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Credit: Mckibillo

It was only a matter of time before LEED credentialing launched a cottage industry in green education. The professional-training-course and educational-guide company Kaplan, which preps students for critical exams such as the SAT and LSAT, now offers study guides and sample tests for the LEED v3 exam. And in the world of higher education, a number of schools have created graduate programs emphasizing technical training in sustainable design.

The University of Florida, the University of California system, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology are just a few of the institutions that have recently begun granting sustainable-design certificates—by day and by night, in the classroom and on the Web, and, in some cases, to architects and English majors alike. Master of Science programs in sustainable design are offered by schools including Philadelphia University and the Catholic University of America.

Does an emphasis on flexibility—including programs tailored to student preferences and available to so many—undermine academic standards?

Ted Landsmark, Assoc. AIA, is president of Boston Architectural College (BAC), which offers a Master of Design Studies as well as a certificate in sustainable design. Landsmark says that flexibility is a fundamental characteristic of sustainability itself. Fittingly, neither of the school’s programs is conducted at its Newbury Street campus, nor is its faculty centered around Boston.For its certificate program, the BAC offers a selection of 31 courses, all available online. “What has emerged is a sustainability learning community that is in a position to address sustainability challenges in different parts of the world,” Landsmark says.

Yet for programs emphasizing sustainability, this recent development in education is in some ways unsustainable. Though the BAC’s courses are accredited, the sustainability programs are not accredited per se, as there’s no accrediting agency for sustainability. The schools lend these post-professional programs credibility, Landsmark says, despite the skepticism that surrounds online education.

“We have found that people in remote areas are interested in taking part because they trust that courses from an accredited college will have a rigor that might not emerge from private sources,” he says. “Courses we teach online are directly comparable to regular courses offered” at the BAC.

With course offerings increasing from 12 to 31 between January 2009 and May 2010, the BAC’s sustainable-design program is modular—so much so that a prospective student does not even necessarily need an undergraduate degree to acquire a certificate in sustainable design, according to the executive director of educational initiatives, Curt Lamb, AIA. The modularity of this program is an effort to appeal to a wide array of students from the “allied fields” of real estate, facilities management, journalism, and, of course, design.

Chris Grech, associate professor at the Catholic University of America and director of its Master of Science in Sustainable Design (MSSD) program, describes the spread of sustainable-design programs as a sort of temporary corrective. “I would prefer to see an architecture degree including a greater component of sustainable design so that an MSSD becomes redundant,” Grech says. “You could argue that if the faculty wanted to change the curricula, they wouldn’t need to implement a sustainable-design program.”

Nevertheless, Catholic University offers an MSSD as well as a two-track certificate in sustainable design. The master’s degree, which is now three years old, calls for 30 hours of coursework, while the certificate takes just 12 hours. The technical track comprises two energy-modeling courses (Systems and Simulation I & II), a materials course, and an elective. The nontechnical track—which requires no prerequisite coursework—substitutes sustainable design and ethics courses for the energy-modeling classes.

“The certificate is a sort of hook or a tempter, really,” Grech says. “We found some prospective students who didn’t want to oblige themselves to apply for the whole program, so in a sense the cert is a taster.”

Do these programs offer an escape for designers—and others—facing a lack of work in a blighted economy? Grech says that the industry had already changed in fundamental ways before the recession. “That was the initial reason for setting up the program: to appeal to practitioners, irrespective of the recession. To increase their skills and inform them about new industry standards.”

The larger economic picture has certainly influenced enrollment at his school, says Rob Fleming, AIA, director of the new MSSD program at Philadelphia University. Older students pursuing new skills to build a case for keeping their jobs, along with younger students unhappy with the sustainability practices at their current firms, make up most of the school’s first class for its certificate in sustainable-practices program.

The biggest factor in the growth of these programs, Fleming says, is an education gap. “The fact that these [programs] exist means they’re filling some sort of vacuum in traditional programs,” he says.

Although a 12-hour certificate program does not a sustainable designer make, those who begin on a nontechnical track in sustainable design can become invested in the field long-term. “Two students who started on the certificate have gone on to the full [Master of Science] program,” Grech says.