Key Concepts for Teaching Sustainability

What are the essential concepts that students in various disciplines should learn? How do concepts from different subject areas overlap? Where are the opportunities for teaching about sustainability across all disciplines?

These questions were addressed by faculty at the workshop, Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences, held in July 2012. Workshop participants worked with others in their discipline to generate a list of key concepts that are essential for students to learn and also allow opportunities to bring sustainability into the curricula.

Goal of this activity:
Integrate sustainability concepts, skills, and habits of mind part of courses in ways that have curricular integrity and "standing" – both for faculty members and students.


Step 1: Group up in "disciplinary" groups.

Step 2: Working individually, identify key "tree trunk" concepts in your course or field of study.
Working individually, call to mind 1-2 courses that you teach that are foundational to your discipline or professional field. Identify what, for you, are the key concepts or "big ideas" that form the "tree trunk" of your course. Write each concept legibly on a separate sticky note. Generate about 7-10 concepts. (5-7 minutes)

Concepts are:
Theories, principles, questions, and animating ideas that matter to faculty, to the discipline, or to the field of study.
Key concepts should be powerful enough that students can remember them, see them at work, and use them years into the future.

Step 3: Discuss and distill your concept lists
In your small group, "put your concepts on the table" in a way that everyone can see what has been generated. For about 10 minutes, share your concepts. Continuing with your small group, sort through the list of concepts. Generate a list of key concepts that are essential learning for your students and also allow opportunities to bring sustainability into the curriculum of your discipline. Feel free to move around and group up the sticky-notes to move along your discussion. (~40 min.)

What we have generated:
  • Lists of disciplinary concepts that might lend themselves to sustainability connections and contexts.
  • Environmental studies concepts that might be integrated with geoscience concepts.
  • Sustainability science concepts that could be usefully integrated into lower division courses in the traditional science disciplines.

Companion PowerPoint: Key concepts of sustainability in our courses and disciplines (PowerPoint 287kB Jul25 12)

Key concepts common to many disciplines (compiled from all of the groups)

  • Systems thinking and the relationship between systems
  • Energy flow

  • Cycles, budgets and feedbacks
  • Natural resources: where they come from, implications for use, limitations of resources
  • Human interactions with Earth's systems
  • Cultural influences, values, ethics, political systems
  • Resilience
  • Risk
  • Decision-making
  • Interdisciplinarity and the importance of collaboration
  • The importance of place, especially one's local place
  • Process of knowing, whether from the scientific, cultural or historical perspective.

Key concepts for sustainability

Big Ideas, Learning Outcomes, Skills, and References Relevant to a Sustainability Course or Curriculum by Robert J. Turner, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science, University of Washington, Bothell

Wiek, A, Withycombe, L., Redman, C.L., Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development , Sustainability Science, July 2011, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 203-218


  • Understand Earth through repeatable observations
    • show how to think and act like a geologist
    • careful observation of natural systems helps us understand processes and interactions within those systems

The Earth Science Literacy Principles outline the 9 Big Ideas of Earth Science. Each Big Idea is associated with a subordinate set of Supporting Concepts. These Big Ideas were developed in the context of the relationship between geoscience and society (or geoscience and humanity), so we find all nine of them to be relevant to sustainability education. We have paraphrased the 9 Big Ideas below, but strongly encourage readers to read the published Earth Science Literacy Document for the exact wording of the Big Ideas and Supporting Concepts.

1. Understand Earth through repeatable observations

how to think and act like a geologist

careful observation of natural systems helps us understand processes and interactions within those systems

2. Earth is 4.6 billion years old

the Earth has a long history (geologic time, deep time)

3. Earth is a complex system

the Earth is a set of interconnecting systems

understanding the structure of matter can help predict the behavior of materials in response to environmental change

plate tectonics provides a unifying framework for geologic processes on a global scale

4. Earth changes continuously

understanding the history of earth earth and rates of change can help understand current rates and the potential outcomes

5. Earth is a water planet

6. Life evolves on Earth and modifies Earth

the history of the Earth records changes in environments and biota which can be understood and used to discern trends in the present and future

7. Humans depend on Earth for resources

Earth materials form the basis for human societies and ecosystems

8. Natural hazards affect humans

landscape reflects geology and geologic history and in turn affects society

9. Humans are a geologic force

Other Geoscience Concepts

  • Earth is a dynamic, constantly changing planet
    • Earth's structure/plate tectonics and its relationship to volcanoes, earthquakes, mountain building, etc.
    • atmospheric evolution
    • Earth's history
    • coastal processes (constantly changing as result of interactions of climate/weather, tides, human interactions, biosphere, etc.)
  • Temporal and spatial scale
    • geologic time
    • Earth processes on human time scales compared to geologic timescales
    • applicable to cycles (residence times)
    • examples: resource development time
    • SIZE: smallest to largest (bacteria vs. whales, ocean bathymetry vs. continental topography,reservoir sizes
  • Systems: reservoirs, fluxes, sinks, sources, transport mechanisms, and residence times
    • also includes feedbacks
    • specifics: water storage and movement, currents, pollution, heat, sediment, nutrients, ions, water
    • applicable to cycles
    • open vs. closed systems
  • Interaction among Earth's systems (biological, hydrologic, lithospheric, atmospheric, interior of the Earth, etc.)
    • interconnections and feedbacks among systems - positive/negative
    • carrying capacities
    • specifics: climate controls, ecology (creation of an environment), pollution
  • Human interaction with planet - Resources, Hazards, and Management
    • creation of resources and hazards and how humans use/interact
    • all life depends on resources provided by the planet
    • specifically in regard to oceans' resources: fishing/farming/sand use, etc.
    • description of the anthroposphere and its interactions (politics, culture, society, etc.)
  • Scientific process/uncertainty
  • Process understanding
    • resource distribution and allocation
  • Tectonics
  • Nature of science
  • Relevance (human aspect of geoscience)
  • Non-unique solutions


  • Interconnectedness, connectedness: emphasis on relationships (people and environment, different places, different systems)
  • Importance of place and scale: sustainability will look different in different places (physical and social environments vary); sustainability will also "look different" and need to have different emphases based on scale (global vs. regional vs. local)

  • Landscape (a place concept) and landscape dynamics. Reading it, connecting to it. (Phenology is one approach; access to "nature" or to broader landscapes matter.)
  • The meaning and interpretations of sustainability.
  • Purpose(s) of and approach(es) to sustainability science.
  • "Sustainability" is normative: it will involve choices as to what to sustain (and where).
  • There are different strategies depending on place (and scale) and different normative choices and values.
  • Systems = a crucial concept. To understand systems and system change, we also need to understand driving forces.
  • Global change: climate, population, biota, economic interdependencies.
  • Resilience.
  • Themes of human-environment relations (H-E studies): human impacts on the environment, environmental perceptions, and hazards (the main theme related to environmental impacts on humans).
  • Mapping as a practice to help with understanding relationships; data analysis (including spatial data)
  • 5 themes of geography (NCGE/AAG; 1984):
    • Location
    • Place
    • Human-environment interactions
    • Movement and Migration
    • Region

Environmental Studies

  • Systems thinking: everything is connected, in context, and interrelated
  • Interdisciplinarity: no sustainability problem comes from a single discipline, and no solution will either

  • Scale: temporal, spatial, and physical scale are critical to evaluating problems and solutions
  • Critical thinking in context: knowing which questions to ask
  • Application of these concepts in geoscience: water, energy, mining, climate, restoration/remediation
  • Cycles and budgets (including pools and fluxes, e.g., biogeochemical cycles)
  • Process of science, including issues in subsampling, extrapolation, uncertainty, predictability, stochasticity
  • Dynamics and the influence of history: legacies, alternate stable states, hysteresis, equilibrium
  • Natural resources and their limitation
  • The role of social, political, economic and cultural forces in determining resource extraction, allocation, consumption, transport

