Seminar on Sustainability in Europe: What are the Limits of Possibility?

Mary Ann Cunningham
Vassar College, Earth Science and Geography
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I describe here an 11-day faculty field trip to Europe that focused on experiential learning in alternative transportation, planning, energy, and other systems. Although this "activity" is not as readily reproduced as a regular lab, I present it here because it is also not impossible to reproduce, and it turned out to be surprisingly worthwhile as a model. Groups of students, faculty, and non-academics organized trips quite often, and this model could easily transfer to a wide variety of groups, from students to faculty to professionals.

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Learning Goals

Our goals were
  • to inform faculty thinking and teaching about topics relating to sustainability by experiencing a different context for applying principles of sustainability,
  • to explore the insights into this topic from our own disciplines and intersections among multiple disciplines,
  • to gain examples and ideas through shared experience and sustained conversation,
  • to challenge our assumptions about the possibilities and limits of sustainability.
  • to have our ideas challenged and explored by colleagues, so as to do better critical thinking in our own work

Context for Use

This type of trip could be useful for a variety of study-abroad contexts, international studies trips that include field trips, summer study trips, J-term trips, and faculty groups, or environmental clubs. Faculty bring very useful expertise to the process, but I believe groups of any age could bring useful ideas and experiences to the daily conversations in which we processed and digested our observations. Our tour was 11 days, but this could be longer or could be a portion of another trip. A longer trip would allow for greater understanding, but faculty could not afford more time. A shorter trip would provide fewer opportunities for learning. The trip could be done in the US, but placing the conversations in the EU put ideas in stark relief and made the conversations very interesting. If the trip were not embedded in a particular course (as ours wasn't), then each participant should be explicit ahead of time about what experience they bring to the group and how the trip would contribute to their work/course of study/professional plans.

Description and Teaching Materials

This field trip gave participants the opportunity to

(1) experience first-hand several alternative transportation systems, energy systems, and the planning strategies surrounding them; and

(2) engage in regular and sustained discussions about what social, cultural, and economic conditions make these systems possible. In particular, participants bicycled throughout several cities (a novel experience for most); met with representatives of energy, planning, and other agencies; and produce a summary statement that evaluated observations and the limits of transferability to a US context.

We rented bikes to tour three cities (Copenhagen, Aarhus, and Frieburg) and met with representatives from energy, transportation, planning, and other agencies. The trip was inspired in part by Tim Beatley's Green Urbanism book (which has recently been updated after ~ 10 years). The aim of this trip was to give faculty direct experience that they could take back to their colleges. It sounds as though a number have done so, organizing comparable trips for students, new courses, workshops and other activities. Basically there's no education as effective as experience.

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • A field trip of the kind we took required about $3300 per person and a college budget administrator who could help us organize our expenses. Organizational responsibilities, including hostel reservations, bike rentals, bike tours, meetings with agencies, etc., were distributed among four organizers before the trip.
  • After arriving, people assigned themselves to small project groups of 2-4 people, based on their interests. Daily organization was assigned to pairs of people (one pair per day), so that everybody had the opportunity to be boss for a day and nobody had to be in charge overall. Distributing responsibility this was was an outstanding strategy. During most days we had 1-2 organized meetings or events. More would be unwieldy.
  • We met every evening for 1-2 hours to discuss a question posed by the leaders of the day.
  • We minimized costs and complexity by staying in hostels (which is normal for adults in Europe, unlike here) and by traveling only by bicycle within cities. Food expenses were covered by a per diem paid ahead of time to all participants, so that nobody had to be in charge of daily incidental expenses.
  • These are the structural details of the trip. The precise itinerary for other trips would depend on the interests of group members.
  • It is important that individual motivations be clear ahead of time, and it is important that organizers share responsibility so that they can become regular participants and enjoy the trip once it starts.
  • It is also important that people be instructed to pack light. The few participants with big luggage suffered more than the rest of us did.


Assessment was done only in terms of the reports put on the blog after the trip ( A very quick turn-around is necessary on this, otherwise reports will not be turned in. A blog is an easy way to post and distribute reports. We are now in the process of producing a final, cleaned-up version of these reports, but we are not editing submissions.

References and Resources

Timothy Beatley (ed.) 2012. Green Cities of Europe: Global Lessons on Green Urbanism. Washington, DC: Island Press

Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, Heather Boyer. 2009. Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change. Washington, DC: Island Press.