Alignment among environmental programs in higher education: What Food-Energy-Water Nexus concepts are covered in introductory courses?
Interdisciplinary environmental and sustainability (IES) programs are different from other fields because they focus on a complex integration of humanities, social, and natural sciences concepts centered on the interactions of coupled human and natural systems. The interdisciplinary nature of IES programs does not lend itself to traditional discipline-specific concept inventory frameworks for critically evaluating preconceptions and learning. We discuss the results of the first phase of a research project to develop a next generation concept inventory for evaluating interdisciplinary concepts important for introductory IES courses. Using the Food-Energy-Water (FEW) Nexus (the intersections/interdependencies of food, energy, and water sectors) as our focus, we conducted a content analysis of eight representative college-level introductory environmental course syllabi and course materials (e.g., textbooks, journal articles, print media) to identify common interdisciplinary FEW Nexus concepts taught in introductory IES courses. Results demonstrate that all IES introductory course materials reference the FEW Nexus. Food, energy, and/or water resources as individual elements of the FEW Nexus are frequently described, but connections between these resource systems are included less often. Biology, energy systems, waste and pollution in the natural environment, agriculture, earth sciences and geology, climate change, behavioral social sciences, and economics concepts are most associated with FEW concepts, hinting at commonalities across IES topics that anchor systems thinking. Despite differences in IES programs, there appears to be some alignment between core concepts being taught at the FEW Nexus in introductory courses.