Key Components of Sustainability Assignments

These key components may be applied across the disciplines

  1. Promote understanding without doom and gloom.
    Students may get pessimistic or apathetic when the focus is only on threats and problems. Our society needs graduates that choose to participate in solutions to our society's urgent issues. If we focus only on the problems (e.g., threats to our life-giving ecosystems, the negative consequences of climate change), we may unintentionally generate attitudes of powerlessness and inaction about our global challenges. We may also unintentionally turn off students to the learning if it is depressing. We need to help our students see how they can use academic knowledge to be part of the solutions in the workplace, at home, and in their communities.
  2. Focus on solutions.
    It is important to orient the learning to explore possible solutions to our global societal challenges. Such a focus helps students understand how academic learning in STEM and other disciplines is essential, useful, worthwhile and relevant to their lives. It also strengthens their critical thinking and their skills in proactive problem solving.
  3. Empower students to make positive changes, moving from analysis to systemic action.
    When students are asked to think about and be part of the solutions, they move toward a self concept that they can help create a better society. Moving from thinking to participation is a crucial step, since it builds the attitudes, skills, and habits that value learning, while addressing our urgent societal problems. Moving beyond just individual change to systemic change takes the solutions to the scale needed.
    There are two levels of change required to create healthier ecosystems and communities: (a) personal change so we reduce or eliminate our own habits that produce toxins and harm our life supporting ecosystems; and (b) systemic change so our organizations, policies and regulations support a healthier, sustainable future with the core ecosystem health needed to improve quality of life for present and future generations. Students need experience in both changing personal habits and helping to create systemic change. They need change agent skills that will help them in their professional and personal lives as members of society. Quality learning activities in our courses can provide this to our students.

For examples of these core pedagogies, see Tools to Incorporate Sustainability into the Classroom.

This Power Point slideshow gives examples of applications in fields from chemistry to economics for each pedagogy of sustainability. Core Pedagogies PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 182kB Oct28 12)

The InTeGrate Project identified pedagogical themes that generalize to teaching the interdisciplinary subject of sustainability within any academic discipline. These involve using the grand challenges that society faces -- energy, food, water -- to help students improve their critical thinking skills, incorporate systems thinking, and make use of authentic and credible data in addressing problems.

Students' Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will be able to define sustainability.
  2. Students will be able to explain how sustainability relates to their lives and their values, and how their actions impact issues of sustainability.
  3. Students will be able to utilize their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality
  4. Students will be able to explain how systems -- ecosystems, individual humans in society -- are interrelated.
  5. Students will learn change agent skills.
  6. Students will learn how to apply concepts of sustainability to their campus and community by engaging in the challenges and solutions of sustainability on their campus.
  7. Students will learn how to apply concepts of sustainability globally by engaging in the challenges and the solutions of sustainability in a world context.

Source: Magdalena Svanström, Francisco J. Lozano-García, Debra Rowe, (2008). "Learning outcomes for sustainable development in higher education," International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 9 Iss: 3 pp. 339 - 351.

This more detailed table ( presents specific dimensions of these learning outcomes and suggestions for students' developmental experiences. (Source: The College Student Educators International, in collaboration with the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development.)

Service Learning

Service Learning helps students apply their knowledge and skills about Sustainability in practice through active engagement in their communities. Service learning can be an important means of moving from analysis to action. (The link is housed on a Geosciences page but applies to all disciplines.)