7. Developing Effective Sustainability Curricula

Maine Sustainability & Water ConferenceAll-Day Session (Arnold Room, North Wing, 1st Floor)

Rachel Hovel, Assistant Professor of Biology, University of Maine at Farmington
Denise Bruesewitz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Colby College

Additional Organizer: Douglas Reusch, Professor of Geology, University of Maine at Farmington

In light of a myriad of environmental challenges, the need for high quality undergraduate curricula on topics of sustainability has never been more urgent. This session showcases new or established courses, modules, and programs that are developed to educate and engage students to generate solutions out of sustainability problems. While the science of global change is critical to student understanding of this broad topic, we note that effective sustainability solutions must engage the expertise of the social sciences and humanities. As formats and teaching strategies, project-based experiences may engage students more deeply and empower them with the technical and social skills across disciplines that are necessary to navigate the challenging times ahead. However, co-teaching and interdisciplinary work poses many challenges for faculty, including coherent methodology across subject areas, unification of topics, work load, and others. A priority of this session is therefore to focus on effective development and implementation of courses and programs aimed to address the complex sustainability challenges our students will face in the critical decades that lie ahead.

Session Schedule

Sustainability Curricula: Classroom Tools

  • 8:30AM – 8:45AM: WaYS to Change Academic Paradigms, tish carr (student)
  • 8:45AM – 9:00AM: Co-learning Sustainability Science & Policy: An interdisciplinary approach to food waste reduction, Brieanne Berry (student), Shayla Rose Kleisinger (student), Taylor Patterson (student)
  • 9:00AM – 9:15AM: Conservation in the National Parks: Past, present and future, Donelle Schwalm
  • 9:15AM – 9:30AM: Sink or swim: A foundation course in sustainability for all by all, Douglas Reusch
  • 9:30AM – 9:45AM: Mining in Maine? A focus topic for an introductory Environmental Geology course, Julia Daly
  • 9:45AM – 10:00AM: Post-apocalyptic Survivor: A Game to Examine the Consequences of Environmental Collapse, Peter Hardy
  • 10:00AM – 10:15AM: Teaching Sustainability by Linking Environmental History and Political Ecology for Effective Field-Based Pedagogy, Jesse Minor
  • 10:15AM – 10:30AM: Restoration Ecology as a framework for teaching sustainability, Susan G. Letcher

Sustainability Curricula

  • 1:30PM – 1:45PM: Reinventing an interdisciplinary marine affairs curriculum for the 21st century, Susan E. Farady
  • 1:45PM – 2:00PM: University Sustainability as a Teaching Tool: Applications from the University of Maine at Farmington, Lucas C. Kellett
  • 2:00PM – 2:15PM: Preparing the Next Generation: A Sustainability Curriculum Focused on Professional Development, Lora Winslow, Ethel Wilkerson, Abigayl Novak (student)
  • 2:15PM – 2:30PM: Guiding Learners Towards Authentic Leadership and Purpose, Shawn Mercer, Maizey Mercer (student)

Sustainability Curricula: Business

* Presenters are indicated in bold font.

Morning Session

Sustainability Curricula: Classroom Tools

8:30AM – 8:45AM

WaYS to Change Academic Paradigms

tish carr (student)1, Darren Ranco2
1 WaYS Program, University of Maine, Orono, ME
2 Native American Program, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Maine, Orono, ME


The past five years, the Wabanaki Youth in Science program (WaYS) has been the “bridge” for Native high school students to learn more about STEM fields at the high school level to help develop and implement programs to address the myriad of challenges to encourage place-based solutions to long-term sustainable issues for Native students. This has been done by integrating Wabanaki Ecological Knowledge (WEK) and western science in an outdoor, place-based education setting utilizing Cultural Knowledge Keepers (CKK) and western science resource professionals (WSRP). There has been a 15% increase in the number of Native Youth attending University of Maine, Orono in the science field over the last 3 years.Through a National Science Foundation grant, this successful model educational program is being expanded into post-secondary education.

Through partnership and inclusion of CKK into core curriculum within the School of Forest Resources forest management classes and the College of Engineering hydrology class, CKK and WSRP work together to include WEK and western science into current curriculum. The goal is to change the academic paradigm to create a different model of communicating and learning through the inclusion of Cultural/Indigenous Knowledge (IK). The inclusion of IK provides a mechanism and potential action for change for both Native and non-Native students to understand the critical role cultural knowledge has within the learning environment. Developing “best management practices (BMP’s) will be one of the final products of this research to assist in the knowledge transfer beyond Maine.

