Sustainable Good Practices in the University of Sonora, Mexico
In this article, Velázquez et al. describe the means through which a sustainable education has been nourished by the University of Sonora in Mexico with the inclusion of good practices in education, research, outreach and partnership.
Sustainability represents an opportunity for higher education institutions to improve and strengthen relations with its external community for mutual benefit.
Around the world, sustainability practices in higher education institutions have flourished as a way to foster at least one dimension of the triple bottom line of sustainable development.
One of the most successful efforts in Latin America to transform a higher education institution into a more sustainable organization has come from the University of Sonora in Mexico (Velazquez, 2006). This university is an internationally recognized organization that has built its sustainability reputation by conducting sustainability practices since 1992 in order to form critical and creative engineers that help society make the transition to a sustainable lifestyle.
A more sustainable university is a higher education institution, as a whole or as a part, that addresses, involves and promotes, on a regional or a global level, the elimination and/or minimization of environmental, economic, societal, and negative health effects in the use of their resources in order to fulfill its main functions of teaching, research, outreach & partnership and stewardship, among others, as a way to help society shift to a more sustainable way of living (Velazquez, 2002).
As illustrated in figure 1, the sustainable good practices at the University of Sonora are inspired by the institutional vision and mission that are reflected in the
Figure 1. UNISON’s Sustainability framework
Sustainability policy that fosters in the university community a culture of protecting natural resources and preventing, reducing and/or eliminating environmental and occupational risks generated by the members of the university community when using resources in order to fulfill its substantive functions of teaching, research, outreach & partnership, and stewardship (Velazquez, 2006).
Sustainable good practices
Sustainable practices are encompassed by four integrated targets: teaching, research, outreach and partnership and greening of the campus. Each of them are described below:
These practices are divided into formal and informal education; informal education was the first try to promote sustainability in 1992; conferences, workshops, and cultural activities have been continuing ever since to increase sustainability awareness among university community members (Velazquez, 1999).
In 1994, the Industrial Engineering Department became the first to offer a mandatory course in Sustainable Development in a Mexican engineering curriculum. This was offered in the bachelor degree and then the formal education structure evolved to cover graduate programs such as certificate, master and doctoral degree.
Recently, the Sustainable Development Certificate has been ranked by the Mexican Council on Science and Technology (CONACYT) as a graduate program of excellence with the status of international competence. This honor is held by less than 1% of all Mexican graduate programs.
These practices offer new direction for reducing environmental and occupational risks in Mexican organizations by proposing new production and service systems. Researchers are grouped into an academic body called “sustainable engineering” aimed at increasing knowledge in this field.
Researchers usually perform applied science to solve practical problems in the region, however basic research is also conducted in order to expand knowledge on how to be more sustainable. They maintain three research lines; the first is aimed at encouraging cleaner production and pollution prevention practices in organizations; the second deals with environmental management systems, and finally the third one is devoted to increasing sustainability in educational institutions. These research lines include a great variety of topics, such as cleaner production, pollution prevention and global climate, reducing toxin use and industrial ecology and design for environment, among others.
This academic body holds the highest status awarded by CONACYT of signifying excellence in academic production by the sustainable engineering academic group. In addition and consequentially, all members belong to the National System of Researchers.
Outreach and partnership
One of the main concerns of the academic body has been working with organizations and communities to enhance sustainable practices on several levels. In organizations, these efforts are aimed at promoting production and service systems that protect the environment and labor and strengthen economic growth through more efficient production. In communities, efforts are aimed at enhancing the quality of life of their members (Velazquez, 2000).
Although services are usually offered free of charge, the benefits are mutual because students have the opportunity to practice what they have learned in class by seeking solutions to unsustainable patterns of production.
The Sustainability Management System (SMS) leads the greening of campus practices at the University of Sonora. The SMS was certified in July 2008 under the international standard ISO 14001: 2004 (University de Sonora, 2008). With this, the University of Sonora became one of the few higher education institutions in the world with this certification, and the first one in Latin America.
The SMS strives not only towards the efficient operation of the system, but also for the enhancement of the Engineering College’s students’ education through a practical apprenticeship under an integral perspective of environmental, social and economic values according to the principles of sustainable development. From the very beginning, the system has been indexed to the substantive functions of teaching and research in order to transform the campus into a living laboratory for endless learning. Students perform daily monitoring and maintain measurement methods to track environmental compliance or performance as described in the manual.
