Sustainability and Pedagogy

In a globalizing world of limited resources and unlimited ingenuity, colleges and universities play a vital role in preparing students to meet the sustainability challenges of the future.  The imperatives of sustainability point not only to new course content, but also to new ways of teaching that content.  As a project with relevance across the disciplines, sustainability presents a valuable paradigm for rethinking pedagogy.


What is Sustainability?

What is sustainability?  What do we want to sustain?  An important part of teaching sustainability issues involves keeping these questions always open and alive.  Sustainability offers a novel framework for asking enduring philosophical questions: What is the good life?  How do we create a better world?  Thinking and teaching about sustainability are future-oriented projects, but the relevance of sustainability principles and practices must be articulated in the present. 

The term “sustainability” has an important history in development literature.  In 1983, the United Nations convened the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), known informally by the name of its chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland.  The Brundtland Comission’s report, Our Common Future (1987), contains one of the most often cited definitions of sustainability:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

• the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and

• the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.”

The scope of sustainability is frequently described as including three spheres – social, environmental, and economic.  To use an accounting metaphor, sustainability projects must be evaluated according to a “triple bottom line” of social, environmental, and economic responsibility.  A Venn diagram depicts the interdisciplinarity of sustainability as a field of inquiry:


Sustainability is at once an integrative discipline and a multidisciplinary project; it has statistical, scientific, and humanistic dimensions.  With its focus on specific problems and particular solutions, sustainability suggests place-based and project-based approaches to student learning.  Teaching towards sustainability also reminds us that pedagogy is a civic project; there are important ties between classroom and community.



Teaching sustainability is both exciting and challenging because of the interdisciplinary nature of the problems at stake.  When teaching these issues, instructors are often working outside their own areas of expertise.  How do you bring new content knowledge into the classroom without overburdening yourself?  Ways to build interdisciplinary classrooms include:

  • Team Teaching:
    • The CFT’s web module on team teaching offers guidance and resources for instructors who are considering this form of collaboration.


  • Guest Speakers:
    • Guest speakers extend the boundaries of the classroom, helping students to see the course as a part of a larger network of ideas and conversations. 
    • The expert’s visit presents an external motivation for students to engage with readings and assignments.
    • Careful planning can help to ensure that guest contributions will enhance student learning.
      • Let guests know ahead of time the topic of the course and how their visits fit with the themes of the class.
      • Assign students to submit questions in the expert’s area of interest.
      • Avoid presentations; invite the expert to class to participate in an interview instead.
      • Consider inviting guests with opposing views.
    • (this info on guest speakers adapted from David Cook’s comments in Teaching and Learning Exchange 12/2 (Winter 2005): 9, published by the University Teaching Services at the University of Alberta, Canada)


Place-Based and Project-Based Learning:

Teaching towards sustainability lends itself to place-based and project-based approaches to pedagogy.  Although sustainability is a global goal, its problems and solutions are always importantly situated in local ecologies and communities.  Instructors might consider taking a “bioregional” approach to teaching about place, encouraging students to think about their local watershed as a meaningful way to conceptualize community.  In addition, focusing on sustainability solutions requires the cultivation of an imaginative experimentalism – the difficulties involved in transitioning to a more sustainable world can only be worked out in the process of formulating practical alternatives to the problems at hand. 


  • Field Trips:
    • Field trips bring people together in ways that go beyond traditional classroom experiences.  Planning the logistical details of a field trip take time and foresight, but the rewards of a well-planned field experience can make it worth the effort.
    • Be sensitive to time and place; it is impossible to plan for every contingency, but keep in mind the variability of seasonal weather.
    • Don’t plan every minute of the trip.  Create time for observation and “poking around.”
    • Create solo time – consider having students bring a journal; offer the option of a reflective writing assignment.
  • Campus as Sustainability Classroom
    • Encourage students to think of the campus as a sustainability laboratory.  Assign projects that allow students to create solutions to sustainability issues they identify in their own dormitories and dining halls.
    • Get in touch with your campus sustainability coordinator to brainstorm projects and to help connect students with existing campus resources and organizations.


