Global Changes and Sustainability

Brenda Bowen, Geology and Geophysics & Global Change and Sustainability Center,
University of Utah


This is a project-based graduate course that focuses on developing an interdisciplinary perspective of the complex systems of environmental change and the links to society. The students define and complete a collaborative course project related to a local issue that allows them to investigate the many interconnected components of natural-human systems, the impacts of global change on the system, and the role of society in influencing change. The course includes weekly lectures, discussions, "read, think, do" assignments, and culminates with a final report, a website, and a poster session/event to share the project results with the relevant stakeholders.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is a graduate level course that focuses on developing an interdisciplinary perspective on environmental and sustainability issues. It is open to all graduate students and is required for students who are supported by Global Change and Sustainability Center. Currently, the course includes graduate students from geology, atmospheric sciences, engineering, geography, biology, ecology, planning, etc.

Course Content:

This course seeks to build on the intersections between geology, engineering, biology, ecology, hydrology, environmental policy, and more. The students are encouraged to bring the expertise of their discipline to bear on the project topic, and to find where there are common interests with the students from other disciplines. The students are learning how to find and analyze various types of existing data, how to synthesize and interpret data, how to communicate information to stakeholders with various interests, and how to translate knowledge of sustainability into actions.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to critically analyze the complex interconnections among environmental and social systems and appreciate the value of diverse perspectives and collaborative approaches to sustainability. They will be able to identify various stakeholders and assets related to a specific challenge or opportunity and evaluate how to strategically communicate with those stakeholders. The students will demonstrate clear written, oral, and creative communication of both their disciplinary expertise and interdisciplinary concepts.

Course Features:

As a project-based course, the students are working throughout the term as an interdisciplinary team. The scope and product of the project is determined by them, and thus will vary by year. The current course is developing a website and an end-of-semester community event that will include a poster session with their work. In developing and completing their project, the students must learn to speak a common interdisciplinary language and communicate with a wide range of stakeholders (community, government, academic, etc.).

Course Philosophy:

This course was designed as an opportunity to bring together the interdisciplinary students involved with the Global Change and Sustainability Center and give them an experience working as a collaborative team to do something hands-on that has a positive impact.


Assessment takes place through weekly assignments that require the students to explain their project progress and individual perspectives in various ways. Some of the assignments are reflective essays posted on the class website so that the other students can read and comment on them. The course includes a midterm exam that requires them to synthesize the systems incorporated into the project topic while referencing the required reading. Participation, effort, and engagement are the primary expectations. This can be a challenge as the students come from a range of departments with different paradigms and expectations.


References and Notes: