Keeping it lively: Incorporating readings, research, films, speakers, and writing into sustainability courses

Katherine Straub, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Susquehanna University

My experience teaching sustainability in an interdisciplinary geoscience-based context is based on two courses I have taught at Susquehanna: 1) Climate and Global Change, an upper-level interdisciplinary, writing intensive course for Earth and Environmental Sciences majors, and 2) Perspectives, a required seminar for first-semester students that focuses on the academic and personal transition to college and can include academic material of the instructor's choosing (I chose sustainability, which was also the University Theme the last time I taught this course). I have taught both of these courses several times, and as I refine each from one iteration to the next, I realize that the course pedagogies have begun to converge.

Four approaches common to both courses are: 1) a diverse set of readings, 2) multiple documentary films, 3) guest speakers and outside-the-classroom experiences, and 4) lots and lots of writing.

I believe that an engaging, diverse set of course readings provides a strong backbone for any course, particularly on an interdisciplinary topic like sustainability, and keeps the course discussions lively by frequently changing the subject. In Perspectives, we had a common reading that included sustainability readings on food, sports, energy, population, religion, business, ecology, and ethics. In Climate and Global Change, I assign readings of both scientific journal articles and popular literature on the science, politics, economics, law, and ethics of global warming.

For this to work, of course, students need to actually do the reading. I ask them to come to class with a quote or question from the assigned reading. During lectures/discussions we revisit the readings frequently, and students are asked to incorporate ideas from the readings into their research and reflection papers. Class participation points typically represent at least 10% of their course grade, and I do give zeroes if students don't contribute.

The documentary films and guest speakers are intended to broaden the course content beyond what I, as the instructor, and the readings, can provide. For example, students find it much more compelling and memorable to see footage of African coffee farmers than to read about their plight in a book; similarly, hearing the University Facilities Director talk about the design of a "green" building and then walk them through our coal-fired steam plant brings to life our discussions of energy use. In both courses, students are required to submit short reflective papers on the documentary films, tying in course discussions, readings, and prior films. I have found these papers enormously helpful in assessing the students' understanding of and interest in the films, and I believe it forces them to think more broadly about the interconnected nature of the course material.

In Perspectives (the first-year course), the students were also required to design and undertake a class research project (last year, they chose to investigate the installation of a small wind turbine near campus, and interviewed several University and town personnel in the process) and work three hours at our campus garden. In Climate and Global Change, I focused more on discussions and role-playing exercises, like a mock Kyoto protocol negotiation.

I require so much writing in my courses because I believe that both research-based and reflective writing are essential skills to nurture at the college level. In Climate and Global Change, most of the students' writing is research-based, drawing on published material as well as readings and course content, while the film discussions provide the reflective component. In Perspectives, the writing is a mix of "soft" research and reflection, in the form of journal entries addressing specific sustainability-related topics. Examples of topics include:

  • Contact someone from your grandparents' generation and ask what changes they have witnessed in their lifetime when it comes to food;
  • Look at the "breathing Earth" website ( and describe the overall patterns in population and carbon emissions;
  • Calculate your carbon footprint, or that of your family's home;
  • Watch "The Story of Stuff";
  • Compare a typical meal in 3 different cultures, including your own, including the foods eaten as well as calories and percent carbohydrates, fat, and protein.

Students must address these questions in the context of course readings, discussions, guest speakers, and films. Although my section of Perspectives had to do more work than other sections (or so I heard), course evaluations at the end showed that this was worthwhile: "Overall, I had to work harder than I thought in this class, which might not have been a bad thing." "Compared to other Perspectives classes, I think we actually learned/did things." "The journal entries have progressed my writing abilities." "Journal entries were challenging and cool. I'm glad I was forced to take this class. I mean that in a good way."

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Keeping it lively: Incorporating readings, research, films, speakers, and writing into sustainability courses (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 160kB Jun19 12)