Preliminary results from a pilot study in Spring 2018, showed over 80% of the students in the forestry classes had a strong desire to have IK and western science included in future curriculum. The WaYS educational model is proving to be an effective mechanism to create change not only for Native students to learn about science but non-Native students. This educational model can help address sustainability challenges for all learners.

8:45AM – 9:00AM

Co-learning Sustainability Science & Policy: An interdisciplinary approach to food waste reduction

Brieanne Berry (student)1, Shayla Rose Kleisinger (student)2, Taylor Patterson (student)2
1 Department of Anthropology, University of Maine, Orono, ME
2 University of Maine, Orono, ME


Food waste is a complex issue that is situated at the intersection of multiple academic disciplines. For several years the Materials Management Research Group, an interdisciplinary team based out of the University of Maine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, has sought to connect research to practice on food waste issues in Maine. With a goal of increasing student engagement at all levels, and with support from multiple funders, in 2018 the Research Group established a program to train a team of undergraduates in interdisciplinary research centered around issues of food waste. This team of five students represents a broad range of academic disciplines, with the goal of conducting research to build a more circular food system in Maine. We present a case study of our first team of scholars, sharing some of the obstacles we faced in training students in interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented research. We also share the impact this program has had on our students, along with implications for other contexts and opportunities for collaboration across the state of Maine. We found that although interdisciplinary work is complex and often slow-moving, it presents important opportunities for undergraduate and graduate student collaboration, as well as contributions to real-world problem solving.

9:00AM – 9:15AM

Conservation in the National Parks: Past, present and future

Donelle Schwalm
Department of Biology, University of Maine at Farmington, Farmington, ME


With the dual mandates of preservation and accessibility, the National Parks are one of the United States’ best-known and most visible experiments in sustainability. I will present the framework for an in-development course that offers an in-situ, experiential learning opportunity for undergraduate students. Students will travel from the University of Maine-Farmington to the western United States, where they will spend 2.5 weeks completing a driving circuit, visiting approximately 7 National Parks in 8 states. Parks were chosen based on their potential to showcase at least one of the following: ecological diversity conserved in the National Parks System (NPS), history of the NPS, cultural value and indigenous history, conservation action within or in collaboration with the NPS, and emergent challenges associated with climate change, development outside park borders, and/or increasing visitor pressure. I will discuss the intended learning outcomes and the approaches used to engage students in both faculty-directed and self-directed learning. Insights into logistics, budgeting, timing and safety management will also be provided. Finally, I will discuss possible ways that this course could be modified to incorporate other forms of land preservation and ecological conservation (federal, state, NGO and private), with a focus on the eastern United States.

9:15AM – 9:30AM

Sink or swim: A foundation course in sustainability for all by all

Douglas Reusch1, Peter Hardy1, Kristen Case1, Lucas Kellett1, Paul Stancioff1, Andrew Barton1, Rachel Hovel1, Matthew McCourt1, Jesse Minor1, Wendy Harper1, Linda Beck1, Maurice Martin1, John Messier1, Natasha Lekes1, Katrazyna Randall1, Patti Bailie1, Karl Kreutz2, Kirk Maasch2
1 University of Maine at Farmington, Farmington, ME
2 University of Maine, Orono, ME


The world’s responsible governments, prodded by sound science, have challenged us to halve emissions by 2030. Meanwhile, the inverse relationship between biodiversity and humanity’s success (7.7 billion in number, collectively converting energy at >18 TW) further fuels the need to veer off a business-as-usual trajectory. How can universities, ripe with faculty expertise and student energy, contribute? What if the vast majority of early college students, about to make critical life choices, were to acquire both a deep understanding of the problem and the resolve to enact solutions?

