Pathways To Sustainability: A Learning Community Focusing on Transportation, Power Generation, and Food

Benjamin Fackler-Adams, (with Larry Sult)
Department of Physical Sciences, Skagit Valley College - Mount Vernon


This course explores the concept of sustainability and its application in three areas (transportation, power generation, and food). The course is a fusion of a conceptual chemistry course and a introductory social science course and is usually team-taught with my colleague Larry Sult. We utilize the concepts from chemistry and social science to explore: (1) the scientific basis, and social- and economic contexts of issues around transportation, power generation, and food and (2) achieving sustainability in those areas. We place particular emphasis on identifying specific stepping stones on the pathway from problems to solutions in these areas. One of our philosophical approaches is to utilize different scales of exploration, so we have students engage in assignments (see below) utilizing local- (transportation), regional- (power generation), and global (food) scales of exploration.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This is a 10-credit learning community course that satisfies one of our student's three Integrative Experience requirements for their transfer degree. The learning community is of the "fully collaborative" type within the guidelines of the general education requirements of Skagit Valley College meaning that the two courses share a minimum of three major assignments. There are no prerequisites.

Course Content:

The goals of this course are to increase student understanding of:
(1) basic chemistry
(2) social science
(3) sustainability

Learning Outcomes for the sustainability strand include:
- Critically evaluate information sources for sustainability and climate change.
- Understand how humans interact with the natural world.
- Understand ecosystems and ecosystem services.
- Understand the implications of human impacts from urbanization, transportation, and agriculture.
- Understand climate change and its consequences.
- Understand the choices and consequences of renewable and nonrenewable energy sources.
- Understand environmental economics.
- Calculate the carbon footprint of human activities and resource consumptions.

This course also allows students to gain experience in understanding SKAGIT VALLEY COLLEGE General Education Learning Value #5: Global & Local Awareness & Responsibility
Definition: Understanding the complexity and interdependence of, and stewardship responsibilities to, local and global communities and environments.
This course specifically addresses Learning Value 5.1: Students will be able to understand the impact of their own and other's actions on local/global communities and environments and how those communities/environments affect them in turn.

Course Features:

The main activities that build understanding in this course are:
(1) in-class discussions which are extensions of the reading quizzes (see syllabus) and occur as we review the answers to the reading quizzes in class.
(2) group projects require 3-person groups to submit multiple deliverables (see below and attached assignments) that scaffold student understanding of the content and help to ensure timely completion of assignments.


We assess our students using a variety of tools: (1) weekly ~15 minutes reading quizzes on textbook and article reading assignments. These are followed by extensive class discussions that explore students ideas about- and responses to the readings, and attempt to make connections to the main themes of the course; (2) formal examinations involving multiple choice and short essay questions; (3) three multi-week group assignments on achieving sustainability culminating in class presentations (transportation), written reports (power generation) and poster presentations (food), and (4) self-assessment and reflection. Short descriptions and links to supporting documents for the three group assignments follow:

Group Project #1: How Can We Make Our Local Transportation Sustainable? Pathways To Sustainability Group Project #1 (Microsoft Word 44kB Aug10 11)
This assignment asks groups to submit entries to tables summarizing: (1) existing local transportation options, and (2) transportation options used elsewhere that could be imported. Students submit their table entries via on-line courseware where entries are accessible by all students, and then present their findings in a brief oral summary.
Sample/Template of Local Transportation Tables: Group Project #1 Table template (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 65kB Aug10 11)

Group Project #2: How Can WA State Have Sustainable Power Production?Pathways To Sustainability Group Project #2 (Microsoft Word 51kB Aug10 11)
This assignment asks groups to analyze the existing ways that electrical power is produced in WA state and to develop 5 and 15 year plans for moving towards completely sustainable power production. Groups report their findings in a written report. We supplement the concepts and thinking in this project with having the whole class participate in The Carbon Wedges Game (

Group Project #3: How Can We Have Sustainable Food? Pathways To Sustainability Group Project #3 (Microsoft Word 47kB Aug10 11)
This assignment asks student groups to analyze the environmental/carbon footprint of food and to prepare a professional-quality poster and pamphlet on some aspect of sustainable food production occurring world-wide. We culminate the unit with a poster session during which students engage in peer-review of the posters, and that is open to the whole campus. We supplement the food unit with the films "Food Inc." and "King Corn".


This course is a fully-collaborative learning community between a conceptual chemistry course & an introductory social science course. The community meets 10 hours a week and both instructors are present for all class meetings.
Sample Pathways To Sustainability syllabus Pathways To Sustainability Syllabus (Microsoft Word 64kB Aug10 11)

References and Notes:

Here is a list of some of the texts/resources we have used:

1. A Field Guide To Sustainability:

This is a very nice overview of the topic from the WA State DOE with a broad scope and a strong regional focus.

Official Summary: An introduction to sustainability concepts and a framework for decision making: What is "Sustainability"?; the Emerging Consensus for Sustainability; Why should Washington State Adopt a Sustainable Vision? What can we do personally, and in our schools, businesses, government, communities?

2. Chemistry In Context: Applying Chemistry To Society: American Chemical Society & McGraw-Hill

While not focused on sustainability this textbook deals effectively and succinctly with many of the aspects of energy and water use (and their consequences) and has a strong interdisciplinary approach. The latest (7th) edition has added a "Unit 0" titled "Chemistry For A Sustainable Future" (available for download at the URL above) which does a lot to strengthen the sustainable strand of the curriculum. They will custom publish so you can select the chapter you need.

3. More Profit With Less Carbon, Amory Lovins, Scientific American -September 2005

In this article, Amory Lovins eloquently makes the case that saving energy is cheaper than producing energy regardless of the energy source. It includes case studies of best practices in efficient transportation and housing and explains why centralized power generation is so inefficient.

4a. Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials, 2010, Jacobsen & Delucchi, Energy Policy, Volume 39, Issue 3, March 2011, Pages 1154-1169:

4b. Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part II: Reliability, system and transmission costs, and policies, 2010, Delucchi & Jacobsen, Energy Policy, Volume 39, Issue 3, March 2011, Pages 1170-1190:

This pair of articles, while long and technical, provides an excellent analysis of how projected energy needs could be met, and substantial savings realized, with a significant investment in wind, water, and solar (WWS) power now. They do a good job of analyzing the barriers and challenges of such a plan. The main conclusions are rather surprising, at least to me: (from the abstracts)

Part I: "Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic. The energy cost in a WWS world should be similar to that today."

Part II: "We find that the cost of energy in a 100% WWS [world] will be similar to the cost today. We conclude that barriers to a 100% conversion to WWS power worldwide are primarily social and political, not technological or even economic."

5. Fuel: Change Your Fuel...Change Your World, A film by Josh Tickell – 2010

6. Plan B: Mobilizing To Save Civilization, PBS Film: Journey To Planet Earth series – 2010

Based on the book by Lester Brown & narrated by Matt Damon.

7. The Next Frontier: Engineering The Golden Age of Green, a film from FilmSight Productions

8. Food Inc., a film by Michael Moore

9. King Corn: You Are What You Eat, a film by Aaron Wolfe