Action to Enhance Sustainability

This page authored by Bill Stigliani, University of Northern Iowa, based on original activity developed by author.
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Initial Publication Date: June 20, 2012 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


This assignment is a 10-hour, out-of-class project where each student designs and carries out an action plan to enhance sustainability. Students select from a large suite of alternative actions, most of which can be quantified for reductions in CO2 and energy consumption, as well as in dollar savings. Students prepare a detailed log of their work, and calculate the benefits accrued from their action using data provided by the EPA and examples from lecture notes. Students realize from this first-hand experience how significant their individual actions can be in favorably impacting the environment, and how their actions are linked to global sustainability problems.

This project has proven to be very popular with the students, and they are frequently amazed by their calculated results. One of my students worked with a business in saving 14,930 kWh and almost 15 tons of CO2 per month, with a cost saving of more than $1,000 per month.

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Learning Goals

Concepts and content learned by students:
- Demonstrates how individual, relatively simple actions can significantly benefit the environment.
- Uncovers society's wasteful use of energy and materials.
- Shows that individual actions can help to enhance global sustainability (think globally, act locally).

Are higher order thinking skills developed by this activity?
- Yes, because students not only acquire new knowledge, but they apply this knowledge to an action they directly experience. Data analysis and quantification show the impact on their action on the biosphere, and connects individual actions to global impacts.

Are there other skills that are developed by the activity?
- They learn systems thinking as they discover how their local scale actions are linked to global scale problems.
- They acquire writing skills as part of their grade is the quality of their writing in their final reports.
- They acquire presentation skills as they are required to summarize the results of their action to the class; they also make a poster for their action, which is graded on its attractiveness and content.
- They learn how to set up a log, record and organize data.

How does this activity incorporate both sustainability and geoscience?
- Recycling is one of the more popular actions conducted by the students. Recycling is related to geoscience in a very obvious way. Consider, for example, the positive effect of recycling aluminum cans. In my lecture I show the energy and material flows required for producing aluminum cans from scratch, beginning with the mining of bauxite ores in Australia. We compare this hugely wasteful process to producing aluminum from recycling. See PowerPoint slide titled Industrial Paradigm Reflected in the Secret Life of a Half-Ounce Aluminum Can (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 176kB Jun20 12). The same types of calculations can be made for other recyclable materials such as plastic and glass bottles.

Context for Use

With proper guidance, this activity is appropriate for all undergraduate students, regardless of their major. The class size isn't important because, most typically the students conduct their actions individually or occasionally in pairs. The activity can be conducted at any institution of higher education. It is a semester-long, out-of-class activity requiring about 10 hours of work. No special equipment is necessary, and the concepts do not have to be mastered before taking the course.
The students submit outlines of their action plans early in the semester. The plans must be approved by the instructor, and the action must be carried out over the course of the semester. Written reports are due at the end of the semester. It is fairly easy to adapt this activity to other educational settings.

Description and Teaching Materials

The document Introduction to Sustainability: Action to Enhance Sustainability (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 49kB Jun20 12) (Notes on Content of Final Report) gives detailed instructions for the activity described herein.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Carefully review the outlines of the proposed actions submitted at the beginning of the semester to ensure they will require about 10 hours of out-of-class work, or conversely, if the student has taken on an action that is too ambitious to complete in a one-semester project. Some students may need help with the calculations. It is helpful to provide some examples, as I have done in the document Introduction to Sustainability: Action to Enhance Sustainability [Notes on Content of Final Report] (see above under description). It is important that students do not procrastinate in conducting activity. Requiring mid-term progress reports is helpful in avoiding this problem.


A grading rubric has been developed for this activity. Action Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 22kB Jun20 12)

References and Resources

Author Notes: The following EPA references provided helpful data needed for recycling action projects:

Sources: Choate et al. (2005) Waste Management and Energy Savings: Benefits by the Numbers. Report to the Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA (2006) Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases: A Life-Cycle Assessment of Emissions and Sinks (3rd edition).