Sustainability & Dependency: Revamping a Graduate-level Forestry Course

by Nicolette Cagle

I am an ecologist and I am an environmentalist, but the concept of sustainability had always bothered me. Colleagues had presented sustainability as a Venn diagram with three partially overlapping circles: environment, society, and economy. The Venn diagram suggested that parts of the society or economy could be removed from the matrix of the environment. This conceptualization seemed ludicrous: Without the environment, we have no society and we have no economy.

Venn diagram representation of sustainability (Moir & Carter, 2012)


Despite my reservations about the concept of sustainability as overlapping circles, I strongly support linking the environment, society, and economy in pedagogy. I wanted to learn how to do so more completely in my graduate-level course, Forest Measurements. The Trillium Workshop, which I attended in January 2016, taught me how.

Nested representation of sustainability (Moir & Carter, 2012)

The Trillium Workshop provided a possible framework for sustainability that I could champion: nestedness. In this model, the circle of Economy is nested within the circle of Society, which is nested within the circle of the Environment. The nested model, presented by Bob Doppett in The Power of Sustainable Thinking and Peter Senge and others in The Necessary Revolution, accounts for our dependence on the environment and, thus, it has also been called the “3-nested-dependencies-model.”


Working with the facilitators of the Trillium workshop, I identified aspects of my forestry course that already exemplified the nested model of sustainability. For example, I devote a large portion of the course to woody plant identification, but when I present these plants, I never focus solely on their ecology or biological characteristics. Instead, I consciously describe the relationship of these plants to society (e.g., medicine) and economy (e.g., economic value and uses).

While sustainability was already present in my Forest Measurements course, I have integrated it more fully into the course philosophy, lectures, and assignments. Inspiration from Richard Louv, the noted nature advocate, is part of my course philosophy: “Natural history is as important as human history to our regional and personal identities.” In addition, students are now expected to “identify the environmental, social, and economic effects of forest management practices” to successfully complete the course; this new key learning objective emphasizes sustainability. Four classroom activities are explicitly devoted to sustainable forestry, including a discussion of conceptualization of sustainability, a class period on sustainable forestry and the Duke Forest story, a land tenure field trip, and a guest lecture on Sustainable Forestry certification. With feedback from Sara Childs, director of the Duke Forest and Trillium fellow, I added assignments on land tenure and a reflection on sustainable forestry, using the Duke Forest as a model.

Overall, my experience with the Trillium Fellowship provided me with a springboard for making my implicit aim of sustainability education more explicit in the classroom. The workshop also provided me with a new conceptualization of sustainability, resources, activity ideas, and a cohort with which to discuss sustainability and pedagogy.


Moir, S. & Carter, K. (2012). Diagrammatic Representations of Sustainability – a Review and Synthesis. In S. D. Smith (Ed.), Proceedings 28th Annual ARCOM Conference, 3-5 September 2012, Edinburgh, UK. (pp. 1479–89). Edinburgh: ARCOM (Association of Researchers in Construction Management.

Sustainable material use in assistive devices (BME 460)

For the past 17 years, I’ve taught a class for seniors in biomedical engineering, where they design devices to assist people with disabilities (BME460). It’s a service-learning class and meets the students’ design requirement for the major. The students build projects for clients with disabilities in the local community and deliver them at the end of the semester.

I’m also a farmer, with a small sustainable farm that includes pick-your-own blueberries and blackberries and a custom-order CSA for a number of local families.  Over the years, I’ve wondered how to include sustainability in my class, but I hadn’t previously devised how to do it formally and in a way that wouldn’t be too much of a burden on the students. When I heard about the Trillium workshop, I decided to do it with the hope that I’d be inspired to find a way to add a dose of sustainability to BME 460.

This year, we had a guest lecture about sustainability, an assignment to research sustainability trade-offs of project materials, a focus on reusing or recycling materials in the lab, and some organized carpooling. I felt that the students’ general awareness of sustainability was heightened.