Environmental Science and Sustainability Science

  • Basic principles: (1) Principles of ecosystem sustainability; (2) Nutrient cycling in human & natural systems; (3) Energy flow in natural systems; (4) Population growth models

  • What is sustainability?
    • This is a foundational concept with multiple definitions. The concept has different meanings in economics and ecology contexts. It's important for students to have familiarity with the multiple meanings of this concept. For our purposes however, the meaning of sustainability as it is applies to ecosystems is most applicable. The list enumerated below outlines key concepts of ecosystem sustainability that form the basis of sustainability science.
  • The Human Dimension: Civic engagement & environmental justice. One aspect of sustainability science that differentiates it from environmental science is that it incorporates human social, political, and economic systems. Although deep inquiry into these topics would be beyond the scope of an introductory course, students should have some opportunity to explore the human dimension of sustainability science through opportunities to participate in civic engagement, such as through community-based learning opportunities or through exploring topics relevant to environmental justice.
  • Connection to Science: Process of scientific inquiry; Science communication to varied audiences; Concept of uncertainty in science - this is relevant to sustainability and important to address in all introductory science courses.
  • Systems thinking
    • Whole-systems based education - not only discipline-based education
    • Teaching complexity and getting students comfortable with complexity
    • Understanding that the biosphere sustains the economy (i.e. dysfunctional biosphere = dysfunctional economy)
    • Integral to life cycle analysis; ecosystem services; ecosystem (natural) capital, biogeochemical cycles.
  • Teaching collaboration as stepping outside our discipline into whole systems conversations, rather than pulling other disciplines into a discipline-framed conversation
    • Collaborative learning
  • Sustainability as a way of thinking
  • Beyond peer evaluation
    • Balance peer evaluation (i.e. "people that think like you") with beyond-peer evaluation (i.e. "people who think beyond the discipline's worldview")
  • Optimization of everything rather than the maximization of one thing
  • Metacognition
    • The process of learning
  • Two levels of change (incremental change disciplines as interim strategy; radical change in education as path to sustainability)
    • e.g. the "unsiloed university"
    • Incremental change within the current discipline-based university while we take down the "silos"
  • Focus on local
    • Physical location - working in the local area
      • There should be hands-on components (helps with empowerment)
    • Mental - building student confidence that they can affect change
      • Have students assess their own activity against the standard (e.g. carbon, ecological, and water footprints)
  • Teaching to hope
    • Major emphasis on solutions
    • Envisioning a sustainable future
  • The nature of knowing (knowledge systems)
    • Include science as one of those - but also traditional, formal/informal
    • Appreciating multiple worldviews and knowledge system
  • Resource use vs. waste
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Social and ecological systems
  • Information access
  • Values in use
  • Values vs. information
  • Livelihood
  • Risk
  • Resilience
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Metrics
  • Back of the envelope problem solving
  • Working across scales
  • Information access
  • Linear vs. non linear change

Engineering and Technology

  • Supply and demand - balance, optimization
  • Risk and reliability - design criteria (e.g., sizing, resistance, capacity), disaster planning and mitigation
  • Systems thinking - cradle-to-grave, cradle-to-cradle, life-cycle assessment

  • Quatitative skills - maps, graphs, GIS
  • Ethics - ethical responsibility of engineers, public safety
  • Multi-criteria decision making (Triple Bottom Line, Five Pillars)
  • Construction materials - embodied energy, material flow analysis
  • Materials - green manufacturing, product substitution
  • Natural resources - water, land/soil
  • Environmental quality - air, water, soil - fate and transport, impact assessment
  • Transportation - logistics - hazards, economics, equity
  • Restoration - water/wastewater treatment, air pollution control, stream channel rehabilitation
  • Infrastructure - life cycle - planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance, and decommissioning


