Training students to be solutions-oriented

This semester I’ve had the good fortune to teach both a graduate level Applied Project Management course and an undergraduate policy course with applied group projects with neighboring communities.  In both classes, I have a number of students preparing to graduate.  As is often the case, this time of year is fraught with concerns about grades, graduation, and finding jobs.

At the same time, I’ve had a number of conversations with friends currently working in a number of sectors – the government, NGOs, financial institutions, entrepreneurs, etc.  In nearly every case, everyone discussed the urgency to train students to 1) think critically  and independently, 2) work individually and in groups without guidance, and 3) find solutions to problems.  As readers of my blog know, I have been trying to infuse my classes with real-world experiences and opportunities to directly apply the knowledge that they are learning.

In the next couple weeks, I hope to have the videos of my undergraduate class’ group presentations to their stakeholders.  For this class (Policy and Governance for Sustainable Systems), we had projects in which local municipal governments requested our help in a range of projects.  We ended up working on four projects (with four teams on each project).  They included:

  • the City of Peoria, Arizona and recycling contamination
  • the Town of Gilbert, Arizona and switching to a “Pay as You Throw” solid waste collection
  • the City of Goodyear, Arizona and waste water management
  • the City of Goodyear and the urban heat island.

In the coming weeks, I’ll link the videos and presentations with the problem statements from the municipalities to showcase some of the finer work.

I bring these examples up now because they serve a number of purposes.  First, projects such as these help to develop the skills that our students want and need to succeed in the future.  They are able to work on and build the skills that my friends and colleagues are asking for in the students that they are hoping to hire.  Second, it provides a safe place for the students to practice, try new ideas, get feedback from faculty and engaged stakeholders with less penalty for “failure” than in a job.  Third, and related to the previous point, the students build experience and have projects that they can articulate to future employers and discuss “real” work rather than simply homework.  Fourth, it helps our communities to solve problems that they are facing and gives them access to the latest science at a low cost (just a bit of their time).  Finally, it helps connect the School of Sustainability and ASU more deeply to the local community – building ties at a number of levels.  We have students presenting to city workers (including the mayors),  finding opportunities to speak at city council meetings.  We have government officials meeting with faculty, staff, and students.  Finally, we have connections to our communities and engagement with finding problems to the challenges collectively facing us.

I’ll close by noting that it has been inspirational for me, my students, and the stakeholders – to see challenges being met, problems being solved, and the next generation stepping forward.

Art and Sustainability

The first Resilience Conference in Stockholm back in 2008 had a wonderful art exhibit on resilience and the themes of the conference.  I thought it was very moving to see our discussions in entirely new mediums.

Now one of my current students, Angela Cazel-Jahn, is creating a mural in downtown Phoenix about multiple aspects and concepts of sustainability.  While the images for the mural are under design, one fun idea for selecting themes and designs involves leaving images for people.  This idea builds off of one of her previous projects (see her website at  As the site describes “Out in the world, trustgallery exhibits just a couple of pieces at a time.  You might find them in carefully selected locations, at unexpected moments. I place the artwork here and there, and then I go off and live my life. Some pieces will be found, some will be taken, some will be paid for, some will be damaged or lost, some will be kept and treasured.”

For this project, various images will be left with scholars, practitioners, and others to get diverse perspectives on sustainability.  It lends a collaborative approach, which is key to resolving many sustainability challenges.

I look forward to seeing the final product!



New Project with Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society

Georgina Cundill and I are heading up a new project recently endorsed as a Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group that will focus on collaborative governance and management in support of resilience-based ecosystem stewardship:

For those not familiar with PECS, it is a new initiative in the ICSU’s set of programmes on global change.  Its aims are “to integrate research on the stewardship of social—ecological systems, the services they generate and the relationships among natural capital, human wellbeing, livelihoods, inequality and poverty.”

George and I are very excited for this opportunity and look forward to combining insights from field work in the US, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Sweden, and several other locales around the globe.  More to follow on these projects in the coming months.

New issue of International Journal of the Commons out

For the latest scholarship on the commons and common-pool resources, see the newest issue of the International Journal of the Commons, which was released late last week:

We are very excited about an issue that demonstrates:

  • A wide range of methodologies from social network analysis to historical analysis to systems dynamics models to case studies to econometric models and
  • A Czech Republic to South Korea to Bolivia to Spain to Japan to the United States

We would like to thank our authors, our reviewers, and most especially our readers for continuing to improve the quality of this journal.  Much thanks!