Early in the semester, before students had purchased many materials for their projects, Charlotte Clark came to the class and gave a lecture about sustainability. Charlotte and I asked the students to post information about sustainability tradeoffs between project materials they were considering, using Sakai’s wiki tool.  This was an ungraded assignment, and not surprisingly some students spent more time on it than others, so there were varying levels of commitment, input, and learning. I thought the assignment worked fairly well to get sustainability involved in the thought process of the class without making it too time consuming. (Many of these students already spend 200 hours or more working on their projects) We didn’t discuss this activity again in class, but some of my students afterward said that they liked the lecture and thought that the concept of life cycle design was interesting and important for engineers to consider.

In the lab, I asked the students to be mindful about what materials they used and what they threw out. Rather than automatically jumping in the car to go to Home Depot to get a chunk of wood, could they use something already in the lab? Maybe there’s some wood with holes that might not look as attractive but would work fine for an early prototype.  A couple of the teams mentioned to me choices that they made because they were trying to be more sustainable, especially spending more time looking for materials in the lab.

I originally considered having a trash-free lab, like the Eno River Festival’s trash-free focus, but I saw quickly that it was impractical. Instead, I asked them to be mindful about not throwing out recyclables. I’ve been surprised at how some of my engineering students don’t automatically recycle. I’d thought to have a board of shame and a board of praise: If I found something in the trash that could be in the recycling and I knew who put it there, they’d go up on the board of shame, and if they did something good they’d move over to the board of praise. I wanted it to be friendly, and it didn’t turn into a big thing, but I did have one person go up on the board of shame who quickly recovered to the board of praise. Overall, we had far fewer recyclables, especially paper, in the trash this year. During cleanup at the end of the semester, several students asked me whether different materials could be recycled, which hadn’t happened with previous classes. With some of the materials I was surprised that they didn’t know already what was recyclable and what wasn’t, but I was happy that they were thinking about it.

We went off campus a couple of times; in particular, at the end of the semester we went to Raleigh to give poster presentations at a conference. One of the students volunteered to create a Google doc for carpooling, and we saved some trips that way. I think it also got them thinking more about this aspect of sustainability.

I have a few thoughts for next year. I might make the wiki research assignment more structured, so that the end products are more equal in investment. My students keep a lab notebook, including documentation of their project work as well as other assignments, and I may have them reflect on their own research that went into the wiki as well as that of some of their peers’ entries. At the end of the semester, I may ask them to write about whether they made any different choices based on their awareness of sustainability. Related to recycling and material reuse in the lab, I may create a competition between groups, something to make it more fun and interesting.

My students also give presentations on engineering ethics, typically related to product development or medical research. (For example, what happens if a product is designed poorly and people get hurt? How will we respond to the myriad issues related to new genetic knowledge?) In the future, I may also allow them to discuss ethical issues related to sustainability, such as resource use and pollution in product design and manufacturing.

I’m glad that that there was a way to formally incorporate some ideas about materials and sustainability into BME 460, and that the Trillium program provided support to make it happen. The activities seemed to help the students understand how their choices as engineers can make a difference.  It was often straightforward to relate some choices about sustainability to their class projects; more importantly, I hope that they will take this awareness to their lives after graduation, regardless of their careers.


Our Classrooms are Not Islands: Barriers to Voluntary Sustainability on Campus

Ph.D. student Shana Starobin, Nicholas School of the Environment, was one of seven Duke instructors who participated in a CIT Fellowship program in Fall 2011 focusing on Sustainability in Teaching Practice. This post summarizes some of Starobin’s thoughts during the Fellowship. Starobin and the other CIT Sustainability Fellows are part of the larger group of Trillium Fellows, faculty and other instructors who are committed to incorporating sustainability content into their Duke courses in alignment with Duke’s 2009 campus Climate Action Plan. For more about the Trillium Fellows, contact Charlotte Clark.

Posted on the steel paper towel dispenser in a third floor ladies room near my office, I once found the following “helpful” note (apparently left by an anonymous student-do-gooder on all restroom dispensers in our department).

