Oct 26 2011

Pursuing “Sustainatopia”

Learning and applying sustainable energy practices to solve a real-world problem can spark students’ interest in the STEM disciplines.

How can science and engineering be harnessed to better manage energy use in our society? Students enrolled in the 15-week “Engineering for Sustainable Energy” course offered by the Virtual High School consider that very question.

This lesson plan presents the core learning activities of the course’s team project, which focuses on the engineering, science and social issues behind a sustainable energy society, for adaptation in other classrooms.

Lesson Description

Global energy use is projected to increase dramatically over the next few years and will continue to have major impacts on the environment and the world economy.

This is the problem that powers Sustainatopia, a wiki-based group project through which students collaborate to present their vision of how to build a sustainable future for the fictional town of New Meddling and its inhabitants. Students will self-direct the project over a period of eight weeks. With its completion, they will better understand the historical context through which the definitions, concepts, and principles of sustainability and sustainable development have emerged over time.

To begin, introduce students to the seven common themes of sustainability outlined by environmental systems consultant, educator and entrepreneur Andrés R. Edwards in The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift. This primer on the history, evolution and future of the movement toward sustainability argues that most sustainability principles incorporate: 

  • stewardship, which emphasizes the importance of establishing an ecological ethic for managing and preserving the biological integrity of ecosystems;
  • respect for limits, which calls for living within nature’s means by preventing waste, pollution and unsustainable resource depletion;
  • interdependence, which covers not only the ecological relationships between species and nature, but also economic and cultural ties at the local, regional and international levels;
  • economic restructuring, which appears in many sustainability principles as a need for expanding employment opportunities while safeguarding ecosystems;
  • fair distribution, which speaks to the importance of social justice and equity in areas such as employment, education and healthcare;
  • intergenerational perspective, which emphasizes the need for a long-term, rather than a short-term view to guide the critical choices facing society; and
  • nature as a model and teacher, which acknowledges the 3.5 billion years of evolution of living systems and nature’s significance as a reservoir of “expertise.”

Discuss as a class these themes and how they can be applied to the problem at hand.

Next, challenge students to conduct independent research, participate in hands-on engineering activities and complete a range of math applications to achieve the following learning objectives:

  • explore and explain the meaning of sustainability in the context of energy use in society;
  • show how the laws of thermodynamics apply to concepts of energy sustainability;
  • compare the costs and benefits of different energy sources and power systems;
  • explore how various math functions can be applied to sustainable energy engineering problems;
  • create models to illustrate examples of heat and energy flow through different power systems;
  • use collaborative group activities to help develop understanding of course content; and
  • explore and develop awareness of the social and economic principles that apply to a deeper understanding of sustainable energy policies and practices.

Because this lesson is meant to be student-directed, leave it to them to establish the rules for their collaborative work as they come up with viable solutions to the problems they believe New Meddling residents would face. For example, students might wish to debate and determine the modes of transportation that residents would use, how the city would get its power or what kinds of industry it would promote.

The lesson culminates with a team project that focuses on the engineering design process, engineering solutions for sustainable energy problems, contrasting different energy sources and consequences in the context of sustainable development, and the presentation of design solutions for class review. The project, which is meant to apply research and theory to a real-world situation, must model a sustainable existence for people in the New Meddling community and beyond its borders.

The complexity of the project requires a high level of planning and organization, so divide students into teams of three to five people with varying ability levels. Use a timeline-planning tool, such as Famento’s xtimeline (a free web-based solution that allows users to create and share timelines with pictures and videos), and designate one member of each team as “project manager” to help teams manage their projects and stay on task.

Teams can develop their completed projects in a variety of formats — models, drawings or slide shows, for example — but they must present their ideas in such a way that their classmates can clearly understand how their design solution contributes to New Meddling’s development in a viable way.

At the conclusion of all presentations, students should assess their own work and that of their classmates.

Subject Area

This lesson is appropriate for students in grades nine through 12, as well as for middle school students enrolled in their school’s gifted and talented programs.

Curriculum Standards

This lesson fulfills standards set forth by the U.S. Partnership, a coalition of individuals, organizations and institutions in the United States dedicated to education for sustainable development, and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), an accreditor for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering and technology.

The U.S. Partnership’s National Education for Sustainability K–12 Student Learning Standards require students to:

  • understand and apply basic concepts and principles of sustainability;
  • recognize the concept of sustainability as a dynamic condition characterized by the interdependency among ecological, economic and social systems, and how these interconnected systems affect individual and societal well-being;
  • develop an understanding of the human connection to and interdependence with the natural world;
  • develop a multidisciplinary approach to learning the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to continuously improve the health and well-being of present and future generations, via both personal and collective decisions and actions; and
  • envision a world that is sustainable, along with the primary changes that would need to be made by individuals, local communities and countries in order to achieve this.

ABET’s National Engineering Standards stipulate that students gain:

  • an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science and engineering;
  • an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data;
  • an ability to design a system or component to meet desired needs;
  • an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams;
  • an ability to identify, formulate and solve engineering problems;
  • a recognition of the need for and an ability to engage in lifelong learning;
  • a knowledge of contemporary issues;
  • an ability to use the techniques, skills and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice;
  • an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility; and
  • an ability to communicate effectively.


Grading Rubric

Students should be graded on the quality of their participation, their project plan’s content and their final presentation. They should be expected to contribute to class discussions with clear, concise comments that demonstrate higher-order thinking skills and extend meaningful discussion by building on the wiki posts of others.

Students’ final projects, meanwhile, must identify and emphasize the direct relationships between the chosen themes presented by other team members and the concept of sustainable energy in a community. They should be expected to explain the relevance of these connections.

Teaching Tips

  • Infuse the lesson with “real-world” urgency by having students imagine that they are working in the business world and have been hired to present their design solution to a client.
  • Share examples of former students’ design solutions, if possible, and use them as a teaching tool in the lesson’s early weeks. Seeing the exemplary work of others will help students as they begin to plan their own projects.
  • Approach this lesson as a learning opportunity. Remind students that, as in the real world, not every problem has a clear solution. Encourage students to extrapolate the best solution to the problem using the information they’re given and the information they gather in their research and collaborative activities.
  • Limit team sizes to five students maximum. This helps to ensure that every student feels accountable and contributes equally.
  • Check in frequently with each team to monitor its progress.