Michigan Sustainability Cases: An Open-Access Resource for Infusing Sustainability into Geoscience Curricula

MEGHAN WAGNER (megwagn@umich.edu) is a project manager and REBECCA HARDIN (rdhardin@umich.edu) is an associate professor of natural resources at the School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

Case studies have a long track record of producing positive learning outcomes in fields such as business, law, and medicine; however, they have yet to find widespread use in environmental science fields. That may change as a handful of organizations and initiatives, recognizing their value for environment and sustainability education, actively champion their adoption (Wei et al., 2018). One of these, Michigan Sustainability Cases (MSC), is an initiative housed in the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) at the University of Michigan, where some of our school's faculty have taught with cases for more than 30 years. For a professional school such as SEAS, case-based education has considerable relevance because students come to learn both practical skills and how to confidently engage with complex sustainability problems. Our initiative launched in 2016 with funding from the university's Transforming Learning for a Third Century Initiative and a mandate to make teaching and learning more inclusive and widely relevant across classrooms, fields, and sectors of society where rapid transitions to sustainable technologies and practices are required. To accomplish this, we are leveraging software as well as social innovations in engaged and experiential learning to create an open-access case repository and opportunities for face-to-face exchange linking research, teaching, and practice. The case repository is maintained on a learning platform called Gala ([www.learngala.com]), which was built in-house by MSC staff and is completely free for anyone to access and use.

Beyond the classroom, MSC seeks to transform the way cases are produced, consumed, and distributed. Our case studies are co-produced by teams of students, faculty, and practitioners. This allows for inclusive content creation with actors whose voices are less often heard in academic settings (i.e., practitioners), and it serves as a formative learning experience for the student authors. Cases consist of a narrative that describes a sustainability problem, Edgenotes (multimedia features displayed alongside the text), an engaged learning exercise, and often supplementary media such as a podcast. Through the production process, students gain skills in writing, field research, media production and curation, teamwork, and more. When finished, cases are published on the Gala platform. The online format of cases makes it easy to incorporate updates and revisions and for any instructor, anywhere in the world, to deploy a case study in his or her classroom. Additionally, in 2018 we launched an author tools feature, which allows Gala users to upload and deploy their own case studies. This has been used by SEAS faculty to build entire courses around cases and by other faculty as a student course assignment.

Although MSC's efforts have largely focused on graduate education in our home school, case studies are equally relevant and beneficial at other educational levels, given the inherently engaging nature of stories (ElShafie, 2018) and the demonstrated effectiveness of active learning (e.g., Hake, 1998; Prince, 2004; Freeman et al., 2014; Anderson et al., 2017). At the University of Michigan, established and emerging collaborations with the undergraduate Program in the Environment (PitE) major and associated faculty are providing insight into what case studies can do, and by what mechanisms, for various groups of learners. We have conducted limited pilots with K-12 education and corporate or institutional continuing education teams. We also hope to explore case performance with community college learners. We welcome suggestions, experiments, and collaborations with instructors or trainers at those levels. To adopt the case studies in various educational contexts, we recommend deploying, swapping, or modifying the engaged learning exercises as needed, and we invite users to enter comments about their efforts and results on the Gala platform. To see how a case study was used in an undergraduate class, see our companion article: An Example of Case Pedagogy: Assessing the Sustainability of - Palm Oil Production

Earth science has important contributions to make to sustainability science (Mora, 2013; Stewart and Gill, 2017), though it has not historically been a large contributor to research output (that distinction goes to social and biological sciences, see Bettencourt and Kaur, 2011). Geologists excel at thinking across the large spatial and temporal scales demanded by sustainability science. Furthermore, geoscience expertise across subfields such as hydrology, climatology, natural hazard management, and biogeochemistry is necessary to inform solutions to sustainability problems by providing critical descriptions of Earth systems and how they work. Effective engagement with sustainability science will require geoscientists to collaborate with social scientists and humanists to think through the political, economic, social, and cultural implications of their work. Seen another way, sustainability is entirely congruent with the evolution of modern geology toward more holistic perspectives of our planet and human-environment interactions (e.g., the emerging fields of geobiology and geohealth). These developments call for approaches to geoscience teaching that incorporate sustainability concepts which offer complex problems for study, opportunities to propose solutions, and interdisciplinary thinking.

The following case studies from the MSC collection, accessed at [www.learngala.com], are suggested as a gateway to further exploration:
- A Radioactive Decision and Revisiting the Three Gorges Dam tackle tough questions about the future of low-carbon energy generation.
- Electronic Graveyard reveals the environmental and public health consequences of consumer choices and waste (mis)management.
- Struggles over 'Science' and Futures of Conservation Funding challenge future scientists to consider the human side of ecosystem management.
- Controlled Dam Removal explores the pros and cons of undoing past decisions

Online Extra: Supplemental Articles

An Example of Case Pedagogy: Assessing the Sustainability of - Palm Oil Production


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Bettencourt, L.M.A., and Kaur, J., 2011, Evolution and structure of sustainability science: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 108, p. 19540– 19545, doi:10.1073/pnas.1102712108.

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