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Use Real World Examples to Teach Sustainability

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions and presentations at multiple InTeGrate workshops.
Tackling real world problems can make sustainability issues more tangible and meaningful to students. Real examples provide concrete applications to knowledge and skills learned in the classroom as they relate to students themselves and society. Real examples also encourage students to be aware of the choices they make and how they fit into a greater societal context.

Real world examples demonstrate the complexity and unpredictability of real issues, and as such, can stimulate critical thinking. They also highlight the need for an inter- and multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving. Further, using examples from the real world demonstrates that, oftentimes, there is no perfect solution to a given problem. But, in doing so, gets students thinking about solutions, rather than just focusing on problems.

Pedagogic guidance for teaching using real world examples

Multiple pedagogic strategies can be used to incorporate real examples into the classroom. These include teaching with case studies or with investigative cases, field experiences such as field labs or student research, and using local data and examples to teach about issues. Connecting local examples with global challenges can also be beneficial for expanding the context of larger scale issues (e.g. water quality and quantity could be both a local issue as well as a global issue) or those that are non-local, but may still affect students (e.g. drought in California affects local food prices).

Engaging Students

Real world problems are inherently engaging since they tend to be meaningful and applicable to students' lives, either directly or indirectly (e.g. through the media or social networks). If you're not sure where to begin, the tips below can get you started. These tips were compiled from small group discussions among workshop participants at multiple InTeGrate workshops.

  • Introduce students to your research - make it personal. It inspires students.
  • Task students with bringing examples of real-world experiences and problems to the class.
  • Bring experience into the classroom through guest speakers, engaging students in case studies, or field work
  • Engage students in community work, such as service learning. Learn more about service learning.
  • Bring in ethics (e.g. Hurricane Sandy preparedness and subsequent lawsuits): this makes connections between disciplines and is centered around current events. Ethics also broaches topics related to responsibilities: What are your responsibilities as a citizen, property owner, or professional?
  • Develop empathy for others' life experience and point of view. Some strategies for building this perspective include sensory mapping, real or cyber ethnography, service or community based learning, literature and media assignments, role-playing and games that look at contrasting narrative, arc of story, point of view, and evolution through time. Reflection is an important tool and can provide a gradeable product in the form of a journal, paper, or exam/assignment question.
    • Remember to maintain hope and agency in the face of long-lasting complex challenges related to sustainability. Studying success stories, people who have made a difference, and actions that give hope can be effective. There is a tension between maintaining hope, and understanding the full extent of how complex and deeply entrenched the problems are.
    • While we all desire our students to become actors in making our civilization more environmentally just, there are a variety of strategies for approaching this in different instructional settings. They range from developing empathy and awareness to requiring students to engage in service or advocacy. In all cases, faculty should be careful not to dictate the students perspective or approach. The frame is to learn how to act, not to be told to act in a certain way.
    • There is a strong tension between educating and engaging students in Environmental Justice and respecting the affected communities. This requires attention, preparation and skill. Anthropologists and sociologists have experience with these issues that can be brought to bear. Listening, sensitivity to context, and reflexivity are essential. While we have expertise to offer, we must refrain from removing agency to ourselves.
    • Having to make and negotiate decisions in a group takes patience, time, and skill, and is something that environmental justice communities have to do under exceptionally "high-stakes" problems.

Effective strategies for teaching using real world problems

As discussed above, there are many ways to incorporate examples into the classroom. Exploring case studies, using the local environment and data, and service learning are three popular strategies. Ideas for using case studies are presented below. For a more in-depth look at using the local environment and service learning, including examples for implementing each, see these pages on Using Local Examples and Data and Service Learning.

Case Studies

Case studies provide a context-rich opportunity for students to learn about real problems and to think critically about potential solutions to these problems. For instance, case studies such as Yucca Mountain and La Conchita can be used to evaluate risks with respect to hazards. Instructors can guide student learning through peer reviewed papers, real data, and professional reports as well as media resources, including news articles and videos. General advice and suggestions from InTeGrate workshop participants include:

  • Remember to consider your audience: local hazards might be more effective to consider and timeliness may be an issue (e.g. Loma Prieta, Mt. St. Helens may bring blank stares).
  • Bring in professional reports. Where possible, incorporate more of the history of the project. Also, there are public domain reports that could be incorporated into instruction and activities.
  • If teaching about mineral resources, look for case studies for mineral resources of geologic interest that have already been exploited. These are more likely to have data, geologic maps, etc. in the public domain and thus are more widely accessible. (E.g. Yerington batholith, Nevada).
  • Utilize models such as sea level rise and other natural hazard risks common to an area (e.g. earthquakes, landslides, flooding) and have students assess risk and prepare management plans to address the risks. If assessing a local hazard, you could set up a community debriefing as a service learning opportunity.
  • Tie it to life choices students will make in the future: have students pick a city where they would want to move and assess the risk of living there and the level of preparedness for the risks that exist.
  • Explore a case study in depth, such as Explore real world
    examples that can be
    used as activity starters »

Opportunities to strengthen the use of real world examples

Utilize the opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to real, tangible problems. Below are some ideas to get you started, or see browseable collections of examples:

Materials and Resources for Teaching with Real World Examples

See how other faculty are using real-world examples with these examples from a range of disciplines and learning environments.
Example Activities
Related Links