Sustainability practices within the system are aimed at the efficient use of water and energy, increasing safety in laboratories and facilities by sustainable handling of hazardous materials and toxic wastes, as well as the reduction, reuse, and recycling of non-hazardous materials such as paper, plastic and organic waste.
A quarterly report is the basis for review and evaluation of the SMS to ensure its effectiveness. Strong emphasis is put on the continuous improvement and overall performance shown by sustainability indicators. The appropriateness of the sustainability policy is also reviewed, as well as the achievement of the objectives and targets, the regulatory compliance, the corrective and preventive actions and findings in the internal audit.
So far, two follow up external audits have been successfully conducted and in 2011, the SMS will face a re-certification audit.
This proven strategy for helping Mexican society make the transition to a sustainable lifestyle is backed by the University of Sonora’s strong sustainability credentials, such as being the first in Latin America to operate an SMS certified by the ISO 14001 standard, offering a sustainable development certificate ranked by CONACYT as one of excellence with international competence, and having a consolidated sustainability academic body.
Sustainability achievements and accomplishments through almost two decades have been satisfactory, however it should not be taken for granted that becoming a more sustainable university would be easier in the future than it has been during the last two decades.
The best opportunity to keep sustainability practices going is to enhance positive attitudinal changes between both university members and the greater community, and not merely to enhance the image of our university.
University of Sonora (2008), “Obtiene Unison certificado de norma ambiental ISO 14001:2004”, available at http://www.uson.mx/noticias/default.php?id=6511 (accessed 18 August 2008).
Velázquez, L., Munguía, N., Romo M. (1999), Education for Sustainable Development: The Engineer of the 21st Century. In: European Journal of Engineering Education, 24 (4), pp. 359-370
Velázquez, L., Munguía, N., Platt, A. (2000), Fostering P2 practices in northwest Mexico through inter-university collaboration. In: Journal for Cleaner Production, (8), 433-437
Velázquez, L. (2002), A Mexican Model for Teaching Sustainability in Universities. In: Walter Leal (Ed): Teaching Sustainability at Universities-Toward Curriculum Greening. Peter Lang Scientific Publishers, pp. 347 -362.
Velazquez, L., Munguia, N., Platt, A. and Taddei, J. (2006), “What can be the matter? Journal of cleaner production, Vol. 14 No.9-11, pp. 810-819.
About the author
Luis E. Velázquez Contreras is an internationally recognized professor/researcher in sustainability issues. He holds a doctoral degree in the major of Cleaner Production and Pollution Prevention from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Currently, he is professor and researcher in the University of Sonora in Mexico and adjunct professor in the University of Massachusetts Lowell in the USA. For almost two decades, he has focused on developing curricula for more sustainable engineering. He has 19 years of experience as an industrial engineer and since 1994 he has served as Director of Sustainable Development Group in the Engineering College. He has conducted several investigations in the sustainability, cleaner production and pollution prevention fields as well as in the study of sustainable universities.
Nora Elba Munguía Vega is an Industrial Engineer with a Doctor of Sciences degree in Cleaner Production and Pollution Prevention from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. She has conducted research studies on sustainability and education issues as well as in the occupational health and safety, cleaner production and pollution prevention fields. She has taught sustainability related courses since 1993 and she has also created learning material about sustainability issues for engineering students. She has offered several presentations on sustainability around the world.
Javier Esquer Peralta is an Industrial and Systems Engineer with a Doctor of Sciences degree in Cleaner Production from the University of Massachusetts- Lowell (UMass-Lowell) as well as a Sustainable Development Certificate from the University of Sonora (UNISON). He has been an enthusiastic promoter of sustainable development in his community and has participated in several initiatives on environmental protection through UNISON. He has also been a speaker at events of several kinds, locally, regionally and internationally.
Andrea Zavala Reyna is Industrial and Systems Engineer with a Doctor of Sciences degree in Engineering from the Autonomous University of Baja California in Mexico as well as a Sustainable Development Certificate from the University of Sonora (UNISON). She is the project manager of the Sustainable Management System in the University of Sonora which has been certificated with the ISO 14001 standard. She has been teaching sustainability issues from the 2000.