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Teach with Local Examples and Data: Connecting Nearby Examples to Global Challenges

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions at several InTeGrate workshops.

Pedagogic guidance for teaching with local examples

Local examples, including those on campus and in the surrounding community, often offer a rich collection of opportunities for students to apply their classroom knowledge to real world issues. Further, working in the local environment couples this applied knowledge with an opportunity to improve upon skills such as working with field equipment, critical thinking, and team work. The nature of working with local examples engages students since it builds on their sense of place and can help students make connections between what they learn and their everyday experiences.

If you live in an area where it is difficult to teach using the local environment, such as urban areas, try using videos, news articles, online media sources, photos from past field trips, and discussion of previous experiences in consulting and research to engage students. The module on Teaching urban students, from Pedagogy in Action, provides information for creative and effective ways to teach in an urban setting and includes example activities. In addition, Teaching using socioscientific issues, from Pedagogy in Action, describes how controversial issues can be used as a starting point for students' investigation of real world problems.

Learn more about pedagogies that lend themselves to using local examples, including:

Concepts that can be taught using local examples

The campus and surrounding community can be used as a classroom to examine many aspects of sustainability. Teaching about energy, water, food, and hazards are great places to start teaching about sustainability issues since students can identify with these topics. InTeGrate workshop participants identified specific concepts and skills that can be taught at the local level:

Specific concepts that can be taught on a local scale

  • Science:
    • The physical geography of the campus. What was this landscape before the campus or community was built? How has the area evolved over time? What are future plans for development?
    • The watershed that includes the campus. What types of water resources are nearby? Consider streams, lakes, wetlands, coastlines, groundwater.
    • The drinking water. What is the source? How is it treated? How does the campus impact water quality?
    • The campus landscaping. From baseball fields to hiking paths, there are likely to be several different strategies for managing the landscaping.
    • Air quality
    • Stormwater management
    • Identifying local natural hazards and factors behind their occurrence
    • Birds and other wildlife that live on the campus
  • Policy and management: the sources, costs and impacts of resources the campus uses
    • Energy production and use
    • Water
    • Food
    • Materials
    • Waste
    • Construction and architecture: efficiency in heating, cooling, lighting, water use and materials use, LEED certification
    • Pathways to efficiency: modifying behavior (i.e. turning off unused lights) vs built-in efficiency (installing LED light bulbs)
  • Campus as a mini-city, mini-community
    • Campus transportation
    • Parking
    • Paths, open space, recreation, land use
    • Emergency plans in case of a natural disaster - what plans does the campus have in place?
  • Civics: ways to affect change on campus
    • Understanding that institutionalization is important at large scales
    • Identifying and working with the most relevant offices, committees and individuals

Skills that can be taught by working with local examples or in the local environment and community

  • Experimental design and implementation: for both the initial work and as the project evolves, based on both expected and unexpected results or changes in logistics
  • Development of observational skills, note taking, drawing, record keeping
  • Spatial reasoning
    • Map reading
    • Field measurement and surveying
    • Use of GIS, GPS, Google Earth or other spatial tools
  • Data collection and analysis, from deciding which data to collect, to using measurement techniques to analyzing the results
  • Effective communication, social skills, diplomacy, humility in confronting others with problems
  • Critically reading, analyzing, and evaluating professional reports for local projects
  • Working with large, real data sets
  • Computer and modeling skills

Other benefits of using local examples to teach about sustainability

  • Increases awareness of human resource cost of sustainability initiatives
  • Promotes student ownership of projects
  • Counteracts the unsustainable norms of modern society and the disconnect between living spaces and nature through outdoor experiences
    • students from (sub)urban communities and their (dis)comfort in "natural" environments (cf. "Novelty Space")
    • modern distractions and how to disconnect/unplug
  • Develops respect for the natural environment
  • Has the potential to change perceptions of field-based careers (social status)
  • Instills perspective of humans as an integral part of the natural world, including the dynamic interplay of cultural and natural systems
  • Illustrates the complexity of sustainability issues and the need for team work, good communication skills, and working across disciplines to tackle problems

Effective strategies for teaching with local examples and data

Incorporating the local and campus community into your course can be done in a variety of ways and at a variety of scales. Local examples and data are likely applicable to students' daily life, and as such, can be a highly engaging pedagogic approach. Statewide, national, and international databases offer a plethora of data resources if you and your students are not able to collect data on your own due to time, equipment, or other limitations. Ideas for activities from participants at several InTeGrate workshops may help you get started:

Connecting Local Examples to Global Challenges

Building bridges between local studies and global issues can empower students in several ways. These connections can help students find relevance in global issues and potentially light a spark that leads them to action. The local-global connection also scales and promotes solution-focused thinking rather than focusing solely on problems that appear to be too big to solve. Some strategies that can be used to make the connection between local examples and global challenges include:

Engaging the Campus Community to Promote Buy-In and Action

Getting ideas for projects

Discussing project ideas with staff, faculty, and community members is not only a great place to get ideas for projects, but it's also a catalyst for building beneficial connections to facilitate the project(s). Get ideas from the campus sustainability committee or Facilities Management Director; collaborate with colleagues from both inside and outside of your department; engage with the local community; explore what other campuses are doing. These collaborations may open the door to sustainability education opportunities and can help to prevent 'reinventing the wheel' on projects that have already been implemented. See the resources section below for ideas of what others are doing in their classroom.

Promoting Campus and Community Buy-In and Involvement

A common obstacle instructors face when incorporating local projects is lack of buy in from the department or institution. Below are some ideas for promoting buy-in, including identifying benefits and incentives for these types of projects along with proposing easy ways to incorporate these projects in a way that integrates content and strengthening skills with working in the community.

Materials and Resources for Using Local Examples

See how other faculty are using their local environment with these examples from a range of disciplines and learning environments. These examples were compiled from participants of various InTeGrate workshops.




Useful data and tools related to water:

Useful online tools on life cycle assessment:

  • Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES), from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an online tool that can be used to introduce the economic aspects of building materials.
  • Sustainable Site Remediation (SURF) - monitor a site remotely rather than driving out to the site.
  • SiteWise - developed jointly by the Navy, Army Corps of Engineers, and Battelle, SiteWise is a publicly available tool for conducting a baseline environmental footprint of a remedial technology.

Other Related References and Resources

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