Sustainability Buffet -- What's in a Definition?

This page is authored by Laura Webb, University of Vermont, and is based on an activity used in the University of Vermont Sustainability Faculty Fellows workshop.
University of Vermont and State Agricultural College, Geology
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This is a very simple introductory activity to generate student discussion on the definition of sustainability. It can be modified for almost any course, setting, or specific classroom context. At the sustainability buffet, students peruse a variety of written and graphic expressions of what defines sustainability. The definitions include of those of individuals, organizations, companies, etc. Students are asked to choose a preferred and least preferred definition to share with the group, explaining why their choices were made.

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Learning Goals

While it will first sound like a very simple task to students to define sustainability, students may quickly find that more questions are raised than answered. When participating in this activity, students reflect on their own values and start to think about linkages in sustainability. Several definitions will take a systems approach, the consideration of which promotes critical thinking skills. In many definitions, geoscience themes will be present in many different contexts: climate, environment, non-renewable resources, etc.

Context for Use

This activity can be modified for use in almost any setting. It can be completed in timeframe of a lecture or laboratory meeting.

Description and Teaching Materials

Here I describe the sustainability buffet (or potluck, rather) that I use in my petrology course. As a homework assignment before the activity, I asked students to surf the web and find a minimum of two graphics and/or written definitions of sustainability and to bring a printed version of each to class. The definitions could come from anywhere: an individual, a corporation, a non-profit organization, etc. The students were asked to not edit their choice of definitions based on their opinions. The idea is to have students cumulatively bring a wide variety of definitions that represent different perspectives.

The sustainability buffet involves placing the printed materials out for consumption (e.g. on table tops or hanging from walls) so that students can freely walk around, consume and digest definitions. Students are told they will be asked to share the definitions that resonate with them the most and the least. Once students have had sufficient time to read many definitions, students share their preferred and least preferred definitions and why those choices were made. In my experience, class discussion and debate flows pretty freely on the heels of this. If it does not emerge organically, students can be prompted to identify common themes, conflicting ideas, etc.

Teaching Notes and Tips


Following the class discussion, students are asked to turn in a definition of sustainability in their own words. They can be given time in class to do this or is can be assigned as homework, depending on length of meeting time. At the end of the class, students are asked to turn in, once again, a definition of sustainability in their own words. It is anticipated that their ideas will have evolved over the course of the class and this will be reflected in the two versions of the definition.

References and Resources

Author Notes