Brown paper towels are compostable!  If you used paper towels to dry your hands, please bring them downstairs and put them in the compost bin.  Thank you.”

This sign reminded me of why environmentalists often get a bad rap. Despite all good intentions, those deeply devoted to their cause often mistakenly assume that others not only share their same intrinsic motivations but also will blindly follow their initiative without question.

Let’s break down this sign:

The fact that “brown paper towels are compostable” may be important, new information for many people—even the “in-the-know” graduate students. Indeed, it seems illogical and even wasteful to dispose of a used-once, wet paper towel into a plastic trash bag destined for the landfill.  All the more so if Duke has to pay by weight for garbage disposal (they pay for the water in there too!)

Moreover, the sign implicitly suggests that I should reconsider my outrageous choice to use the paper towels to dry my hands in the first place.  The conditional statement “If you used” suggests that some people might not be drying their hands at all, or at least not with these paper towels.  Those who choose paper towels should, thus, feel ashamed and be judged accordingly.

If I did in fact choose to dry my hands with a paper towel—a choice unfortunate for the environment but recommended by public health advocates—this sign calmly recommends me to “…bring [the paper towels] downstairs and put them in the compost bin.”  I— like other colleagues similarly contemplating the meaning of this public sign—envisioned myself descending three flights of stairs, nobly carrying my damp, brown, paper towels in hand to deposit into said community compost bin (location unknown).

If we were to multiply out the number of collective employee and student hours lost to these individual, third-floor paper towel to compost-bin trips, I imagine university representatives—considering the opportunity cost of such valuable time—might descend upon the third-floor ladies room, tear this sign down as well as potentially remove the compost bin from the premises altogether.  There must be a better solution!

Better Solution: Engage Stakeholders and Reconfigure the Default Option

As illustrated in this case, devising appropriate institutional solutions to collective action challenges requires us to delve into the underlying motivations that incentivize human behavior in some directions over others.  The green evangelists—so committed to posting “informative” signs—neglected to evaluate the basic incentives that would likely be driving the next action of most average, rational individuals reading their sign, notably: an evaluation of the opportunity cost of the time associated with composting the paper towel versus simply throwing it in the trash (the standard, default option).

Even better than posting “informative” yet largely unhelpful, judgmental and off-putting signs, that same committed individual—so inspired to preach about the best solutions to our suboptimal waste-management choices—could have instead invested effort in more directly addressing our collective action challenges.

Barring investments in labor to pay staff to manage this system, those individuals who care most about the issue ought to be the first to take initiative for addressing the problem.  In this case, committed individuals might consider:

1) Engaging with other students and staff to discuss the problem and formulate possible solutions to further propose to administrators, staff and voluntary committees involved in building operations.

2) Negotiate with key stakeholders to make “composting” paper towels the default option (and some alternative vessel exclusively for non-paper-towel trash). This would enhance efficiency by making the desired behavior into an intuitive, easy, and lower-cost alternative. As evidenced in financial savings and other similar programs, behavioral changes are often easier to implement when they become the “default option” as opposed to a policy that requires behavior of individuals contrary to their natural inclinations.

3) Provide an alternative vessel in bathrooms to collect the paper towels (which by and large represent the majority of bathroom waste regardless).

4) Organize a group of volunteers and rotate responsibility for disposing full containers daily—thereby eliminating the private costs for each individual to inefficiently carry single paper towels down three flights of stairs.

5) Improve signage. This would include the actual location of the compost bin should community members like to find it, as well as removing judgmental language that might turn-off would-be participants in the first place.

Our Classrooms Are Not Islands

Our classrooms are not islands; they are embedded within our departments, programs, schools and, ultimately, a much larger university ecosystem. Inevitably, students and instructors advancing sustainability initiatives will, thus, need to also consider implications and constraints beyond the micro-level of the classroom.  There are inherent collective action challenges associated with creating shared environmental policies or programs among employees and students within a fairly large community (i.e., your department) within a much larger organization (i.e., Duke University).