  • Atomic structure - isotope abundance: atmospheric composition, fossil fuel tracing, geological aging/historical climates
  • States of matter - energy: dependence on solid, liquid and gas forms of fossil fuels
  • Periodicity - abundance of elements, mineral sourcing (cell phones, lithium batteries, etc.), geo-political stability of sources

  • Mole concept, stoichiometry, chemical equations, mass balance carbon emissions, anthropogenic/natural carbon cycle, carbon sequestration (limiting reagent: limiting nutrient for phytoplankton blooms in ocean and quantifying carbon sequestration/ iron seeding)
  • Molecular structure (VSEPR, MO, bonding) - Greenhouse gases and IR absorption, bioaccumulation (solubility)
  • Quantum concepts - light absorption, photovoltaic cells, photo synth, analytical instrumentation - quantifying pollutants in the environment
  • Gas Laws - carbon sequestration, hydrogen fuel production/storage/combustion, combustion engines/Carnot cycle
  • Equilibrium - nutrient cycling (biogeochemistry), Born-Haber reaction and agriculture, smoke stack scrubbers, detection of analyses in the environment - design of sensors
  • Acid/base - natural buffers, acid rain, ocean acidification, acid mine drainage, metabolism of bio-accumlativive compounds
  • Solution chemistry/Solubility - water pollutants: sources, fates, of pollutants, quantifying concentration, carbon dioxide uptake by the oceans
  • Thermochemistry/chemical kinetics - Energy, fuels, combustion, conversion efficiency of engines/devices, excited state decay - solar PV, catalysis and "green chemistry"
  • Redox chemistry, electrochemical potential - western dependence on battery power/electrical energy , hydrogen production from water, fuel cells
  • Nuclear chemistry - ore, refining fuels, storage, nuclear power and wastes (decay/lifetime), leeching of radioisotopes

The list above was organized as a traditional General Chemistry, two semester course. The list highlights where and how environmental and sustainability issues can be used to achieve teaching objectives.


  • Diversity of life - relevance to ecosystem resilience globally. It is essential for the resilience of the ecosphere and also for agricultural resilience in an era of monocropping.
  • Unity of life - Precautionary principle: small changes can have unintended, widespread consequences. This has been an issue that has been raised with genetically modified organisms.

  • Cycling of matter - sustainability issue for nitrogen and phosphorous in agricultural systems. Human, matter, and energy flow interact. The impact of humans on these natural processes is at the heart of sustainability challenges.
  • Energy flow including photosynthesis, respiration, trophodynamics, energy subsidy (hawk soaring) - all life depends on solar energy which moves between trophic levels after photosynthesis with a 10% efficiency. This has implications for feeding the world (importance of eating low on the food chain).
  • Evolution - life is constantly evolving and humans are substantially affecting the course of evolution through anthropocentric effects, including artificial selection.
  • Natural and artificial selection (e.g. all of agriculture)
  • Ecosystems have abiotic and biotic components (community plus physical environment)
  • Growth and development for individuals and populations

See the work of the biology community in Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education for core concepts ( Also consider the core concepts in the new AP Biology curriculum and in the new Framework for K-12 Science Education that is driving the Next Generation Science Standards ( and


  • Scarcity and the coordination of scarce resources with human wants.
  • Production, costs, and technology. E.g. direct vs. indirect costs and internal vs. external costs.
  • Social institutions (rules and norms) shape incentives.
  • Incentives shape the behaviors of consumers, firms, and government.
  • Competitive environments (e.g. firms, consumers, government) impact market outcomes and resource use.

History and Philosophy

  • There are other legitimate ways of knowing outside of the scientific paradigm, that includes our bodies and our histories.
  • Introducing humanistic considerations into the conversation:values, power structures, ideology, etc.
  • Questions about who, what, when, and why are vital in discussing sustainability.