Sustainability in Action

Lia Wetzstein
Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at University of Washington Tacoma


This is a seminar course for students throughout campus. It exposes students to ideas, theories, and practices of sustainability and what stands in its way. Students use their campus to empirically research solutions to sustainability issues and to learn change agents skills.

Course Size:
fewer than 15

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an upper division course, environmental science course with no prerequisites. This course counts towards Natural World (NW) credits for non Environmental Science and Studies majors. The course project can also serve as the required senior capstone for Environmental Science and Studies majors. The majority of students who have taken the course, to date, have not been from the Environmental Science & Studies program. Students have been from a variety of other programs such as; Business, Computer and Software Sciences, Political Science, Communications and Urban Studies.

Course Content:

The purpose of this course is to get students to use their campus as a system to understand what is sustainability and sustainable practices, while learning research and change-agent skills. We begin by coming to a shared understanding of what is sustainability. We discuss how sustainability influences higher education and critique higher education's influence on sustainability. Other in class conversations include; what are the incentives and barriers to sustainability; how do you assess sustainability; who are the local and higher education sustainability exemplars; how are climate change and higher education connected; how is systems thinking a part of sustainability; and what impacts have students had on sustainability in higher education. The topics covered provide students a background, and hopefully an incentive, to create on-campus sustainability research projects. The experiences they have with project design and follow through provides valuable contributions to the topic discussions.


Student Led Discussion of the readings once a week: Each student takes a turn at presenting a summary of the course readings or provides readings related to the weekly topic. The student creates discussion questions and facilitates a group discussion.

Class discussion of weekly readings: I facilitate discussion of readings not covered by students. Student are graded on their participation in discussions facilitated by myself or other students.

Group Work: This is preparatory work done by group members (2-3) who are working on a culminating project. Often this work is done in class and includes brainstorming ideas, creating an action plan on how they will accomplish their project and a contract with each individuals responsibility for the project completion. At the end of the quarter they are asked if each team member met their contract obligations.

Culminating Research Project:
The group creates small scale sustainability project on campus. Assessment parameters are used to measure the extent of the project affect and the group writes a paper about the process and outcomes for University decision makers.

Poster Presentation: The research results are presented at a public forum to engage people in the issue. The audience for the poster is fellow students, faculty and staff at the university.


Syllabus for Sustainability In Action (Acrobat (PDF) 283kB Jan13 12)

References and Notes:

Project Resource Book: Provides a list on campus contacts depending on what sustainability topic the students are interested in. It also has literature around many campus sustainability topics including; bottled water reduction, carbon offsets, campus housing, energy savings-computers, economics, education and behavior change, energy use, general campus sustainability information, green fees, STARS, transportation, and green house gas inventories. Previous campus work in the above areas and student projects are also included in the book.

Readings will vary with student interests, but here are ones that I have used;

Stibbe, A. (Ed.). (2009). The handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World. Foxhole: Green Books.

Lemonick, M. D. (2009). Top 10 Myths about Sustainability. Scientific American

Melea Press, Matt Caires, and Tracey Patton. (2010). "Research and Solutions: Campus Sustainability through Civic Engagement at the University of Wyoming." Sustainability: The Journal of Record. April 2010, 3(2): 115-118. doi:10.1089/SUS.2010.9787.

Nurlan Isaev, Michael Rawson Clark, and Debra J. Davidson. (2010) "The Role of Paper Consumption." Sustainability: The Journal of Record. June 2010, 3(3): 171-177. doi:10.1089/SUS.2010.9772.

Cortese, A.(2003). The Critical Role of Higher Education in Creating a Sustainable Future. Planning for Higher Education, v31 n3 p15-22, Mar-May 2003