At UMF, a group of faculty from all corners of campus is piloting an interdisciplinary course “Building a Sustainable Future.” The semester will open and close with perspectives from the humanities. Essential background material from earth system science will set the stage for a diverse landscape of constructive responses, i.e., the various levers with potential to change humanity’s trajectory. Here, the social sciences play a large role in figuring out how the economic, political, social, and psychological pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Special presentations by disciplinary experts, on a weekly frequency, constitute the skeleton of the semester, to be complemented by student engagement in the analysis of close-to-home case studies (e.g., nearby renewable energy projects, critical minerals, local agriculture). Experiments with various pedagogical techniques (e.g., dynamical systems modeling, games/simulations, local field trips) will be assessed through the semester. The ultimate vision is a template that works when scaled up and exported to nourish a widespread culture of sustainability and earth stewardship.

9:30AM – 9:45AM

Mining in Maine? A focus topic for an introductory Environmental Geology course

Julia Daly
Dept. of Geology, University of Maine at Farmington, Farmington, ME

One of the key questions about green/sustainable energy expansion is the production of raw materials to support this effort. In addition, recent changes in Maine’s mining regulations highlighted mineral reserves in the state and the potential for their removal. This prompted me to design an introductory-level Environmental Geology course with an emphasis on this question: should mining be expanded in Maine? The course culminates with an in-class debate during the final week of the semester, but the topic provides a common thread to a variety of class and lab activities throughout the semester. Mineral characteristics and identification, basic rock identification, geologic map reading, watersheds and surface hydrology, and Maine’s plate tectonic history can all be tied to this question. We visit a local active granite quarry and learn about their methods for extraction and waste management, prompting the students to realize that the term “mining” is very broad and that removal of different materials carries different environmental concerns. As we move closer to the end of the semester, I assign students to teams based on a pre-assessment that included a simple gauge of their support for mining in Maine near the beginning of the semester. The teams are a mix of students who self-identified as either pro or con; each team is responsible for deciding on major topics, researching fact sheets, and developing debate questions. Following the debate, students have the opportunity to reflect on the question and how understanding geology can help inform their position.

9:45AM – 10:00AM

Post-apocalyptic Survivor: A Game to Examine the Consequences of Environmental Collapse

Peter Hardy
Mathematics, University of Maine at Farmington, Farmington, ME


It is February of 2019. Two weeks ago a coordinated series of eco-warrior attacks have severely damaged the extraction, refinement and distribution of oil worldwide causing widespread chaos and mayhem. The United States has declared a state of emergency for the entire country. Gasoline is being rationed. A blackout of the entire region began three days ago with no timetable for the restoration of electric service.The university has closed its doors and told all of its students to go home, but all of the gasoline in your car has been siphoned and there is nowhere you can buy more. Having run out of options, you decide to hole-up at your forward-thinking professor’s farm with the rest of your classmates. Your task is to survive the winter and make plans to survive long-term if humanity never recovers from this calamity.

The above scenario has been presented to students of sustainability as a semester long project/game in which they must cooperate with and compete against each other and various other factions for dwindling resources in a worldwide crisis. The game helps them to begin to think about what life might be like in a post-fossil fuel world if viable energy alternatives are not implemented before fossil fuels run out. It is a somewhat light-hearted way for students to examine the consequences should we not find solutions to the myriad challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century. The game could be modified for a wide range of courses which touch upon sustainability.

10:00AM – 10:15AM

Teaching Sustainability by Linking Environmental History and Political Ecology for Effective Field-Based Pedagogy

Jesse Minor1, Neil Prendergast2
1 Department of Geography & Environmental Planning, University of Maine at Farmington, Farmington, ME
2 Department of History and International Studies, University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, Stevens Point, WI


Scholars and educators who teach sustainability topics using field-based, experiential pedagogy can gain powerful tools for understanding environmental change by combining techniques from the fields of environmental history and political ecology. In field settings, we frequently encounter landscapes in which facets of the important story are no longer visible, having been overwritten by more recent geomorphic, biological, and anthropogenic forces and processes. Environmental history and political ecology both provide useful intellectual structure for addressing sustainability topics, particular those in which the influence of the past has a high degree of influence on contemporary and future conditions. Environmental history, with its focus on human interactions with the natural world over time, delivers a deeper historical perspective and context than is often evident at the veneer of the site level. Political ecology, which understands environmental change as a combination of biophysical and political, economic, and social factors, offers tools and techniques for interrogating recent changes to landscapes. By combining the intellectual frameworks of political ecology and environmental history, sustainability educators can more effectively interrogate and explain environmental change. These complimentary approaches to understanding environmental change can be combined with additional sustainability-related disciplines to yield novel interdisciplinary insights and more effective field-based teaching. In this presentation, we illustrate the potent insights that can be gained by combining environmental history and political ecology using examples from a field-based course focusing on a suite of cultural, economic, and ecological changes on the Santa Cruz River and in Tucson, Arizona.

