Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Student Sustainability Consulting Projects

Now that the spring semester is in full stride, my Junior-level “Policy and Governance” class is once again engaged in a number of sustainability consulting engagements with local and state governmental agencies.  Student teams of 4 or 5 are working as consultants for government officials and responding to questions solicited from the agencies.  The projects include:

  • Helping Avondale research and set up a farmer’s market;


  • Creating a plan for Gilbert’s Water Conservation group to reduce commercial water consumption;

Gilbert water

  • Supporting Queen Creek’s efforts to have green waste pick up for its residents; and

QC landscape

  • Working with the Arizona State Forestry’s Urban and Community Forestry group on management of edible trees.

AZ Forestryoranges

In the coming weeks, I’ll provide more details about the projects and what the consultants are recommending. I’m very excited about these projects in terms of providing great experiential learning opportunities for the students, strengthening ties between the School of Sustainability and its community, and providing workable solutions to practitioners’ real issues.


Getting a job in the field of Sustainability

As a faculty member in a School of Sustainability (, we spend a great deal of time preparing our students for life after college.  It’s a bit different than many other majors.  After all, everyone knows what an engineer or an accounting major can do.  But what does a sustainability graduate do?  What skills do they bring to the table?  I’ve written a great deal about the structure of our curriculum, the training our students receive, and how we prepare them for future employment in the past:

In future posts, I’ll write a bit more on our learning objectives in the school and how we’ve structured curriculum along skill sets that we want our students to take away rather than the topical areas of many other lines of study (environmental or otherwise).  I’ll expand a bit on the New American University at that point as well (for now, see

Instead, what I’d like to focus on is something of grave concern to our current students, their parents, and prospective students – job prospects upon graduation.  I’m very pleased to write that tracking all of our students from the first graduates until the past semester, we see the following:

  1. We have graduated 448 undergrad sustainability majors.
  2. Tracking most of those, 86% of them are employed with another 12% in graduate school.
  3. Of those employed, nearly 50% are in a sustainability position or a sustainability field.
  4. We have graduated 50 Master’s students and 13 PhDs.
  5. All of our grad students are employed.
  6. Of our Master’s students, 82% are employed in Sustainability.

So, if you are thinking about enrolling in Sustainability but are worried about finding a job, or if your friends and family are pushing you away from following your dreams toward a more “realistic” path, please take a look at the data first.  Great opportunities await.

For more information, see our Dean Chris Boone’s blog post ( as well as the data on the School of Sustainability’s website, noted above.

Social-Ecological-Technical Systems

In the next month, I will kick off a new required course designed for ASU’s School of Sustainability’s incoming graduate students.  The course is called “Social-Ecological-Technical Systems”.   This literature based seminar course will guide students in developing an integrated approach/framework for thinking about complex adaptive systems in a sustainability context. While overviews of content, theories and methods from each of the SETS domains (Social, Ecological and Technical Systems) will be presented, the primary focus will be on how to bring these domains together. The goal is to enable students to explore the SETS interfaces (intersections) from an integrated perspective and to equip students to make those linkages in their research and in subsequent elective courses.

Translated into everyday language, we hope to get students thinking in a more holistic manner across a wider range of knowledge domains.  Most of the sustainability problems confronting humanity are not pure social, political, or economic in nature.  Nor are they environmental problems apart from human contribution and influence.  Likewise, the causes of and solutions to these problems are also not exclusively technical.  Rather, they are a conflagration of these three knowledge domains.  While we cannot expect anyone to be a master of all, we do hope to provide a baseline standard and recognition of how various fields inform our study of phenomena of interest and contribute to our understanding of them.  As such, the course will require reading seminal literature on a wide range of topics – biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, environmental and natural resource economics, industrial ecology, and resilience/robustness and many others.  If you have suggestions for topics that we should be covering or readings that we should do, please let me know.  We have a planned syllabus, but this has great scope and potential as a grand experiment.

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.

A New Application of Problem and Project-Based Learning

At the end of last summer, I wrote about an experimental approach to my 200-level undergraduate class, Systems Thinking, that used problem- and project-based learning (PPBL) techniques in the classroom.  As a lower-division course, I focused on more interactive approaches rather than real-world opportunities and outcomes.  I had student discussion leaders kick off each class by discussing a few key questions from the readings of the day.  I then had a Think-Pair-Share session where students spent a few minutes making notes to themselves in response to a question that I posed them.  They then partnered with a neighbor to discuss this for a few minutes.  Finally, the groups of two or three students then shared their discussion with the rest of the class for an extended group session.  The class ended with rapporteurs summarizing the day’s topics.

In general, this worked very well.  For those interested in trying a similar approach in your own class or training sessions, I would highly recommend it.  I’d also be happy to discuss in more detail.  The key is in crafting appropriate questions for the audience.  I do plan on changing a few aspects of this in the future.  First, the discussion leads often wandered away from the questions and into overviews or summaries of the readings.  This often took too long, led to misunderstandings or went in directions different from those that I had intended.  Second, the Think-Pair-Share sessions only work with some material and should be used with discretion.  Third, the reports from the rapporteurs took up time without adding a great deal.  However, the rapporteurs’ notes were invaluable.  I was able to post these to the course website.  Because they were being graded, they were generally quite thorough.  Also, there were always at least 2 student rapporteurs, so they tended to reinforce each other.  The main benefit was that they allowed the rest of the class to focus on the discussion without worrying about taking detailed notes.  It improved the performance (learning outcomes) of the entire class.