Studying irrigation in China using QCA

This week I had the honor of presenting with the Chinese scholar and economist, Chai Ying.  Chai is a visiting scholar to ASU’s Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity from Guangdong University of Finance and Economics.  We presented her research on 20 small-scale irrigation systems under China’s decentralized irrigation management program.  Drawing on theories of the commons and previous irrigation research in China, Chai identified 5 variables linked to improved efficiency of government involvement in irrigation.  Her study first measured efficiency of government spending across four key outputs – the increase in the area under irrigation, the amount of irrigation infrastructure that was improved, increase in food capacity, and reductions in the water used.  She used linear programming to assess the efficiency of providing these outputs for a given amount of government spending.

Next, we used Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to look at how different causal clusters of institutional arrangements combined to lead to efficient outputs.  Again, the causal variables were chosen based on past theoretical studies.  The causal variables examined were: market-based pricing of water, routine (regular) fiscal investment, administrative coordination by the local-level of government, self-organized management of the irrigation system, and the hiring of a water monitor/guard.

The results combined in 3 configurations:

  • Having routine fiscal investment and administrative coordination – what we term governance by the government
  • Having either market-based pricing, self-organization, and administrative coordination or market-based pricing, self-organization, routine fiscal investment and a water guard  - what we view as a form of mixed governance  with elements of formal government and self-governance combined
  • Having a self-organized system of governance

The analysis is still in the preliminary phases, and based on the Q&A after the talk, we have both a number of interesting insights and a number of areas that need more work.  We hope to finalize the manuscript and submit over the next few months!

Here is a photo from Chai of one of the irrigation canals:




Student projects in Sustainability

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am teaching two courses this semester – one undergraduate course (Policy and Governance in Sustainable Systems) and one graduate course (Applied Projects, as a Capstone or Culminating Experience).  Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share what some of these project teams have undertaken.  The results are quite amazing.

This week, I want to focus on a project led by Sigma Dolins called Maus Haus (  Maus Haus is a tiny house (136 sq ft), entirely built by students.  They have designed it to feature as many issues of green, sustainable building as possible.  It has been built with recycled SIP (structural insulated panels), will have a composting toilet (not as icky as you might think), solar panels for all energy needs, and on-demand hot water.  It is an amazing example of sustainable living.

The finished project will be used for educational outreach with ASU’s Sustainability GK-12 programs, promoting a number of features that can be incorporated in construction projects.

For more see the fantastic video that the team put together:

The video was made for fundraising purposes.  Whether that holds any interest to you is beside the point, what they have done is pretty cool.  Take a look and see.

Sustainability Consulting Services

Over the past year, I have had the wonderful experience of working with some of the most motivated and hardworking students that I have ever met.  I serve as faculty advisor for Greenlight Solutions, a student sustainability consulting organization that is rapidly growing beyond the bounds of campus.  Their website,, highlights their vision of their organization, their approach to sustainability, and some of their early success stories and client engagements.

To summarize their vision and mission, I see their work flowing along two parallel tracks.  First, they are engaged with a number of real-world clients (WWF- World Wildlife Fund, General Dynamics, Orcutt-Winslow Architecture, Phoenix Metro, among several others).  For their clients, they deliver professional sustainability solutions to challenges that these companies face.  Second, they provide educational training for students and, more importantly, experiential learning opportunities for their members with real stakeholders.  In both, they are succeeding wildly and positioning themselves for success in their future careers.

The organization currently has around 25 members working on 6 projects with plans to grow over the next two years to 100 members engaged on 20 projects.  They are also in the process of developing satellite chapters at other universities.

As my previous posts have alluded, much of my teaching and mentoring involves problem and project-based learning approaches where students must find solution options to real world problems and challenges, not made for the classroom assignments.  Greenlight Solutions takes this approach to the next level by providing the means and mechanisms for students to find their own challenges and sense of purpose.  With that comes valued experience, a burgeoning network of contacts in the fields in which they want to work, the satisfaction of doing a good job, and the enjoyment of working with a well-functioning team.  If everyone’s work did the same, well, wouldn’t that be a nice thought.


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