10:15AM – 10:30AM

Restoration Ecology as a framework for teaching sustainability

Susan G. Letcher
College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, ME


My primary goal as a professor is to equip students with skills and habits of mind that will enable them to confront an uncertain future and find solutions instead of becoming mired in problems. In a decade of undergraduate teaching, I have found that the course that is most effective in engaging undergraduates and transforming their views about sustainability is an intermediate-level course on Restoration Ecology. This emerging field of biology focuses on using science to guide the renewal of ecological systems damaged by human activity. As an inherently transdisciplinary field, Restoration Ecology forces its practitioners to move outside their comfort zones, engaging with diverse stakeholders and grappling with problems that span the biological, social, and political realms. It calls us to critically examine the ethics of the human relationship with the Earth and its ecological systems. And as a field focused on active solutions, it provides an antidote to the despair that often undermines real progress toward sustainability. Teaching Restoration Ecology as a project-based course with real-world applications makes it particularly compelling. In this talk, I will address the features of the class that make it effective, and I will advocate for greater diffusion of the key concepts of Restoration Ecology at the undergraduate level.

Afternoon Session

Sustainability Curricula

1:30PM – 1:45PM

Reinventing an interdisciplinary marine affairs curriculum for the 21st century

Susan E. Farady
University of New England School of Marine Programs, Biddeford, ME

In 2013, the University of New England developed a new interdisciplinary major in marine affairs to meet the needs of students interested in the ocean who do not want to pursue a marine science degree or science career path. The marine affairs curriculum was assessed against similar curricula in 2014-16 to ensure the curriculum was competitive with other schools, could be delivered with current resources, and provided students the skills needed to pursue career paths in marine-related policy, outreach and education, and management. The review revealed that marine affairs students did not need the full suite of biology, math and chemistry courses typically required for marine science degrees. It was also determined that students needed exposure to GIS, environmental economics, and law and policy in order to be fluent in interdisciplinary marine management and conservation issues. Finally, students need exposure to different disciplines and organizations engaged in marine management, as well as hands-on opportunities; the accomplish this, students must take at least one course in outreach/education, one course in business organization and management, do at least one 3-credit internship, and complete a senior marine affairs capstone project. Many of these changes required cooperation among different departments and institutional flexibility to offer the range of courses required. The revised curriculum has improved student retention, exposes them to many career path options, and provides them with essential interdisciplinary skills to address sustainable marine resource management in the 21st century.

1:45PM – 2:00PM

University Sustainability as a Teaching Tool: Applications from the University of Maine at Farmington

Lucas C. Kellett1, Drew Barton2
1 Anthropology and Archaeology, Sustainability Coordinator, University of Maine at Farmington, Farmington, ME
2 Biology, University of Maine at Farmington, Farmington, ME


This presentation highlights the role that university sustainability work can play in supporting sustainability education and awareness. Using examples from the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF), the authors discuss how university infrastructure (e.g., renewable energy) and sustainability initiatives (e.g., compost, food pantry) has supported sustainability coursework and student research in a myriad of ways. UMF’s Sustainable Campus Coalition (SCC) in particular, has served as an important interdisciplinary campus-community based organization to support sustainability curricula and research. In addition, the SCC has provided an important space in which students and others can discuss and engage in local, regional and global environmental and sustainability issues. Finally, the authors emphasize how UMF continues to serve as a real world “sustainability laboratory” to understand and teach the complex process of sustainability-based decision making.

