5th century BC physician Hippocrates, but its emergence as a broadly-based academic discipline is relatively recent. Researchers working on sustainability focus a variety of analytical tools on a problem with ecological, economic, social, moral, and technological dimensions: a hydra-headed beast.

Professor Heather Lovell, who heads the University of Tasmania’s new Bachelor of Science sustainability major, is a poster child for the discipline. As the University’s Professor of Energy and Society, she works with one foot in the School of Social Sciences and the other in Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences.

Lovell is equally at home in environmental politics and energy policy, carbon accounting and human geography.

“There is general agreement that the way sustainability needs to be understood and taught is outside the remit of any particular discipline.”

“Part of the problem – part of the reason we’ve got to where we are – is that there have been rigid ways of thinking about the dilemma of sustainability, measuring it, and working out what the solutions might be. You need to have a very broad perspective to be across the immensity of the challenges we face now.”

The University runs a popular Diploma of Sustainable Living (one year full-time) and a Certificate of Sustainable Living (six months full-time) in the subject, but the new sustainability major, which began in 2022, is its first attempt to integrate sustainability into a three-year undergraduate degree.

From 2023 the sustainability major will be promoted as a complementary second major across the University, enabling students studying a range of subjects to take it as part of their undergraduate degree. Lovell was brought in to lead the development of the major because of the interdisciplinary span of her work, which also includes stints in environmental organisations and the UK parliament. “My remit was to broaden the major to bring other disciplines on board, and to oversee an already excellent blend of content – to work out what sort of knowledge, what kinds of expertise, should underpin a sustainability major in science.”

She holds a Bachelor of Science from Cambridge University, with a geography major, a Master’s in Environmental Change and Management from Oxford, and a PhD in geography from Cambridge, which looked at low-energy housing in the UK.

This work equipped her for an ARC Future Fellowship and in 2015, the year she joined the University of Tasmania, she began researching smart grid experiments, including off-grid households, and their relevance to energy policy. “Australia has the highest proportion of household rooftop solar panels in the world, and there is growing opportunity to purchase household battery storage,” she says.

The capstone unit in the University's new sustainability major is led by Aidan Davison, an associate professor in human geography and environmental studies, and co-taught by Lovell alongside colleagues from a range of disciplines.

A key focus of the major for final-year students will be the identification of relevant stakeholders and partners in the sustainability challenge, as well as positive change agents. Says Lovell: “We’ll be looking at which kind of organisations create change towards sustainable development.”

The University, by virtue of its commitment to sustainability as an operational imperative and a field of knowledge, is itself a dynamic agent for change.

Heather Lovell is Professor of Energy and Society across the School of Social Sciences and the School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences and Deputy Chair of the University Sustainability Committee.

Main image: Students on a solar powered rooftop, Hobart

This story features in the 2023 edition of It's in our nature - a collection of stories that celebrate and highlight the unique work being undertaken by our institution, and the people within it, to deliver a more fair, equitable and sustainable society.

Explore sustainability at the University of Tasmania and how you can get involved.

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