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Teaching Sustainability

General Principles of Sustainability Education

According to a definition by the 1983 Brundtland Commission of the United Nations, sustainability means "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (as cited by Oberlin College, 2014). Individuals or organizations must consider three dimensions—environmental, social and economic—when assessing or promoting sustainability (Oberlin College, 2014).

Faculty around the world are incorporating or integrating sustainability into courses or across entire higher education campuses. At Santa Clara University, we have committed to a more sustainable way of living, and that commitment extends to education. For instance, the university aims to "prepare our students by integrating sustainability into the goal of educating the whole person."

Using the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) framework as a guide, many colleges and universities define the level of integration as either "sustainability-focused"—i.e., the entire course concentrates on sustainability or a sustainability challenge—or "sustainability-related"—i.e., the course incorporates one or more sustainability-focused activities, units, or modules.

Integrating Sustainability into a Course

Prepare your Course
  • Identify sustainability focus for a course activity, a course unit, or the entire course. Visit SCU's Center for Sustainability and consult with them about how to address sustainability.  The Center for Sustainability website provides information about integrating sustainability into courses and across the curriculum, and they also have curated teaching resources for faculty.
  • To get you thinking in advance, Daniel Fusch (2011, para. 2) shared two suggestions from leaders in sustainability integration:
    • "Identify real-world issues related to sustainability in the local community, and invite a class to conduct research and make recommendations.
    • Identify opportunities on your campus, and pose questions in the classroom on how to move forward."
  • Add or modify learning outcomes to include sustainability
Engage the Students
  • Let the students know that you have selected a sustainability focus for a specific activity, unit, or the whole course.
  • Via an online wiki or forum or classroom space, ask students to collectively share sustainability challenges or solutions that relate directly to a class topic. Ask the students to explain why they shared the article, advertisement, artifact, etc. and encourage the other students to ask questions.
  • One activity to try is a sustainable development debate. Select a sustainability theme that a) relates to some topic or aspect of your class or b) would help students achieve a learning outcome (e.g., critical thinking, writing). Assign students different roles related to the debate theme. For example, if the theme is sustainable consumption, then some students represent fishing or farming, business, consumers, environmentalists, etc. Ask them to research their positions in advance. Use part of a class period or an online discussion forum for students to compare their research and prepare their position. In class, ask students to reach the most sustainable solution or compromise through debate.

References and Additional Resources

Fang, C.C (2013, January 9). Ten Ways to Integrate Sustainability into the Curriculum. [blog post]. Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

Fusch, D. (2011, July 7). Integrating Sustainability into Curricular and Co-Curricular Programs. Academic Impressions.

Oberlin College – Office of Environmental Sustainability. (2014). Sustainability in the Curriculum.

UNESCO. (n.d.). Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future.


Page author:
Dr. Kevin Kelly, Lecturer at San Francisco State University

Last updated:
July 28, 2020