2:00PM – 2:15PM

Preparing the Next Generation: A Sustainability Curriculum Focused on Professional Development

Lora Winslow1, Ethel Wilkerson1, Abigayl Novak (student)2
1 Sustainable Economies, Manomet, Brunswick ME
2 University of Maine, Orono ME


U360 is a curriculum-based sustainability internship program for college undergraduates. U360 gives environmental, business, economics, and science students real-world experience in three vital areas that are not taught in the classroom: applied sustainability, career skills, and how to engage people with differing viewpoints. While academic, technical, and scientific knowledge about sustainability is extremely important, that alone will not fully prepare students to tackle the complex environmental, social, and economic challenges facing their generation after graduation. Academic coursework must ideally be coupled with experience in the practical application of sustainability principles. College students need to know how to work with people who think differently from them, understand that solutions must be based on reality rather than theory, possess the interpersonal skills needed to engage others in problem-solving, and be ready to enter the workforce. Since its launch three years ago, over 70 students from ten universities (including six in Maine) have participated in the U360 curriculum, which includes sustainability workshops; career skills trainings; interviewing small businesses and administering Manomet’s sustainability assessment; creating a sustainability action plan; and presenting the action plan at a competition. While the educational focus of U360 is small business sustainability, the knowledge and professional skills gained can be applied to any job or industry. Most importantly, the understanding of how to develop practical, creative solutions can be applied to any area of sustainability. Our presentation will include detailed information about the U360 curriculum, evaluation metrics, and a first-hand account from a U360 “alum” from University of Maine.

2:15PM – 2:30PM

Guiding Learners Towards Authentic Leadership and Purpose

Shawn Mercer, Maizey Mercer (student)
Rural Roots Revival (Facebook: facebook.com/nancyplacemusic; Instagram: rural_roots_revival)

This presentation uses spoken word, images, and original acoustic music to break through resistance, doubt, and other thoughts of ineffectiveness and invites attendees to explore aspects of authentic leadership as pathways to a heart-centered place of action and purpose for both instructors and students. With the uncertain future that today’s youth are facing, they desire opportunities to contribute to work that has purpose and meaning; that contributes to solutions for a sustainable future. This presentation will discuss ways we can guide them in developing resilience, motivation, dedication, and a strong sense of purpose and efficacy. Our hope is that students and teachers will leave with the skills, knowledge, and enthusiasm needed to integrate this deeper level of learning into the regular curriculum.

2:30PM – 3:00PM
Afternoon Break – Auditorium

Sustainability Curricula: Business

3:00PM – 3:15PM

Teaching the Building of a Culture of Sustainability

John Rooks


Our solutions to the problems of climate change are 50% technical and 100% cultural. Teaching the strategies of building a culture (civic, corporate) of sustainability is an under-valued strategy for future sustainability practitioners.

The purpose of this presentation is to offer timely insights into corporate culture management when it comes to sustainability and to introduce a modern audit protocol to measure the authenticity of sustainability actions, commitments and messaging.

This presentation is three-fold:

  1. Presentation of first-hand case studies from corporations who have built authentic sustainability cultures (Interface Carpet, VANS).
  2. Introduction of an audit protocol used to test the authenticity of an organization’s commitment to sustainability.
  3. Facilitate a broad discuss the role culture plays in sustainability.

Participants will take away concrete examples of authentic corporate cultures focused on sustainability (and how they achieved them), a protocol to test in field studies outside the classroom, and a broader understanding of the role that culture must play in addressing climate change.

3:15PM – 3:30PM

Students providing sustainability assessments for sector based businesses

Peter Cooke1, Mike Dart (student)2
1 Manomet, Brunswick, ME
2 University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME

A Power Point presentation is not available for this talk. Please contact the speaker for additional information.

Adjunct Professor Peter Cooke has been taking students out of the classroom and bringing them on-site to actual businesses to provide sustainability assessments. Mr. Cooke’s on site experiences for his classes have focused on businesses that have a role in the tourism economy in Maine (hotels, restaurants, brew pubs, and grocery stores). These are businesses that people already have an intimate familiarity with but in this class, students begin to see the businesses though a new perspective of sustainable performance. Students are taught how to provide effective sustainability assessments covering the flow of energy and materials through these businesses. They are also taught how to effectively facilitate an effective on-site visit. Identifying opportunities at businesses is always educational, but how does one get the businesses to then perform better and take action on potential cost saving recommendations. The curriculum for the sustainability courses taught by Mr. Cooke includes these concepts and tools that become skills as the semester advances. Criteria from state sustainability programs are also built into the curriculum. Colleges in New Mexico, New Jersey, and New Hampshire are all working with Mr. Cooke to replicate the methodology.

3:30PM – 4:00PM

Co-chairs Rachel Hovel and Denise Bruesewitz will summarize session content, address questions from the audience, and discuss next steps for implementing sustainability curriculum.