Masters of Science in Sustainable Systems Program

“Focus your attention not upon the patterns of Nature frozen in death, but rather upon the dynamic processes which give living pattern and design to Life”

Robert A. Macoskey, Process 2000

The Masters of Science in Sustainable Systems (MS3) Program at Slippery Rock University was established in 1990 and charged with preparing students to face the pressing environmental challenges of the future by considering sustainability as the underlying framework for action. Students study and practice sustainability through the integration of agriculture, natural resource managment and the built environment with particular emphasis on the design and management of productive systems that reflect the diversity and resilience of natural systems. The program embraces the human element in the landscape, searching for sustainable ways to satisfy food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material human needs.

These academic courses include exercises in creative design and problem solving as well as laboratory and field experiences. A host of non-curricular opportunities for learning and practicing sustainability are also available through the Robert A. Macoskey Center, the surrounding community, internships, and other campus-related projects.


Macoskey proposed some changes in the vision about the ALTER project’s community life. Since the originally envisioned residence/research/ conference center was for the present not realizable, he shifted the emphasis from a larger-scale undergraduate program with research initiatives for setting up a graduate program, the Master of Science in Sustainable Systems, or MS3 program, which was to be intimately connected with the Harmony Homestead Permaculture effort. The proposal for the MS3 program had been carefully reviewed by (Bill) Mollison and takedn many of his suggestions. As initially concieved and proposed, it was to be an interdisciplinary program based on the principles of Permaculture (Theodore Knuepper 2003).

Having identified what he felt to be a suitable home department (the Parks and Recreation/Environmental Education Department at Slippery Rock University), he approached the chair, Dr. William Shiner, with an offer to turn over the educational opportunities related to Permaculture, the Patterson House permaculture demonstration site, the OCIA incepector certification curriculum, and whatever additional degree instruction which evolves to meet demand if, in turn, Shiner would find a way to hire permaculture instructor Ted Simanek, architect Robert Kobet, and organic farmer and biochemist Ron Gargasz. A series of meetings followed with Shiner…and with a subcommitte led by Dr. Dale Stewart , which included both PREE staff and Simanek, Kobet, and Gargasz. Meetings of the latter group produced a proposal for the master’s degree program: “The MS in sustainable systems program will be both a teaching program and a learning program — we will teach and we will learn by using extensive modeling, demonstration projects, and controlled measurements.

In July of 1989, the tracks had been expanded and changed accordingly to: Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Resource Management, and Sustainable Stuructures and Energy Production. The stated intention of the program was “to provide a useful and practical education experience for the Generalist who shares our deep commitment to healing the earth.” The program was also intended to be a “hands-on educational experience in every way” with agricultural experiementation and demonstration occurring on campus and on nearby farms, natural resource management practiced “in the wild” , and the building of sustainable structures and the use of a variety of alternative energy devices (Claire Anderson 1999).

Our story of ALTER’s development now comes to one of those great moments of irony. In May of 1990 two events of great importance occured. First was the approval of the MS3 program as the first such graduate program on the planet, which opened the door to enthusiastic enrollments of students from around the region and the whole world. The first class of students entered in Fall, 1990. Second was the sudden death of Dr. Macoskey, whose insight and charisma had been so essential to ALTER’s genesis and growth (Theodore Kneupper 2003).

In the fall of 1990, the first Slippery Rock University sustainable students joined the program and each enlisted in one of its four tracks. The Built Environment Track focused in providing the fundamentals of designing and building sustainable, environmentally-friendly buildings with careful consideration of materials and implementation of passive and active renewable technologies. The Sustainable Agriculture Track taught and demonstrated chemical-free and pesticide-free farming techniques. The Resource Management Track concerned itself with wildlife management, forestry and open space planning (Claire Anderson 1999).