Classroom and Community

There is an important relationship between the university and the larger community of which it is a part.  Teaching about sustainability is, in large part, a civic education.  Instructors can encourage students to see not only their campus, but also the city and countryside in which it is located, as a sustainability classroom.  Assign projects that help students to map and engage with sustainability issues and initiatives in the community.  Consider assigning students to attend a city council meeting and write a response.


Local Sustainability Resources:

Sustainability and Environmental Management Office: The SustainVU website offers an invaluable resource for instructors who want to familiarize themselves with the sustainability landscape at Vanderbilt.  SEMO’s mission is to initiate, promote, coordinate, evaluate, and encourage environmental management and sustainability initiatives that improve Vanderbilt’s impact on the community and environment. 

Vanderbilt Biodiesel Initiative: VBI is Vanderbilt’s student-run biodiesel production system, which converts waste vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel that is used by several VU diesel-fueled engines.  One of the byproducts of this process, glycerin, is used to make EcoSuds soap, which is sold at several locations on campus.  VBI aims to educate others about the viability of biodiesel as an alternative fuel.

Vanderbilt School for Science and Math:  The School for Science and Math is a joint venture between VUMC and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools offering high school students an interdisciplinary, research-centered learning experience.  The School for Science and Math has developed innovative sustainability projects and learning experiences, including a biodiversity inventory of Vanderbilt’s campus, a bioassessment of the Little Harpeth River, and a videoconference with scientists in Hawaii to discuss the Pacific Gyre Garbage Patch.

Tennessee Higher Education Sustainability Association: THESA is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting and promoting sustainability initiatives taking place within higher education institutions within Tennessee.  It seeks to ensure that the societal movement toward sustainability is reflected in and promoted at college and university campuses across the state.   The THESA website offers information about relevant conferences and other events, resources for instructors, information on model programs across the state, and updates on campus sustainability initiatives in the local news.


Other Resources:

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education: AASHE is an association of colleges and universities working to create a sustainable future.  AASHE provides resources, professional development opportunities, and a network of support to enable institutions to model and advance sustainability in everything from governance and operations to education and research.  Vanderbilt is a member of AASHE, with full access to their resources.  Just be sure to use your address when signing up for an account.

The Association for Experiential Education: AEE is a nonprofit, professional membership association dedicated to experiential education and the students, educators and practitioners who utilize its philosophy.  Their website includes information on relevant books, articles, conferences, and other resources.

The Journal of Sustainability Education: JSE serves as a forum for academics and practitioners to share, critique, and promote research, practices, and initiatives that foster the integration of economic, ecological, and socio-cultural dimensions of sustainability within formal and non-formal educational contexts.  JSE is a peer-reviewed, open-access, trans- and interdisciplinary e-journal.

The Center for Ecoliteracy: The Center for Ecoliteracy promotes the green schooling movement.  The Center is best known for its work with school gardens, school lunches, and integrating ecological principles and sustainability into school curricula.  The Center for Ecoliteracy offers books; teaching guides; professional development seminars; a sustainability leadership academy; keynote presentations; and consulting services.

Global Footprint Network: The Global Footprint Network supports the shift towards a sustainable economy by advancing the Ecological Footprint, a measurement and management tool that makes the reality of global limits central to decision-making.  Ecological footprint projects can be an effective way to get students thinking about how sustainability intersects with their lives.



Barlett, Peggy, and Geoffery Chase.  Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change.  Boston: MIT Press, 2004. (available in the CFT library)

Hernandez, Carlos, and Rashmi Mayur.  Pedagogy of the Earth: Education for a Sustainable Future.  Kumarian Press, 1999.

Kahn, Richard.  Critical Pedagogy, Ecoliteracy, and Planetary Crisis: the Ecopedagogy Movement. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

Orr, David.  Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Stibbe, Arran.  The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World.  Green Books Press, 2010.  (available in the CFT library)


Blogs and Podcasts:

On March 30, 2010, the CFT hosted a panel discussion on “Sustainability Across the Curriculum.”  See our blog post for a full description of the conversation.  We also recorded the panelists’ comments as a podcast.



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