Permaculture in Universities: A Navigation Guide

This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of Permaculture Magazine North America.

In permaculture, we’re always looking for ways to scale up our beneficial impact. When it comes to growing the movement, one of the most exciting trends is the rapidly growing number of permaculture courses in higher education.

At my last count, at least thirty-five North American universities and colleges have offered a PDC or permaculture program for academic credit. Dozens more have offered a non-credit PDC or credit courses about permaculture.

In a recent article, I shared results of my graduate research on the shape and location of this trend as well as tips for working with large institutions. Through the stories of many students and teachers, I also highlighted the many opportunities these linkages bring to the permaculture movement and to academia.

The “why” is very compelling—perhaps most of all for the transformative, hands-on and solutions-based framework permaculture offers. Students are ravenous for this amidst the overwhelmingly depressing things they’re learning about the state of our environment. As someone who took a PDC for university credit myself and then helped to establish a new PDC at my own school, I can certainly attest to this.

Here, though, I would like to focus in on the “how.” On a practical level, how can teachers actually integrate the 72-hour PDC into the constraints of an academic curriculum? And how can students access permaculture education in universities?

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University of Victoria permaculture students venture out of the classroom for hands-on learning at Linnaea Farm on Cortes Island, Canada.

Options for teachers and students

The PDC tends to be flexible enough to combine with an academic curriculum fairly easily. As this summary shows, diversity of formats have been used by a range of different schools with success. Most often, they involve offering the PDC over two courses or through an intensive course.

Although the 72-hour PDC tends to be too big to fit into a single academic course, there are a few tricks that can help make it work. Some schools offer the flexibility to create a larger-than-normal course—for example, five credits rather than the usual four. Categorization as a science course can add weekly lab hours, which can be an effective combination of lecture delivery and hands-on practice. PDC requirements can also be separated from academic course requirements. For example, receiving permaculture certification may require that students attend every field trip, but these could be bypassed while still receiving top marks. Online formats can be another flexible way to fit the PDC into one university course.

Many other formats have been used in academia. At the University of Oregon, a modular approach offered over several weekends made the course more accessible for commuters. Some, like Prescott College and Portland State, have offered PDCs at the graduate level. Naropa University and UC Stanislaus have offered permaculture minors. And some rockstar universities like the University of Vermont, UMass Amherst and Oregon State offer multiple formats so students can choose what works best for them.

There are benefits and drawbacks with each format. In many cases they’re the same ones that characterize the different PDC formats outside of academia. But their significance may need to be considered differently in an academic context.

There is, of course, no one “best” format—the best approach is tailor-designed for the unique opportunities and constraints of each school and the instructor’s particular niche. However, the variety of workable models shows that the requirements of a high-quality PDC can certainly be met. Don’t sacrifice high quality and hands-on learning in the face of perceived institutional constraints. There is a new wave of interest at universities in offering project-based and applied experiential learning especially in the field of environmental sustainability. If funding for extra time in the field is scarce, try charging a small lab fee or offering the course through Continuing Studies. Colby-Sawyer College brings undergraduates and mature community members together in the same course. This makes it financially viable and greatly enriches it at the same time through intergenerational learning.

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University of Victoria permaculture students pick early strawberries.

Integrating the PDC into academic courses raises questions about what should constitute a “standard” PDC—or whether such a thing should even be the primary way permaculture is taught. One instructor I spoke with felt that since most undergraduates are still figuring out what they want to do with their education, offering the full PDC might be less important in a higher education context. Students, on the other hand, tend to feel strongly that the certificate offers extra value as something to show on a resume.

There is growing popularity of affordable short term skills-based certificates among schools too. These are perfect if you’re looking for the benefits of an academic setting for the PDC but a four-year program isn’t the right fit. Lorain County Community College and Greenfield Community College offer the PDC as part of a technical certificate in sustainable agriculture and food systems. In as little as two semesters, graduates can walk out with an academically-recognized professional certificate. Or, they can apply the certificate directly into a two-year associate degree, which can in turn be stacked into a bachelor degree. I believe community colleges are especially suited to teaching permaculture because they tend to be more affordable, flexible, linked with the local community and focused on hands-on practice.

Students looking for an even more flexible non-traditional degree program may be excited to know about a new partnership between the Permaculture Institute of North America (PINA) and Goddard College. Graduates of any 80+ hour PINA-recognized PDC can earn 2 transfer credits in Natural Science through the college. Students can take part in this program from anywhere in the country without having to relocate—and they can even receive up to $1000 in tuition credit.

“PINA was attracted to this opportunity with Goddard College because we saw that it married permaculture training with flexible forms of higher education. It offered one more pathway for our trainees to have their prior work validated and to count toward academic standing,” says Peter Bane of PINA. “This partnership opens up a big door to recognizing the value of permaculture training in more professional and academic settings.” It also offers permaculture teachers who are members of PINA a way to teach an academically-recognized course without having to navigate complex approval processes at their local institution.

Finally, a popular option that provides ultimate flexibility for students and permaculture teachers is the independent or self-directed study. To get my certification, I secured a faculty supervisor and received credit for the equivalent of two university courses when I took an independently-run PDC outside the university at OUR Ecovillage. These opportunities require more active seeking on the student’s part and aren’t widely accessible.

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Learning from longtime farmers at Linnaea Farm on Cortes Island, Canada.

Looking to enroll?

Courses offered through a university can offer a more rigorous science foundation and have been vetted by a curriculum committee—though this doesn’t necessarily make for a better course. Figure out what course qualities are important to you and what suits your learning style. Do your homework and find out what people have to say about the course and the instructor.

If your school doesn’t offer permaculture courses yet, organize with other students! Universities are a business (sad, but true) and they listen to what their customers want. If you can identify sympathetic faculty, you may be surprised at their willingness to try a pilot course. Student demand has been the number one driver in getting university permaculture courses established. It may take time, but it will surely be a wonderful legacy that many students will be able to benefit from. It’s important course design and delivery is led by teachers who are recognized by the local permaculture community as having significant experience practicing and teaching permaculture.

To PC or not to PC?

A final thought for consideration—both by teachers looking to establish permaculture courses in higher education and by students searching for them—is the word itself: permaculture. In the broader movement, the language of permaculture can be a marker for those “in the know” to find each other and speak a common language. Yet it can also be alienating to outsiders, leading practitioners to dispense with permaculture jargon completely in favour of terms like “ecological design,” “sustainable design,” or “sustainable agriculture.”

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Learning about greenhouse growing.

This seems to be quite common in higher education. Permaculture teachers often find these alternate (and trendy) terms are a much easier sell to university administrators and students who are not yet “in the know.” Though permaculture is slowly getting trendier in academia and more accepted on its own terms, it is often invisible in course titles and pithy course descriptions despite constituting the course foundation in many cases. This is just one reason why it is very difficult to know the extent of permaculture’s growing reach in academia. It is also further reason for students to look closely at what’s out there as the opportunities you seek may be closer than you realize.

In any case, integrating permaculture into higher education necessitates creative problem solving, experimentation, observation and acceptance of feedback—the bread and butter of permaculture practice. I believe this integration is helping evolve permaculture teaching in impactful and diverse directions.

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