Student-Generated Sustainability Short Stories Anchored in Science and Information Literacies and the SDGs

Laura Guertin (, Annie Jansen, and James Berkey, Penn State Brandywine

Author Profile


To build and improve upon their science and information literacies, students create a collection of short non-fiction stories that connect to at least one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For this assignment, the stories were then posted online for middle and high school teachers to use in their classrooms.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This assignment was developed for and implemented in an introductory-level Earth science course (Environment Earth) for non-STEM majors. There are no prerequisites for the course, and the course satisfies the university's general education requirement for natural sciences. The general education learning objectives include critical and analytical thinking, integrative thinking, and social responsibility and ethical reasoning.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

There are no prerequisites for the course and no areas of mastery expected of students before beginning the assignment. The assignment is designed for first-year university students with no prior coursework in earth science or sustainability. In addition, there is no expectation students will have received prior instruction in library/research skills or narrative writing/storytelling.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is scaffolded throughout the semester, involving instruction in information search strategies and source evaluation, and writing as narrative storytelling with peer review. Students learn the science and sustainability content from the geoscience instructor, information literacy from a reference and instruction librarian, and narrative writing from the campus writing center. Students submit project components throughout the semester as checkpoints and for grading. The assignment can be scaled down to require students to author fewer stories (the current assignment has students write three), or be implemented during half a semester instead of a full semester. The sharing of the stories with a K-12 earth science teacher organization was work undertaken by only the geoscience instructor and the webmaster of the teacher organization.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

For Part A of the assignment, the information literacy piece, goals for students include:

  • To learn more about sustainability, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and how the SDGs directly connect to earth science
  • To learn how to evaluate online sources for currency, reliability, authority, and purpose/point of view
  • To learn how to generate an annotation of a source by summarizing and analyzing content

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

For Part B of the assignment, the narrative writing piece, goals for the students include:

  • Writing skills development - To learn how to write about coastal science in a storytelling format for listeners from a particular target audience
  • Critical thinking and research skills - To learn how to evaluate sources and how to critically analyze text in existing articles to determine how well an article covers the topic, to assess what information is missing, and to evaluate to what extent an article is effective in accomplishing its objectives
  • Collaboration – To learn how to collaborate with a community of active volunteer editors (their peers) in the development of science content

Other skills goals for this activity

Although not a skill developed by students, one important takeaway for students was learning about the needs of middle school and high school teachers in our state. The teachers requested curricular materials that discuss sustainability, as this is a topic they did not learn about in their own schooling and do not have time/funding for to pursue professional development. Through this assignment, students learn that they can use their content knowledge from only one semester of instruction and use it in a way that can benefit teachers and students in lower grades. The college students become communicators of science and sustainability, having had experience in writing about earth science in an accessible way (through narrative). It is hoped that the assignment will provide foundational skills for students to use no matter what their career pathway (information searching and written communication), and that they feel confident in their ability to share stories of science.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students were challenged to write three non-fiction short stories around a sustainability topic of their choosing, targeting their writing for an audience of middle and high school students. Students were assisted with their research for reliable sources from sessions with a faculty librarian and an online library resource guide customized for the course. Library instruction was conducted in a library computer laboratory so students could engage in the library space and be shown where to seek assistance online and on-site when necessary. Students were led through practice exercises on how to evaluate websites and sources using the IF I APPLY tool (link available in the References and Resources section at the bottom of this page). Recommended library database and public access sources for students to utilize for researching their topic were placed on a digital library guide.

Students were taught by the geoscience instructor the And-But-Therefore (ABT) template for narrative writing. Several exercises were conducted in class to assist students with thinking about how to frame information in the form of a story instead of a research report. The exercises included reviewing in-class several examples of ABT stories that were good and poor in quality. Students also read articles written in the ABT format and were required to identify which sections of the article were the ABT sections. Students also practiced how to connect the topic of each story with at least one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

After students completed a draft of their first of three short stories (a one-minute read), group peer review sessions were held during a class period with professional and peer tutors coming to the classroom to provide an overview of the process of peer review, how to conduct a useful review and how to provide constructive feedback. Within small teams of 3-4 students and one tutor, students read their stories aloud and followed a review form (provided below) to discuss this first draft of the short story. Each of the students listening to the story filled out the review form to help with focus and clarity of the required story format and connection to the SDGs. These forms were then provided to the student author to improve their first draft. The instructor collected these review sheets when students turned in the final version of the assignment.

For the second story (a three-minute read), students were required to schedule individual appointments with the campus Writing Studio for one-on-one tutoring to improve a draft of their second story. The purpose of the individual reviews was to get first-year students familiar with the Writing Studio - how to book appointments, where the Studio is located on campus, what other services they offer, etc.

