Sustainable World: An Introductory Course for Sustainability Majors & Minors at a Large University

Sonya Remington
School of Sustainability, Arizona State University


Arizona State University is on the semester system. The course is lecture- and discussion-based with a 1.5 hour lecture each week taught by the professor for 65 - 70 students and a 1.5 hour 'breakout session' each week taught by a TA with 20 - 30 students. The course is housed in the School of Sustainability, established in 2007 and the first of its kind in the United States. It is an introduction to sustainability focused on human-nature interactions and the problem-solving methods of sustainability science.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an introductory sustainability course with no pre-requisites. Students taking this course intend to major or minor in Sustainability through the School of Sustainability or they are business-majors who have opted to concentrate in Sustainability through Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business. SOS 110 (Sustainable World) is a companion course to SOS 111 (Sustainable Cities) and it has more a global focus than SOS 111. SOS 110 is also more focused on natural systems concepts (such as ecosystem ecology, population biology, earth systems science), but also includes content on how humans interact with and manage natural systems (such as norms, beliefs, and values; tragedy of the commons; the free market, government regulation, and community-based management). Students must complete both SOS 110 and SOS 111 courses in order to move onto upper division course within the Sustainability major or minor.

Course Content:

The lecture portion of the course is focused primarily on understanding the functioning of the natural world, but we also include lectures on human-nature interactions focused on norms-belief-values, stakeholder engagement, community-based social marketing, barriers to sustainable action, tragedy of the commons and the major ways in which humans interact with or manage their interaction the natural world (governments, free markets, and community-based management). The breakout sessions are focused on introducing the methods of sustainability science through case studies. These methods involve the following: problem solving framework for wicked problems, system analysis framework, visioning, indicator setting, thresholds, causal chain analysis, scenarios, and problem-solution chain analysis.

Course Goals:

Please see the syllabus.

Course Features:

The main features of the course are exams, clicker questions, essays, group assignments, case studies, and short reading quizzes. All lectures have clicker questions that gauge attendance, quiz them on readings required for that lecture, check in the students are understanding a concept just explained or otherwise engage students during lecture through opinion polls (for example). All group assignments area in-class and take place during the weekly breakout sessions. There are a total of 6 Graduate Teaching Assistants (TAs) for the course, with each TA teaching two breakout session per week. Students work on sustainability (wicked) problems and learn the problem solving methods used to solve these problems (visioning, scenario development, indicator setting, transition strategies and intervention points) through the use of real-world case studies and a final group project during which students choose a sustainability problem that they are interested in, apply the problem solving methods, and propose a solution.

Course Philosophy:

The course is aimed at: (1) developing the ability to look at the world from a systems perspective, (2) learning to recognize, analyze and tackle a sustainability problem using the problem-solving methodologies of sustainability science, and (3) gaining an understanding of key disciplinary concepts from the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities that have special relevance to solving sustainability problems.


In addition to student evaluation by the methods described in the Course Features section above, I assign the students pre- and post-semester case analyses to assess how their systems thinking and conflict resolution skills have developed over the course of the semester. I analyze their answers using a structured rubric. An example case analysis, "Climate Change and the Electric Car," is attached. Case Study: Climate Change and Electric Cars (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 22kB Oct4 12)


Sustainable World - SOS 110 (Acrobat (PDF) 318kB Jun1 11)

References and Notes: