Initial Publication Date: October 9, 2017

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:

  • Teaching with Data, especially local data, offers an opportunity to teach students skills related to data collection (e.g. where does data come from; how do scientists use instrumentation to collect data) and analysis.
  • Teaching Urban Students assists educators of urban students in bringing a rich set of experiences to the classroom that may be significantly different than those of students in small-town settings. Effective teaching of urban students requires instructors to tap into these rich experiences, cultural customs, and practical skills sets.
  • Teaching using Real World Examples can help students make connections between what they learn in class and the real world to illuminate the significance of what they are learning.
  • Service Learning offers the opportunity to link academic learning with community service.
  • Field Labs introduce students to complex natural systems, break down barriers among academic fields, encourage multiple observations, and introduce students to the area near their campus.
  • Campus-Based Learning uses the campus environment itself as a teaching tool.
  • Experience-based Environmental Projects get students involved in their own learning.
  • Teaching Geoscience in the Field offers tips and advice for teaching in the field. While aimed at geoscience, the information provided is applicable to a range of disciplines.

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:

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:

  • Assign a "Hometown stream" project, where students download and analyze NWIS data for a stream they are familiar with.
  • Use real storm data for rainfall-runoff modeling.
  • Explore statewide hazard databases that provide specific data for analysis. If data is not available for a specific area, task students with selecting a proxy among several imperfect alternative locations and explain the limitations.
  • Use large real data sets (such as geotech information from State Dept. of Transportation for a Highway widening project) to complete multiple exercises (e.g., rock mass quality, discontinuity analysis, rock slope stability analysis).
  • Have students critically analyze professional reports.
  • Give students practical applications and practice with modeling in Excel. Have them step through inputs, computational steps, outputs, and to 'see what's in the blackbox.' 
  • Run short field trips and outdoor labs that use local examples to illustrate sustainability concepts. Many campuses have relevant features within walking distance.
  • Analyze facilities data (water, energy, waste) with a sustainability lens/point of view. This can be made into an annual project to compare yearly data, or you may be able to compare your data with other campuses.
  • Utilize group work and activities - particularly using teams of students with different backgrounds (i.e. a group consisting of a science major, political science major, and economics major).
  • Engage students with service learning projects.
  • Provide opportunities for undergraduate research projects - summer research, semester research.

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:

  • Utilize activities that use Kolb's experiential education cycle, such as a lifestyle project, whereby students reflect on their own behaviors with a sustainability lens.
  • Whenever possible, link global topics to local examples, even if the local example is not one that the students have directly worked with. Make explicit connections between the local example and the larger issue. Use case studies that illustrate the larger issue and draw connections between the local version and the global example.
  • Consider scale. For example, if students measured a savings of 5 gallons of water per student per day, what are the impacts of that if you scale it up to all campuses in your state?
  • Consider roadblocks: What were the sticking points in the local project? How might those same obstacles present themselves on a larger scale?

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.

  • Get involved with Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), a self-report program from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) to have students assess their institution's current performance and investigate ways to improve campus sustainability practices.
  • Encourage your institution to embrace sustainability - make sustainability a socially and economically preferred behavior. Incorporate it into new employee training and incoming student info to further encourage learning about the institutional culture.
  • Engage in strategic planning, prioritizing projects, and focusing on the most important.
  • Break down barriers between departments on campus and encourage multi- or interdisciplinary curriculum development.
  • Utilize campus resources to get people from other departments and/or community members involved with the sustainability initiative. For example, facilitate having a campus garden or building a solar house.
  • Calculate Return on Investment (ROI) on various efficiency projects to then inform the decision-makers on campus of the opportunities/benefits.
  • Highlight the impact by providing positive outcomes reported by "model" schools that have sustainability programs.
  • Recognize faculty's sustainability efforts as part of the service component of their job.
  • Record positive feedback from students and use it as evidence of positive outcomes.
  • Explore if there is professional development funding for faculty to develop sustainability-related course materials, invite speakers, workshops, AASHE conference, etc.

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