Leadership Theory and Practice: Developing Change Agents through Application of Coursework and Experience in Environmental Education Internships

Lindsey MacDonald
North Cascades Institute hosts the residency experience. Course credit and M.Ed. degree come from Western Washington University.


In this course, students apply leadership coursework and experience from their environmental education residency at North Cascades Institute to a professional summer leadership internship. Through a combination of full-time work and leadership-focused assignments, students 1) develop and refine unique leadership styles and 2) acquire and practice requisite competencies for growing change agents engaged in education for sustainability.

Course Size:
fewer than 15

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This course is a culmination to Western Washington University's Masters in Environmental Education residency. The residency is facilitated by North Cascades Institute, a non-profit with an Environmental Learning Center located in North Cascades National Park, in Washington State. The Institute's mission is "to inspire and empower environmental stewardship for all through transformative educational experiences in nature." For approximately one year, graduate students are immersed in courses and teaching practice while living in residency at the Environmental Learning Center. The students arrive at the end of the summer to take a place-based learning course that orients them to the area's natural and cultural history. In the fall, the students study natural history through field experience and a focused project. The winter is when the students are in a more traditional classroom setting as they take a nonprofit-administration course and a curriculum-design course. In the spring, the students teach in the Institute's flagship program, Mountain School. This is a three-day residential environmental education program, primarily for 5th graders from western Washington. The following summer is when students complete their summer leadership internship, which is the focus of this write-up (quarter five of seven in the program). The students go to Western Washington University's campus in Bellingham, Washington, for quarters six and seven, where they take foundations in environmental education, a capstone course, and more. The summer leadership internships build on previous curriculum design, place-based learning, natural history, and teaching practicum courses. The internship completes a sequence in non-profit administration.

Course Content:

Leadership Theory and Practice is centered around a 10-week internship. Prior to the practicum, students are introduced to both traditional and contemporary leadership theory. During the practicum, articles, books, reflection prompts, and other assignments cover competencies required for leadership in the field of sustainability: effective communication (stakeholder engagement, coalition building, facilitation, public speaking, story telling), systems thinking, and self assessment/reflection. Although the graduates of this program are getting a degree in environmental education, I believe that the sustainability leadership competencies listed above translate to the teaching content many of them are interested in, and will engage with, beyond the program.

In the practicum, each student focuses work within an organization or agency. Although the spectrum of these focus options varies from year to year, summer of 2017 included: the National Park Service, Redfish School of Change, North Cascades Institute, and Wenatchee River Institute. Through these organizations and agencies, students engage in leading outdoor science & sustainability backcountry trips for high school students; developing and delivering interpretation programs to park visitors; facilitating a camp focused on food access, environmental education, and literacy; and teaching leadership and professional skills to students in a conservation corps, just to name a few. All positions require a supervisor from within the organization the student is working within. Some students work alongside a team of coworkers while others are more solitary, requiring more self-initiative. Students are placed in positions based on interest in content areas, but also based on where I perceive each student will thrive. My perception of thriving for each student is based on a combination of passion for the work as well as appropriate level of challenge (not too far out of their comfort zone, but stretching on a regular basis).

Course Goals:

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  1. define what leadership means to them.
  2. apply contemporary leadership theory in practice.
  3. determine strategies for leadership based on a systems thinking perspective.
  4. engage various reflective practices as a tool for their own development as leaders.
  5. think critically about methods for effective communication in the context of leadership for sustainability.

Course Features:

The central feature of this course is the practical application of leadership theory and environmental education concepts in the form of a 10-week summer internship. Through an application process, students are placed in organizations and agencies for the summer (e.g. National Park Service, US Forest Service, North Cascades Institute, other small nonprofits). In these settings, students engage in real-world problem-solving as they work in professional settings with participants, visitors, staff, and volunteers. As part of their summer internships, students complete the following assignments, which support the students in making meaning of their experience.

Goal setting: Along with practicum supervisors, students develop goals connected to desired leadership outcomes, written deliverables, and reflective process.

Students reflect on their leadership in the context of their summer practicum by responding to eight weekly reflection prompts.