In the above mentioned case, the ad hoc “paper towel composting program” and accompanying “information campaign” (notices on paper towel dispensers) was unilaterally implemented by the individual who appeared to have the greatest interest in creating such an initiative and for changing the status quo within our department from “No Composting” to “Composting.”

However, the lack of consultation with affected stakeholders (the other students, staff and employees) combined with a poor design (no bins, no plan for how to efficiently deliver paper towels from floor 3 to compost pile on floor 1) and insufficient and poor communication of relevant information all contribute to the failure of this “composting program” to take off and be implemented within the school.

This case points to the need for local policy creators (this could be YOU in your classroom or department) to take into account the knowledge, interest and experience of would-be policy followers.  If program creators better accounted for their stakeholders (and the fact that participating individuals might not be motivated for the same reasons or have the same information as the creators), they might better understand why individuals opt in or out of voluntary efforts and could pave the way for more effective and innovative grassroots sustainability initiatives on campus.

Adding Sustainability Content to An Existing Course

Professor of the Practice Linda Franzoni, Mechanical Engineering, was one of seven Duke faculty who participated in a CIT Fellowship program in Fall 2011 focusing on Sustainability in Teaching Practice. This post summarizes some of Franzoni’s teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Franzoni and the other CIT Sustainability Fellows are part of the larger group of Trillium Fellows, faculty who are committed to incorporating sustainability content into their Duke courses in alignment with Duke’s 2009 campus Climate Action Plan. For more about the Trillium Fellows, contact Charlotte Clark.

In early Fall 2011 I met with Charlotte Clark (Faculty Director of Sustainability) to go over my syllabus for EGR 10 (Introduction to Engineering) which is a course designed to introduce freshmen to engineering and to help them differentiate between the four engineering majors that we offer at Duke.  As I went over the course content, Charlotte was able to help me see ways in which slight differences and/or additions to the course would make it possible to easily incorporate sustainability content into the course.

For example, the students take mini-field trips typically on or around campus to see examples of engineering that exist all around them.  Charlotte suggested adding the Duke Farm and the SONOCO recycling plant to the list of field trip options that the students could choose from (Duke’s Chilled Water Plant & new Steam Plant were already on the list).  Transportation was the only issue that needed to be resolved for the new additions, and that was easily handled with volunteer drivers.

Another class period  involved dissecting products and discussing the engineering decisions that go into the design process.  In the past, we had not considered the life-cycle analysis associated with the product being dissected.  Incorporating a life cycle analysis into this class made the students think more critically about those design decisions and how they affect sustainability.  We began the “product dissection class” with a guest lecture on the life-cycle analysis of orange juice by comparing the environmental cost of delivering the same quantity of orange juice to the customer by different methods:  whole oranges squeezed at home, lunchbox size boxed containers, wax carton (1/2 gallon-size), glass bottle, can of concentrate, etc.  After a lively discussion and debate over what is the most environmentally-friendly method of delivering orange juice to the customer, the students were more aware of the issues that need to be considered when designing a product, in general.  We then proceeded to dissect various brands and styles of cell phones.  In addition to the usual questions about electronic components, materials used and why, mechanical parts (flip phones, in particular), we added questions about how best to package / ship the cell phones, how to reuse/recycle/dispose of old cell phones (and batteries), and more generally are there better ways to design a more environmentally friendly cell phone.

These slight modifications to an existing course demonstrate how easily one can add sustainability content into a course whose primary learning objective is not sustainability.

Incorporating sustainability concepts into a writing course

Lecturing Fellow Sandra Cooke, Thompson Writing Program, was one of seven Duke faculty who participated in a CIT Fellowship program in Fall 2011 focusing on Sustainability in Teaching Practice. This post summarizes some of Cooke’s teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Cooke and the other CIT Sustainability Fellows are part of the larger group of Trillium Fellows, faculty who are committed to incorporating sustainability content into their Duke courses in alignment with Duke’s 2009 campus Climate Action Plan. For more about the Trillium Fellows, contact Charlotte Clark.