This semester I am teaching a 300-level environmental policy class.  I intend to use a similar format, except that I plan to augment it with a bit more lecture given that most class sessions have some more technical aspects that I want to cover myself.  I also intend to link this with the PPBL work that I’ve used in past versions of this course.  I link student project teams with local NGOs, municipal governments, or State agencies to help provide solutions to real-world challenges.  The students use what they learn in the course to help address problems that others face – the exact type of work that many of the students hope to engage with in their future careers.  They listen to the stakeholders present the issues.  Then working in teams, they present their findings in written reports and in presentations to the stakeholders themselves.  As a result, the students receive direct feedback on their work beyond the grades in a class.  They see the tangible contributions that they can make to society through what they’ve learned in class.

The semester starts next Monday.  We’ll see how it goes.

Systems Thinking Class Activity and Leverage Points

This morning we ran a bit of an experiment in my Systems Thinking class (mostly sophomore level undergrads).  This comes from the Meadows “Systems Playbook” text.  We formed two groups for ease of organizing.  One group of 8 was run by my TA.  I ran another group of 26.  We gave everyone a number and then had them select two other students as the “reference points”.  However, we gave them some stipulations.  First, if their own number was an odd number, they had to select Student Two.  Second, no one was allowed to select any of the three students wearing red shirts (my randomizing process for my group of 26).

We then asked them to move around until they were equidistant from their two reference points.  Before moving we discussed as a group what they thought would happen.  (Perhaps ask yourself the same question before reading ahead).  When they started moving, it took a couple minutes of shuffling around, bumping into each other, getting a tad too close, etc before settling into a stable formation.

Next, we had everyone return to the circle.  We then ran the same experiment except that when I said “stop”  the three Red Shirts  stopped moving while everyone else continued.   When the others settled into a formation, I said “go” and the Red Shirts moved again.  At this point there was a minor amount of shuffling around, but because none of these three could serve as reference points for others, they made very little difference on the rest of the group.

We returned to our original circle and ran this game a third time.  This time I randomly selected 3 people plus Participant 2 (the reference for the odd numbered participants).  When I said “stop”, these four stopped.  Once the formation emerged, I then said “go” to the four that I had stop earlier.  Because of Participant Two’s high leverage, the system had to reorganize substantially before coming to a halt again.

Finally, we ran the first treatment again with one exception.  This time we added a three second delay between when their reference moved and when they responded.  This caused quite a commotion and the delay kept the system from “equilibrating” in a reasonable amount of time.

This little adventure took about 20 minutes.  At that point, we went back to the classroom and discussed leverage points in systems and related it back to that day’s reading and how these concepts manifest themselves in the experiment.

I highly recommend it.

A Brief Comment on Problem and Project-based Learning in the Classroom

Over the past few years, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some experts on problem- and project-based learning (PPBL) through my courses in the School of Sustainability.  The idea behind this is to allow students to self-guide and direct their learning through engagement beyond the classroom.  Rather than having lecture-based classes, PPBL shifts the role of the instructor from “sage on the stage” to “guide from the side”.

The basic tenets (per Katja Brundiers, who has taught me about PPBL) are to create a learning environment where students work:

  • on “wicked problems” in sustainability,
  • in collaborative teams,
  • conducting self-directed research to investigate an issue,
  • simulating and/or engaging with real-world settings and developing life skills, and
  • reflecting on their learning, the group processes, and project outcomes.

It uses projects to convey two sets of learning – the core material of the course and skills in project management and team-building.  There are a number of ways to accomplish this in the classroom ranging from less self-directed learning in more traditional class settings to highly self-directed and real-world oriented.  I have used two formats in my own work.  The first is a group project which formed the core deliverables in a traditional class setting.  The second is a workshop course structured entirely around a real-world sustainability project – a sustainability consulting engagement, if you will.

In the classroom

The traditional class experience of PPBL divided the class up into small groups of 5 (12 groups in a class of 60).  The groups all selected from a handful of projects across a range of real-world issues in the community.  Examples included working with the Arizona State Land Department on conservation on public land, working on community engagement in the clean-up efforts of a Superfund site, looking at transportation options in a low-income section of Phoenix, and  so on.  The students were required to split the project up into sub-projects and have each team member investigate a portion of the project.  Some groups divided up around stakeholder groups.  Others took on various aspects of the project (the economics, the ecological component, the political/policy issues, etc).  They then prepared individual papers on their aspect of the problems being confronted in their project.  The next deliverable was a team presentation on the overall problem, integrating the individual components.  They also presented potential solutions.  After the presentation, they then began researching, as a group, which solution to recommend.  Throughout this, the students had some engagement with the external stakeholder, who also served as mentors (as well as judges for the presentations).  The projects had varying degrees of interaction between students and stakeholders.

In the workshop

The workshop course was a two semester course.  The first semester had graduate students working with external stakeholders to develop projects.  For this past term, we had projects on composting at the community-level (both institutionally at ASU and in providing a service to local restaurants), on urban farming and developing a student farm, and on building a retreat center for a sustainability consulting group using alternative building designs (rammed earth, straw bale, cord wood).  The grad students spent the fall creating the project frameworks and developing educational components around a number of skills and competencies that they would teach undergraduates in the spring.

This spring the three graduate student led projects interviewed and selected undergraduates for the class.  The students work in teams on 4 on the projects.  Class is structured around skill building once a week followed by a lab session where the teams meet to further their project.  They meet with the external stakeholders, conduct research (surveys, focus groups, semi-structured interviews, standard archival research), and prepare reports, presentations, and other feedback to the grad students and external project partners.  In the process, the grad students use the projects to convey educational material on sustainability and skill development.  The students gain knowledge, project experience, and real-world learning that they can use to convey their expertise as they approach graduation and pursue their careers.

I must admit that I’m still a novice, experimenting with new methods to instruct and to develop my students.  These are first steps to break free of old, dated modes of education.  Thoughts?