Our approach to sustainability education draws on the Washington Center’s longstanding work with learning communities and the core practices that engage students and foster lasting learning, and also from our Curriculum for the Bioregion working principles for building student understanding and agency through direct encounters with regional issues. This page features some of the strategies most frequently used by our faculty learning communities engaged with creating curriculum for the bioregion.
Many colleges and universities in Washington and elsewhere are now offering both introductory and advanced courses on sustainability. However, we believe that if we are to create a sustainable future, our students need to encounter sustainability content and concepts throughout their education—across all disciplines and areas of study. We encourage faculty members to use a big ideas approach to curriculum integration and to consider a range of possible learning outcomes involving concepts, skills, and habits of mind. One of our colleagues, Rob Turner at University of Washington Bothell has collected a range of resources related to “Sustainability’s Big Ideas” here.
Curricular learning communities intentionally link or cluster two or more classes that enroll a common student cohort; their faculty members collaboratively shapes the courses around an interdisciplinary theme or question. Although highly variable in form and content, learning communities represent an intentional restructuring of students’ time, credit, and learning experiences to build community and foster connections among students, faculty, and disciplines, and thereby enhance students’ engagement, learning, and academic success. Learning communities provide an ideal structure for exploring sustainability themes. The Washington Center (our parent organization here at The Evergreen State College) is a national resource for the learning community approach; it offers myriad resources and activities on learning community planning, implementation, and assessment.
Teaching cases built around complex, real-world problems and scenarios, can be powerful vehicles for engaging students in research, analysis, and reflective judgment. Cases have been developed in almost all disciplines and professional areas of study; many address sustainability issues. Here are some outstanding case collections and resources:
- The Evergreen State College’s Native Cases project focusing on issues in Indian country
- Conservation Bridge
- National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
- A list of additional case collections is provided on the Native Cases website.
Higher education needs to “construct environments where education for democracy and civic responsibility is pervasive, not partial; central, not peripheral” argues the recent compelling AACU report, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future.” Community-based learning, service-learning, and civic engagement projects can provide powerful vehicles for making sustainability principles tangible to students. Engaging students with involved citizens and professionals working on local/regional issues not only bridges theory and practice, it can inspire a lifetime of civic engagement. Extensive resources can be accessed from Campus Compact and the National Science Foundation-funded initiative, Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibility (SENCER). Community-based participatory research (CBPR) is research that is conducted as an equal partnership between traditionally trained "experts" and members of a community. In CBPR projects, community members participate fully in all aspects of the research process, from defining the research questions all the way to interpreting and using the research findings. Lin Nelson, one of our Curriculum for the Bioregion Steering Committee members, is a longtime practitioner of CBPR with students; her essay, “On and Off Campus: Learning in the Context of Democracy and Discomfort,” provides an insightful reflection for faculty members interested in this approach; Lin has also assembled a and a list of community-based participatory research resources.
As we engage students in community-based learning or as we ask them to wrestle with complex, pressing issues in the world, we also want them to integrate what they are learning with what they already know, believe, and value. In short, we want their learning to lead to deeper understanding, curiosity, insight, and commitment. Since 2009, one of our Curriculum for the Bioregion faculty learning communities has been developing both theory and practice related to pedagogies of reflection and contemplation. Our essay, “Why Sustainability Education Needs Pedagogies of Reflection and Contemplation” frames our current thinking. In addition, here is a summary of activities in our Curriculum Collection that involves pedagogies of reflection and contemplation. Additionally, Campus Compact and the Center for Civic Engagement at Washington State University offer resources and strategies for reflecting on experience.
Systems thinking (also called relational thinking, integrative thinking, or ecological thinking) is essential for understanding and addressing the highly complex and interconnected problems of the 21st century. Washington State is a leader nationally in writing Environmental and Sustainability Learning Standards that include systems-thinking skills. Along with some introductory resources and references on systems thinking, we recommend the “LinkingThinking” materials from World Wildlife Fund-Scotland.