Conservation and Sustainable Development: an Upper Division Course

Martha Groom
Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington Bothell


This course examines how protection of human welfare and biodiversity are intertwined, but often are not pursued as joint goals. The course introduces essential concepts in biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, dealing with debates over the processes that have led to current crises for humans, wildlife and wildlands, as well as the merits and problems caused by differing development strategies pursued in sites across Sub-Saharan Africa, with additional examples from Latin America. The core focus of the course is on identifying strategies that can lead to sustainable livelihoods, and sustainable fates for humans and nature.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an advanced course that serves students in the Environmental Studies, Global Studies and Environmental Science majors. Roughly 2/3 take the course to fulfill elective course requirements in those majors (students typically have a suite of courses from which to choose), and 1/3 come to the course to fulfill their natural world credits or with a general interest in the topic, but another major.

Course Content:

Understanding the relationships among factors that undermine social and economic stability in human populations and the conservation of biodiversity may help us envision more sustainable means to foster development that supports human communities, while protecting the biodiversity upon which human livelihoods depend. Linking protecting natural habitats and biodiversity to promoting human development should result in better living conditions for both current and future generations. Thus, making conservation a priority in development efforts is a major component of intergenerational social justice.

Along the way we:
- briefly review historical patterns of development and conservation in both regions, with an emphasis on environmental history, political ecology, and conservation biology perspectives;

- examine critiques of both past development and conservation efforts, and study the ecological, economic and sociopolitical principles underlying newer approaches advocated in recent years, as well as evidence that may illuminate when, and under what conditions, approaches to sustainable development may be successful;

- focus on major types of natural-resource based development, including agriculture, forestry, livestock production, wildmeat hunting, fishing, and oil/mineral extraction.

By the end of the course, the class works to draw lessons from more and less successful efforts toward a vision of how successful integration of conservation and development goals might be achieved.

Course Goals:

1. To gain a fundamental understanding of the connections between healthy ecosystems and human health.
2. To become familiar with the environmental and social histories that underlie both poverty and environmental degradation, as well as the debates over such history.
3. To understand environmental and human welfare dilemmas of our present age, and how different scenarios may lead to either improvement or worsening these dilemmas.
4. To examine the principles of sustainable development and biodiversity conservation, and examine critically efforts to create sustainable solutions that can eliminate poverty while protecting biodiversity.
5. To develop critical reasoning skills in considering interpretations of historical and current situations, as well as skills is using quantitative and qualitative information in analysis and as evidence to evaluate hypotheses.
6. To complete an exploration of a conservation and sustainable development case or issue that is written up to benefit other learners, or to participate in a significant community-based service learning experience, with the goal of connecting principles learned in the course to real world efforts.

Course Features:

Students read, find and share, and discuss a variety of case study examples. Some of discussions are staged around role plays or other active methods for facilitating discussion. Students write three synthetic essays to explore major course themes in greater depth, making use of the readings and their own reviews of peer-reviewed literature and NGO/Gov websites on the topics.

The largest assignment for the course is to complete either a large case study that is publicly shared (e.g., on Wikipedia, or as part of a blog/website) OR to complete a community-based project that aids a local conservation/ sustainable development organization.

Course Philosophy:

Generally, I am a somewhat inductive teacher -- I seek for students to make their own meaning and discoveries from the materials I present, and which I encourage them to locate and share. Necessarily, I am introducing a range of concepts in biodiversity and development, as well as histories (often contested histories) and arguments about what does and does not work.

I always try to connect to what my students already know, and many have taken courses in economics, globalization, or conservation before taking this course, but have not yet connected many of the dots among these topics. Other students come with no background and little knowledge of the places we study.

I begin the course with an examination of what people already know about Africa and Latin America - what they know about biodiversity conservation - and what connections there may be between development needs and conservation in these regions. We spend a good deal of time trying to generate preliminary questions that they have, and I share my own questions as a co-learner with the class. The students do in class free writing around these topics and save their early ideas for reference by the end of the class.

We then move into an exploration of the concept of "Sustainable Development" - Students read a paper on this and are directed to several websites for more consideration, and come to class ready to explore the concept in detail. I then ask the students to apply their understandings to the Millennium Development Goals and the Targets for the Convention of Biological Diversity. This theme is brought up frequently as we examine new cases and consider the frameworks used in an effort to foster development in various African or Latin American nations.

As we then move through the bulk of the course focusing on different eras, and different approaches to development and to conservation, students are asked to think about how the approaches did or did not lead to sustainable outcomes, and to try to understand why or why not. We work together to try to understand how the approaches used by people who have written case studies affect how they understand the issues and histories of each case, and amass many questions about each of the cases. Some of these questions become the foci for greater student work on the cases, or on their efforts to develop broader understandings across the cases.

Students, whether pursuing a case study project or a community-based project, are encouraged to connect their experiences to the class themes, and share what they are learning in the last third of the course. Final conclusions are reported out with a celebration, inviting community partners to the presentations. This allows community partners and students completing both types of projects opportunities to see interconnections on their work.


Students relay key insights on topics through an online discussion (which I may shift to a blog), and I monitor both this and the inclass discussions for participation and depth. Each week students get feedback on their own work, and examples of online or inclass discussion outcomes that are particularly compelling. I look for deepening of their analysis, and more robust and diverse use of sources over the course.

Each of the synthesis essays is evaluated also for use of appropriate sources, critical analysis, and writing quality. I share examples of particularly strong essays from past classes to provide a framework. I again look for progress over the course.

The projects are more variable in how they are evaluated as the nature of what students take up is more variable. The assignment is scaffolded to include a brief proposal, a draft, and final version so that we can agree to the details of what they will do in the project.

We conclude the course by revisiting the course learning goals prior to their completing an inclass reflection essay - this gives them a chance to think about where there are gaps in what they have learned (and me some time to help them fill these in) and a chance for me to show a rubric I'll use in evaluating their final reflection essay.


References and Notes: