Volume IX, Issue 2 | April 19, 2023

Free and Clear

SMC’s pioneering sustainability program, which includes free noncredit certificates, opens up career opportunities in advancing a sustainable environment—and SMC is the only community college to offer these free sustainability certificates.

SMC In Focus


With rising temperatures, harsher storms and increasing droughts, reducing climate change is not only important for our future but is also creating businesses and job opportunities. Santa Monica College is at the forefront of training students for this rapidly growing field.

SMC’s Earth Sciences Department offers three noncredit certificates through its Sustainability Systems and Technology program that can be pursued online by California residents at no cost.

“We’re the only community college offering free sustainability certificates,” according to Victoria Charles, who designed the certificates in collaboration with fellow SMC faculty member Jon Huls. The two faculty members each have environmental expertise along with entrepreneurial experience. Jon started the Sustainable Environmental Management Company while Victoria co-founded BlueSphere Partners. Both are consulting firms that help public agencies and private companies reduce their carbon footprints.

“We were asked by SMC’s Noncredit Program if we’d be interested in developing sustainability courses, and I responded by asking how many they wanted,” Victoria says. Upon hearing the answer “as many as you want,” she recalls going “on this rampage of coming up with topics and finding instructors” with an emphasis on meeting industry needs and preparing students for in-demand jobs. In addition to Victoria and Jon, anthropologist Gillian Grebler and water conservation expert Kim O’Cain share their sustainability knowledge with students.

Victoria has collaborated with Dr. Cassie Rockwell on expanding SMC's for-credit sustainability offerings in the college's Business Department, in which she also teaches. Beyond being good for the planet, sustainability makes economic sense, Victoria adds.

Getting the Word Out

The free, noncredit certificates currently offered are: Sustainability Assistant, instilling the skills to work in outreach and policy; Sustainability in Organics Aide, covering recycling practices to stop food waste; and Sustainability Services Technician, grounding students in the principles of environmental assessments and clean technologies.

Madison Eichberg pursued both the Sustainability Services Technician and the Sustainability in Organics Aide certificates “because I wanted to learn how technology and organics play a role in sustainable development,” she says. “The sustainability certificates I earned have been a wealth of knowledge. These courses helped me incorporate zero-waste processes at home, transition to a career in environmentalism and inspire others to pick up sustainable habits. I feel so grateful for how much this program changed my life.”

“California has been very progressive in passing environmental laws over the past several years,” Victoria notes. The most sweeping of these is Senate Bill 1383, aimed at cutting the landfill disposal of organic waste by 75 percent by 2025. This includes substances such as food scraps, yard trimmings and paper products, which account for half of what ends up in dumps — and cause 20 percent of the state’s methane, a pollutant 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“A lot of people think we don’t have to worry because organic materials biodegrade and dissolve,” Victoria says. “But that process generates methane.”

It also creates opportunity as waste companies strive to fulfill the new mandates. “Waste haulers must now add organics to their other recycling services, so they need to find qualified professionals who can go out to businesses and into communities, raising awareness about the law and showing them how to sort their organics.”

Increasing awareness is also important, Victoria adds, because “in the very near future, businesses will be fined tremendous amounts if they’re not separating their organics from other waste.”

Success in the Circular Economy

SMC’s sustainability courses are meeting the needs of a new, circular economy that works to eliminate waste and pollution by reusing products so they are kept in circulation for as long as possible. “Ideally, nothing is discarded,” Victoria says, and achieving that is giving rise to an innovative industry. “You’re creating new technologies and infrastructures that need skilled people.”

Each certificate begins with the same course: Fundamentals in Sustainability, which takes six weeks to complete. “This really sets people up for the other courses,” Victoria notes. “The first two weeks focus on the environmental part of sustainability, the next two on the social aspects, and the last two address business and sustainability.”

Since each certificate requires three courses, sharing the fundamentals class makes it easier for students to earn more than one. But while they may be offered as a noncredit option, the courses are just as rigorous as any offered at SMC.

In addition to benefiting from the knowledge of instructors, students also enjoy the perspectives of a wide range of guest lecturers. Speakers in various courses have included experts in food foraging and corporate as well as nonprofit leaders. One guest, Natalie Flores, is an SMC sustainability graduate herself. She used what she learned in the Recycling and Resource Management Program to launch Nourish LA, which has diverted millions of pounds of healthy food from landfills to people in need.

“So not only are people getting jobs with these certificates, but they’re also starting their own businesses,” Victoria observes.

In doing so, Natalie is one of a number of program alumna using their SMC-instilled knowledge to address another goal of SB 1383 — helping ease food insecurity by rescuing at least 20 percent of the perfectly good food that currently gets thrown out.

Sustainable Futures

SMC welcomes a wide range of students from different backgrounds and professions into the program. But they all share the goal of helping achieve a more sustainable future. They will also be working in an industry that will continue to grow as more communities everywhere understand the urgency of effective climate policies. And students completing the certificates can also receive job-hunting help in the sustainability field. 

“Sustainability is ultimately about efficiency,” Victoria says. “I like to compare it to computers. When I was in college, we didn’t have them, but now they’ve infiltrated every part of our lives. Today, if you’re in business without a computer system, you’re probably going to be obsolete. Sustainability is the same thing. It has to be embedded in every aspect of business and our society. We’re not going to be able to thrive without it.”

Madison concurs: “One of my favorite takeaways from the program was when I learned that every job has an environmental impact. Whether or not you are pursuing a career in sustainability, these courses will teach you how you can make your workplace more socially and environmentally conscious. I was amazed to learn how much of an impact I can make as a single individual.”

For more information, please visit smc.edu/noncredit.

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