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Establishing a sustainable design curriculum

Educators and students often ask how to integrate sustainability topics into their curriculum. A few key small steps can grow into a cultural change in academic institutions, starting with the most important one: having champions who are willing to experiment with better approaches for sustainable education.

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Students figuring out mechanisms for sustainable lighting solutions. Photo by Katharine Krueger

Introduction

Sustainability is becoming more popular everyday and for several good reasons. Everyone from professionals to educators, students, business people and policy makers understand its important role in fixing many of the issues that affect today’s society as well as its ability to provide a better future. These issues are affecting everyone and it is time to make significant changes to the way that global society works. A perfect place to generate this change is in the classroom, but sometimes taking the first step can be challenging. Perhaps it is unclear where to begin or easy to make assumptions that end up doing more harm than good. Educators in particular want to make sure that students learn key tools for effectively addressing sustainability issues. 

Why is sustainability important?

The fist step in integrating Sustainability into a design curriculum is to understand its importance and benefits. Although there are many ways of defining sustainability, a simple way of understanding it is as a group of strategies that allow for life to continue without interruption. This concept, as basic as it sounds, has not been embraced by many industries and policies and that is why we have issues such as depleted resources, climate change, and social and economic inequality. A golden rule for Sustainability is to look both at the big picture and at specific details. Breaking down large problems into manageable parts and coming up with solutions that address specific issues helps in achieving short-term results. At the same time, taking a step back and understanding connections between different solutions assures that different parts in a life cycle won’t become problems to each other. Implementing both levels of solutions provides a path for a future that can last forever by protecting precious resources and elevating quality of life.

What do students get out of this?

Younger generations are very vocal about their concern for how natural resources have been handled in the past. They want to make sure that they enjoy the planet at its fullest and that they don’t leave for future generations the problems that have been handed to them. When students learn about sustainability strategies, they become empowered with tools for changing things for the better and they also become more attractive to potential employers. Many companies are looking everywhere for people who know how to provide sustainability benefits to the business. This is a skill that provides a competitive edge and that, surprisingly enough, not every candidate possesses. 

Tips for integrating sustainability into your curriculum

Below are a few ideas that can help anyone to integrate sustainability into their curriculum. These ideas cover a wide variety of areas and can be applied one by one or simultaneously, depending on the topics that you want to cover and the interests of the people involved. It is better to start small and to build up than to try to cover too much ground all at once and to get confused along the way. 

Try short projects first

If you don’t feel comfortable with adding several topics on sustainability all at once, start with a short project that focuses on a specific topic. Good options include extending the useful life of a product, increasing recycling habits, reducing transportation and packaging, or exploring materials that are renewable and use less energy to produce. By focusing on specific topics and goals you will be able to test ideas, cover your content more effectively and adjust details as needed for future projects. While devoting an entire semester or year to sustainability is a lot of fun, defining a project that lasts only one or two weeks is enough to create meaningful results. If you need inspiration for which projects to introduce, check out the curriculum section in Autodesk Design Academy. These resources have great case studies and course outlines that are easy to follow and offer exciting assignments for your students.

Find the right time and the right place

One of the fun aspects of working on sustainability is to be hands-on and to come up with tangible solutions. Courses set up as laboratories or studios are excellent choices as they provide space for project-based assignments. As for the level of courses, there is no actual limit here. Just keep in mind that assignments at the secondary level can address more general issues and focus on increasing awareness around sustainability, while projects at the post-secondary level can go a step further and apply more specific skill sets and technical knowledge. 

Get someone else involved

A big component of sustainability is to connect with other communities and to help in real situations. Connect with local organizations and explore needs that they might have. Maybe a soup kitchen needs help with serving food quickly to their visitors or a local community center is having issues with keeping their recycling organized or upgrading their playgrounds. Students will appreciate working on real projects a lot more than working on fictional projects by themselves in a classroom. You can also reach out to other colleagues and come up with collaborative projects. Having multiple perspectives on a design problem pushes the ideas to a higher level, and teaches everyone to find common languages and to understand how other disciplines work.  

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Design students worked with a community-based bakery to design breadboxes that solved issues of transportation and storage. Photo by A. Lobos​

Eyes on the prize

From the beginning of a project, try to be clear on what your end goal is. As you start working on a problem, you might identify several areas that need to be addressed, but don’t feel like you need to attack them all at once. You will be more effective if you prioritize key areas that are more critical or on which you have more control. Check out the online course Principles of Sustainable Design that contains great insights and lesson plans for how to understand concepts like Whole Systems and Lifecycle Thinking, lightweighting, and reducing energy loss. If you focus on those key areas first, your solutions will be more effective and you can go back and address the other areas at a later time. Product development is oftentimes a good place to start assessing sustainability needs, as many products and systems have most of their environmental impact during their production phase while in others it happens at the end of life. Once you identify the area of greatest need in your project, it will be easy to define your focus. This will make you and your students more efficient and you will be able to measure results more effectively.

Go beyond ecology

When people think about sustainability, what often comes to mind is reducing environmental footprint via recycling or reduction of water and energy use. These issues are critical and are very important to cover, but true sustainability goes beyond ecological issues and also includes social and economic ones. The combination of these three components is called the Triple Bottom Line (TBL). You can learn more about TBL in this article from MindTools. Making a good impact has to do with empowering people and addressing economic issues as much as it is about protecting the planet. This comprehensive vision of sustainable development will also make your students realize the true power of design for creating positive change in people’s lives and on our planet.

Expand gradually

Once you have a project or two that work well, you could expand to devoting an entire course to sustainable design. When doing this, it is important to define which areas or strategies will be covered in which project(s). An ideal next step would be to go beyond your own courses and have other courses or levels of your program start integrating some of these topics. Expanding sustainability to other parts of the curriculum is very exciting and allows departments to tackle sustainability topics from angles that could be both theoretical and practical. You can have discussions with your colleagues and identify a strategy that works well for your department and doesn’t put a lot of pressure on specific areas. It is not necessary to include sustainability in every single course of your curriculum; sometimes a handful of key courses or assignments is enough to change the culture of your academic unit.

 

These are just a few ideas on how to start introducing Sustainability into your courses and projects. Working on addressing these issues will make you grow as an educator and your students will appreciate the chance of working on relevant and deserving topics. Once you get things going, you will notice that your colleagues and students will feel inspired and will want to get involved in solving important sustainability issues.