Reading: Students read a set of articles and select one leadership book to read throughout the summer practicum. Reflection questions integrate this content.

Self Assessment: Students develop their own leadership rubric that they use to evaluate their leadership throughout the summer.

Peer Support: At least once mid-way through the summer, students meet with a small group of peers to discuss their experience. Prompts for discussion are provided prior to the meeting.

Written Deliverables: As outlined with the students practicum supervisor, students are responsible for a set of written deliverables that will help the program area, agency, or organization advance into the future.

Final Project: Near the culmination of the practicum, the students submit a report that requires them to synthesize their leadership learning as well as generate a set of recommendations for the program, agency, or organization in which they worked.

Final Presentation: As a form of both synthesis and public speaking practice, students present on their summer experience to staff, supervisors, peers, and incoming students.

Course Philosophy:

Despite the belief that traditional notions of leadership (e.g. command and control, charismatic figure at the front of the room) are not necessarily the kinds of leadership required to address some of the wicked problems we face today like climate change and social justice issues, these notions permeate student perceptions of leadership. These notions of leadership often lead some students to conclude they cannot be leaders. In my perspective, we need more individuals who are committed to leading in the sustainability field, so this student perception of leadership is a problem.

In my experience working with students, it is evident that today's students are eager to engage in real-world work that makes a difference. When they engage in real-world work, their learning through experience can be transformative. Further, my observation of students studying topics related to sustainability is that if students learn all of the theory and current state of affairs, but do not have a positive entry point for taking action in this field of work, sometimes they are so overwhelmed that they pursue work in other fields.

With the above in mind, my role in this course is to support students in refining their definitions of leadership, seeing themselves as leaders, engaging in real-world avenues for applying theory, and experiencing a positive entry point into the field of sustainability work.


Students are graded on the following assignments:

Other components of the course that serve as assessment tools include:

  • An observation of and check-in with each student in their practicum experience
  • An end of course survey that helps me determine whether goals were met and whether the practicum placement was an appropriate fit (supervision, work content)


Leadership Theory & Practice Syllabus Although the content within this course is spread out across a year-long residency, it could easily be condensed to a semester.

Teaching Materials:

Introduction to Leadership Theory Lesson Notes This document was used as lesson notes when I facilitated an introduction to leadership theory.

Sustainability Leadership Class Handout Since sustainability has not been a primary topic of study for the graduate students in this program, I use this handout as supplementary material for my sustainability leadership class session. It introduces wicked problems as a concept and, based on research with colleague Dr. Michael Shriberg, introduces core competencies for leading for sustainability. Discussion questions related to the summer leadership tracks follow each core competency item.

Weekly Reflection Question Prompts Although many other prompts could be generated, this document provides the prompts used during summer, 2017. They were intentionally designed to engage different forms of reflection: writing, drawing, photography, sitting reflection, and poetry.

The articles are all required reading for the students, and they are required to select one of the books.

Leadership Rubric Template As indicated in the syllabus, students develop a leadership rubric for themselves, then fill it out at the middle and end of their summer internship. Here is an example of a template.

References and Notes:

Students read a host of leadership articles and one book in the first half of the summer. A book list is provided from which students select their book of choice. These articles and books are selected to inspire critical thought on:

  1. the leadership required to be change agents for a more sustainable and just world,
  2. behavioral applications within the summer practicum experience, and
  3. personal reflection on notions of leadership.

They also provide tangible examples of leadership in practice. Please reference the List of books and articles.

As a reference, here are a few position descriptions from internships that occurred during summer, 2017.

Below is the full list of position titles for 2017:

- Youth Conservation Corps Coordinator
- North Cascades National Park Interpretive Ranger Intern
- North Cascades National Park Family Getaway Program Graduate Assistant
- Environmental Learning Center Base Camp and Public Program Graduate Assistant Conferences & Retreats Graduate Assistant
- Youth Leadership Adventures Graduate Assistant (4 students)
- Concrete Summer Learning Adventure Graduate Assistant
- Concrete Food and Farming & Confluence Garden Graduate Assistant
- Place-Based Learning Course Graduate Assistant
- Redfish School of Change Program Assistant
- Wenatchee River Institute Graduate Assistant