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Connect to the World We Live In

Building connections between academic learning and examples, experiences, and issues from beyond the ivory tower can increase students interest in a topic and help them transfer this learning to real life situations in their professional and personal lives. A spectrum of approaches can be used from simply using real examples to contextualize concepts to the more complicated use of service learning projects to allow practicing skills and applying knowledge in the local community.
Why tie sustainability topics
into real world examples? »

Pedagogic Approaches: Teach Sustainability Using Data and Real Examples

Service learning, using real examples (at the local, national, and global scale), field work and contrasting narratives are 4 pedagogic approaches that strengthen the connection between the knowledge and skills learned in class and their application in life. Below we describe how each method can be implemented at a variety of scales, environments, and disciplines; provide tips on how to incorporate sustainability topics into your course using these methods; and give links to resources that describe the method in more depth. The example activities and courses provided on these pages can be used wholesale or can be modified to fit your classroom. Read more about the importance of making these connections on: Why Tie Sustainability Topics into Real World Examples?.

  • Strengthen community connections with Service Learning

    Service learning gets students out into the community with opportunities to apply their knowledge to concrete problems of high interest to the people who live there. Projects like designing and building a solar house or designing and planting a 'green' community garden can make use of classroom learning of sustainability concepts and develop students' ability to apply learning in the real world. The Service-Learning to explore Sustainability activity, by Tracy Lai, Seattle Central Community College, explains how her students get involved in setting up and following through with a service learning project of their choosing. Get more ideas for service learning projects and access collections of example activities.

  • Bring relevance to classroom concepts and skills Using Local Examples and Data

    Local examples, field work and data can motivate students learning by applying concepts to the world outside their window. The proximity to the local environment opens up opportunities for data collection in the field and the use of data from a context they can explore in depth. In the first Unit of the Map your Hazards module students look at local data sets as a first step in exploring of broader issues of hazard, vulnerability and risk. Steve Semken's course Earth Science in Arizona and the Southwest, utilizes place-based learning through out to teach about earth topics. Single activities or a series of activities can also be integrated into an existing course. For example, Holly Ewing uses this Carbon Storage in a Peat Bog activity to develop her students' quantitative skills by determining carbon storage in a local bog. You can also team with service-learning projects that utilize the local environment such as Lori Troxel's Habitat for Humanity Build Day activity, where students explore sustainability concepts such as energy efficiency and then apply them with a hands-on activity at a real and local site. See other pedagogic guidance and ideas for incorporating local examples and data as well as teaching materials and resources.

  • Engage students with examples they can relate to by Using Real World Examples

    Real world examples give us case studies and data to help students understand how concepts apply to the world beyond the area they can experience directly. For example, tie the local issue of water needs to the larger scale need for water using Assessing Water Resource Demand in New York City activity, by Kyle Monahan. This activity also builds students' quantitative and data analysis skills using multiple datasets (e.g. census, water use, watershed characteristics). For more ideas, browse the activity collections.

  • Demonstrate and practice practical skills by Utilizing Field Work

    First-hand observation of the natural world creates a special kind of connection between students and the Earth. Field work can can help students understand where the data that they read about and use comes from and its limitations. It can also be used as a mechanism to teach students important skills that can be carried into their professional work. For example, students can learn basic observation skills as well as more technical or analytic skills like using instrumentation, programming, data analysis, and data synthesis. Take a look at some example activities that utilize field work, including those that can be done in an urban environment as well as those that incorporate service learning.

  • Teach Sustainability and Social Justice through Contrasting Narratives

    Explicitly comparing and contrasting narratives about the same topic, or how a story changes through time, can illuminate differences in the ways different communities or members of a community view an event or topic, or changes in the way an event or topic is viewed by a community as their perspective changes over time. The ways in which humans experience natural disasters and the opinions that they hold on environmental and resource issues of all types are influenced by their experience of the world and the cultural values they hold. Understanding that social context and experience are relevant to how one views either a natural phenomenon or a human response to that phenomenon is essential if students are to make sense of the intersections between society and the Earth that surround their daily lives. One method to help students cultivate awareness of differing perspectives is to examine an issue through a specified lens other than their own. For example, Lauren Waterworth, Appalachian State University, has her students evaluate a proposed highway project through different public and private organizational lenses in her activity Mock Public Comments on the Draft EIS for West Virginia's King Coal Highway.

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