Approach and Challenges to a General Undergraduate Sustainability Science Course

Lisa M.B. Harrington, Kansas State University, Geography

I teach a mid- to upper-division course on sustainability, which I introduced as "Sustainability Science," oriented around the recommendation that such an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability and addressing of current global issues be established (e.g., Kates et al. 2001). My approach to teaching sustainability in broadly interdisciplinary undergraduate classes has been oriented around introduction of key concepts, including different ways of viewing the areas of attention for sustainability (typically given as environment, society, and economy), and historical attention to human-environment relations. I spend time devoted to coverage of current concerns related to sustainability, including explanation of climate change, the human role, and potential effects; I also utilize recent videos addressing issues like 'fracking,' peak oil, urban sprawl, city actions, and small business actions and innovations in support of more sustainable conditions.

Challenges for the course have included how to teach, in a general sense but with sufficient detail as to make ideas somewhat more meaningful and potentially tools that students can use later in their careers, concepts like life cycle assessment (LCA), the use of scenarios (e.g., as in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment [MA]), and indicators (e.g., as applied in the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs]). I would particularly like to be able to incorporate more hands-on or service learning components in the course, but with the prospect of the class size growing to perhaps 100 in the next two-three years, I am not sure that this is practical.

Encouraging discussions, and basing some questions on what I know of students' majors, has helped to create learning with students as sources of information, and encourages student engagement and interdisciplinary learning. Use of three article review assignments, with an explicit requirement that students connect the articles' content to other course ideas and materials, is a way to address a need to create situations where students explore (and become more comfortable with exploring) relevant topics in the literature, integrate ideas and materials (potentially from different disciplinary perspectives), and apply critical thinking. Incorporating videos into the class helps to add variety and interest to what is basically a 'lecture' style course.

Much of the material covered, including several of the videos, seem disheartening or 'depressing' to students. I've tried to alleviate this by concluding the course with the more positive applications of new ideas and business models oriented toward greater sustainability via videos and exploration of examples (often using online sources).

Kates, R.W., W.C. Clark, R. Corell, J.M. Hall, C.C. Jaeger, I. Lowe, J.J. McCarthy, H.J. Schnellnuber, B. Bolin, N.M. Dickson, S. Faucheux, G.C. Gallopin, A. Gruebler, B. Huntley, J. Jager, N.S. Jodha, R.E. Kasperson, A. Mabogunje, P. Matson, H. Mooney, B. Moore III, T. O'Riordan, and U. Svedin. 2001. Sustainability Science. Science 292: 641-642.

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