I thought it might be helpful to others (even those who teach classes in different disciplines) to share some of the methods I used to incorporate sustainability concepts into the content of my writing seminar course “Ocean Acidification.”  Ocean acidification (OA) is the process by which excessive amounts of CO2 – mainly produced by fossil fuel burning – dissolve into the world’s oceans and acidify the water.   This change in ocean chemistry can directly harm corals, mollusks (e.g., oysters), and other organisms that build shells or skeletons.  The cascading ecological consequences of these direct effects are only beginning to be understood, but the economic ramifications on important ecosystem services are likely (e.g., shellfisheries, salmon fisheries, ecotourism of coral reefs).

My course covered the scientific, economic, political, and societal aspects of OA, and given the nature of the topic, I figured that if my students understood the definition of sustainability, they could easily see the multiple ways in which OA compromises the sustainability of ocean ecosystem services and that OA’s solutions are rooted in the same solutions as climate change mitigation.

First, to introduce them to the concept of sustainability, I included a section on the syllabus entitled “Sustainability and Duke’s Curriculum.”  The section read as follows:

Duke University is committed to making sustainability a part of the curricular experience of all students.  Sustainability is often defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, but we’ll elaborate on this brief definition in our class discussions!  As a “Sustainability Across the Curriculum” faculty fellow, I am committed to incorporating sustainability into the content and delivery of this course.  To that end, I’ll do my best to minimize paper use (e.g., most materials will be posted on the blog instead of distributing hard copies), minimize energy use (e.g., remind me to turn off the projector if we’re not using it!), and highlight connections between ocean acidification and sustainability in our discussions and course work.  For more information on Duke’s sustainability commitment visit this site.

Many of the students’ understanding of OA and sustainability was revealed by the topics they selected for their literature review writing assignment.  I had deliberately made the assignment prompt broad, telling students that their topic could be on any issue, as long as it was “tangentially related” to ocean acidification.  Student chose to focus on topics as diverse as solar energy, wind energy, carbon taxation, LEED building certification, coastal dead zones, innovative carbon sequestration techniques, and geoengineering approaches.  Such topics may sound overplayed, even when focusing on recent developments in these areas, but my students constructed novel, insightful claims that argued for the need to look beyond global warming to “the other CO2 problem” (as some scientists have dubbed OA) when evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of carbon reduction strategies.

Later in the semester, I asked the students to write a blog post on sustainability and OA.  Specifically, I asked them “how well do different audiences (public, scientists, policymakers, fisheries professionals, other stakeholders) recognize that OA compromises the sustainability of ocean ecosystem services? Are there ways that we could further this understanding and communication?” (the full prompt can be found here).  I told the students that they could think of this exercise as an example of “writing as a way of thinking” rather than a polished commentary.  Nevertheless, I was impressed with their thoughtful responses, especially this one and this one (others can be found here).

At the end of the semester – on the last day of class, in fact – I asked students to share their written definitions of sustainability using (thanks to those Trillium fellows who suggested this in our December meeting!).  I intended this to be an informal assessment of my efforts to incorporate sustainability concepts into the course.  That is, were these small efforts (the syllabus section, occasional mention during class discussions, open paper topic selection, and sustainability blog post) enough to ensure my students would leave the course with a basic understanding of the concept?  I asked them to share any type of definition, ranging from “pocket-sized” to “lengthy but thorough.”  I think these definitions (compiled here) indicate that most students did indeed come away with an understanding of sustainability.

Lastly, I wanted to share with you a survey project that one group of students developed for their final research project.  These students conducted a study they entitled “The psychology behind participation in sustainability efforts and the effect of extended knowledge on participation.”  They distributed this online survey to members of the Duke community and found that if survey responders “were more informed about the precise environmental effects of [various sustainability] actions, they would be more inclined to make these eco-friendly decisions a part of their everyday lives.”  I thought it was a neat study, especially for first-year students!  I encourage you to take their survey to see what their project was all about.