A third peer review session was held in class for the third story (a five-minute read), without the assistance of the Writing Studio as students had already been taught about what makes a good peer review experience and had been through the exercise earlier in the course. The peer review form was updated (provided below) with questions that targeted areas the instructor and Writing Studio saw as continuing areas that needed further development in the student writing. The reviews were anonymous and completed individually. Students left class that day with 2-3 completed peer reviews of their stories to improve.

After each story was submitted, the stories received one final review from the instructor for scientific accuracy and the listed connections to the SDGs, then they were placed online in the free digital classroom for the Pennsylvania Earth Science Teachers Association (PAESTA), where the Word files can be downloaded and printed off. As a footnote, some teachers have reached out to lead author Guertin to express appreciation for these stories, either printing them out for students to read aloud in the classroom and discuss, or reading them on tablets.

Assignment for Three Short Stories Project (Acrobat (PDF) 656kB Apr19 21)
Example one-minute read (Acrobat (PDF) 24kB Apr19 21)
Peer review worksheet for one-minute story (Acrobat (PDF) 16kB Apr19 21)
Peer review worksheet for five-minute story (Acrobat (PDF) 15kB Apr19 21) 
Grading rubric for each short story (Acrobat (PDF) 28kB Apr19 21)

Teaching Notes and Tips

During the semester-long project, students did not report challenges in selecting a sustainability topic that connected to the content in this environmental earth course. The biggest challenge was getting students to write a story, instead of a report. Students struggled with narrative writing in a science course, which was something they had never done before. Providing students additional examples of ABT stories and taking time in class to practice narrative writing was helpful. We believe having students write three short stories instead of one long story was also useful for having the students practice how to frame and write a non-fiction story.

Students appreciated the information literacy training, as many students had not received this type of instruction in high school. Some students came from high schools where the school libraries were no longer open and/or one library staff member was shared between multiple schools. The information literacy piece of the course only took 1.5 class periods and will have large returns for the students in future courses. The instructional librarian noticed that students would come back to the library and seek her out to ask questions for other courses. Just like requiring students to work with the Writing Studio to learn about this campus resource, the library component of this assignment was just as important and resulted in little loss of covering course content.

Importantly, our team of geologist/faculty librarian/writing studio director were able to shift our focus and address areas of weakness as the story writing continued through the semester (items reviewed in class, added to the course library guide, updated peer review form, etc.).

Having an outside organization to send the stories was very motivating for the students to do their best work. As the need for this resource came as a request from local teachers, the students were not only excited to be able to help local schools, some of the university students even forwarded their stories back to their own middle school and high school teachers.


A grading rubric for the assignment is included with the project handout. Each short story has the same rubric, separated into the main sections of scoring content (with a higher point value) and scoring format. The content section of the rubric focuses on quality of sources, accuracy of content, clarity of communication, organization and use of the ABT format for the story. The format section of the rubric looks at having an effective title, following the template, editing errors, and meeting the required word count.

In the context of the final course grade, the first story (one-minute read) is worth 10%, the second story (three-minute read) is worth 15%, and the third story (five-minute read) is worth 25%. The increasing percentage of the final grade is reflective on the increased length of each story and the amount of time students must dedicate to completing the narrative. However, with greater practice in writing sustainability-themed stories and using the ABT format, students became better writers and their grades also improved overall for each story.

To modify this rubric, how much each component is worth of the final grade can be determined by the instructor. This may be a useful modification if an instructor only requires students to write one story, and/or if the story has a higher word count. One example is for the first stage (evaluation of information sources and completion of an annotated bibliography) to be worth a certain percentage of the final grade, the typed first draft to be worth a certain percentage, etc.

An example of how each component was evaluated is included in the attached documentation.

References and Resources

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - and

Randy Olson's recorded presentation from TEDMED 2013 on the And-But-Therefore template for narrative writing -

A helpful book to have on reserve in the campus library is The Narrative Gym: Introducing the ABT Framework For Messaging and Communication by Randy Olson (2020). ISBN-13 979-8550151402

IF I APPLY worksheet used in earth science courses during information literacy instruction at Penn State Brandywine:

The Pennsylvania Earth Science Teachers Association (PAESTA) digital classroom with stories completed by non-STEM majors enrolled in an introductory-level earth science course:

1-minute reads:
3-minute reads:
5-minute reads:

AGU Fall Meeting presentation
Guertin, L., A. Jansen, J. Berkey. (2018). Attitudinal changes towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through student-generated sustainability stories anchored in science and information literacies. 2018 Fall Meeting AGU, Washington DC, 14 Dec. Abstract and poster available online: