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How can we orient learning towards sustainability across disciplines?

The challenges posed by the Anthropocene point to the need for a transformation of our education system towards sustainability, equity, and justice. Therefore, to address the world’s intersecting crises, we must reimagine the purpose of learning. One educational movement that focuses on sustainability, equity, and justice is education for sustainable development (ESD). ESD “is about the kinds of education, teaching and learning that appear to be required if we are concerned about ensuring social, economic and social ecological wellbeing, now and into the future” (Sterling, 2013).

Work done by ESD scholars on learning competencies, pedagogies, and assessments offers some insights into how to orient learning towards more just and sustainable futures. ESD learning frameworks include a broad set of sustainability competencies that outline what learners should be capable of doing to play an active role in sustainability transitions. By building these competencies in learners, they become better equipped to be changemakers for an uncertain and complex future, and contribute to a more sustainable society.

To that end, the 2022-23 academic year marked the launch of McGill University’s Sustainability Education Fellows (SEF) program. Funded by McGill’s Sustainability Projects Fund, the interdisciplinary initiative brought together faculty and students from 11 departments and schools in seven faculties across McGill’s two campuses. The program was developed and managed by a Coordinating Committee of experts from across McGill, representing Teaching and Learning Services, the Office of Science Education, the Office of Sustainability, the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), and the Department of Integrated Studies in Education.

Though higher education institutions are addressing sustainability challenges in a range of different ways, there is wide agreement that inter- and trans-disciplinary collaboration are necessary in order to account for the complexity of sustainability issues, consider diverse perspectives, and carry out relevant and actionable research (Deleye et al., 2019; Peters & Wals, 2013; Stein, 2023). The SEF program was designed with such interdisciplinary collaboration in mind, creating space for faculty members and students to convene and bring their disciplinary expertise to discussions around a shared concern.

The inaugural cohort was engaged in a year-long program that brought together McGill instructors (Faculty Fellows) and students (Student Fellows) to advance sustainability in their curriculum and pedagogy. Each pair of Fellows designed or redesigned a course with sustainability at its core, and Student Fellows were trained to support the instructors in their course (re)design. By the end of the first year, 11 instructors and 12 students had collaborated on 10 courses to infuse sustainability principles into curricula, pedagogical practices, and assessment approaches.

As part of the program, we invited all Fellow pairs (Faculty and Student Fellows) to share their reflections on their experience in the SEF program and we’re excited to share them with you through this blog series. Our series begins with thoughts from Benjamin Goldstein (Assistant Professor, Department of Bioresource Engineering, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences).

Professor Goldstein designed a new course on urban sustainability, Sustainable Urban Metabolism (BREE 505), with the support of his Student Fellow, Felicity Meyer (master’s student, Bioresource Engineering). In this course, students will learn how to quantify and map the resource consumption of cities and the environmental impacts of urban processes. Through data-driven tutorials and a case project, students will learn about concepts such as urban metabolism, political ecology, and distributional environmental justice. Hear more from Professor Goldstein:

I did not apply for the Sustainability Education Fellows (SEF) with any grand vision for my course. My goal was simple—to have a student help me build tutorials for a new course I was designing, urban sustainability. However, this all changed very quickly after the first hour of the SEF Faculty Retreat.

It became immediately clear that the SEF would provide a larger opportunity for me to rethink how to teach sustainability from the ground up. My learning outcomes for the course went out the window. Based on the SEF workshops, I could see that I would need to reformulate my outcomes to clearly articulate what aspect of urban sustainability I wanted to convey and at what level on Bloom’s Taxonomy (if you’d asked me about Bloom’s Taxonomy before the SEF, I probably would have guessed it had something to do with flowers!) I could feel my mindset shifting. Things were snowballing.

I started to have doubts about the course design. Had I considered interrelationships between learning outcomes, instructional approaches, and assessment methods Not to the extent that I should have. I was leaning too heavily on exams and assignments. I decided to try something new based on the workshops; namely, having the students write a personal reflection in response to a multimedia piece of their choice. Very unconventional in engineering courses, but the SEF had me open to new ideas. Might as well experiment and see how it goes. What about my readings? Did they cover a broad range of voices or was I focused on historically dominant perspectives? Again, lots of room for improvement.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Many of my SEF peers were also in the weeds of course design. SEF breakfasts and check-ins provided opportunities for group therapy where we could share ideas, strategize, and support each other. These sessions often veered away from course design into deeper topics. For instance, how to teach sustainability with optimism in the face of increasing environmental degradation and social dislocation? I don’t know if we solved that one, but we all came out with some inspiration for making it happen.

Another takeaway from the sessions was the value of interacting with Student Fellows. I originally designed the outline for urban sustainability by myself. By co-designing and workshopping the course alongside students, I was able to better incorporate what students want into my course and could stop guessing what they wanted (Do they want me to clearly state my ethical perspective in the course outline? Turns out, yes!). Having the students along for the ride also fostered mutual appreciation, as Fellows saw firsthand the sheer amount of effort that goes into updating and designing a course.

In the end, McGill’s SEF was not what I signed up for, it was much more. Not only is my course stronger (and tutorials done!), but the SEF planted the seed for collaboration amongst likeminded scholars from across McGill to better teach, research, and bring about sustainability.

If you’d like to learn more about how to include sustainability into your course content, teaching, or assessment approaches, you can do so by exploring the Sustainability Education Resources article in Teaching and Learning Services’ Teaching and Learning Knowledge Base, where you’ll also find Professor Goldstein’s course outline for Sustainable Urban Metabolism (BREE 505), as well as the rest of the cohort’s course outlines. Stay tuned for more posts from SEF Fellows.

Stay tuned for more posts from SEF Fellows. (Search for posts in this series: https://teachingblog.mcgill.ca/tag/SEF2023/)


Deleye, M., Van Poeck, K., & Block, T. (2019). Lock-ins and opportunities for sustainability transition: A multi-level analysis of the Flemish higher education system. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 20(7), 1109–1124.

Peters, S., & Wals, A. E. J. (2013). Learning and knowing in pursuit of sustainability: Concepts and tools for transdisciplinary environmental research. In M. Krasny & J. Dillon (Eds.), Trading zones in environmental education: Creating transdisciplinary dialogue (pp. 79–104). Peter Lang.

Stein, S. (2023). Universities confronting climate change: Beyond sustainable development and solutionism. Higher Education.

Sterling, S. (2013). The future fit framework: An introductory guide to teaching and learning for sustainability in HE (Guide)Journal of Education for Sustainable Development7(1), 134-135.

Photo credit: Image by Freepik

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