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New sustainability courses engage students through experiences

Two courses in the SUSTAIN 101 series use nontraditional approaches to teach complex climate data and community-focused sustainable design. 

The planet needs people who are invested in tackling the climate crisis. The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability is drawing together students from across the university to engage with climate issues through the SUSTAIN 101 series.

SUSTAIN 101 courses are meant to appeal to any undergraduate, helping them gain memorable knowledge about sustainability that they can carry into their future. Students connect their classroom experience with the real world through experiential learning, said Senior Associate Dean for Education Lynn Hildemann

“The best solutions we’re going to come up with to the problems that face us involve interdisciplinary collaborations,” Hildemann said. “The more that our students can become experienced at having those collaborations and realize the tremendous value of them, the greater the impact they’re going to have.”

The series launched in winter 2022 with SUSTAIN 101A: Decision Making for Sustainable Energy, taught by Dean Arun Majumdar and then-Dean of Research Kathryn “Kam” Moler. In fall 2023, the series continued with SUSTAIN 101C: Climate 101, focusing on understanding data, and SUSTAIN 101D: Sustainable Innovation for Disaster Resilience, focusing on community-driven solutions. (The course originally slotted for SUSTAIN 101B, The Sixth Extinction (and the Other Five), is available as EARTHSYS 127A.)

Comprehending complex data

In Climate 101, students dove into data about how Earth’s climate system works and what causes it to vary and change, led by Noah Diffenbaugh, the Kara J Foundation Professor and Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow in the school.

Rather than lecture, Diffenbaugh introduced students to datasets on topics such as Earth’s energy balance and the history of climate variations. Students worked in small groups to answer data-based questions, then came together to discuss their observations, struggles, and discoveries.

Diffenbaugh’s goal was to ensure every student learned all the material, regardless of their level or major. The approach was informed by Diffenbaugh’s experience teaching an Introductory Seminar about climate data and by drawing on the expertise of his wife, Polly Diffenbaugh, a lecturer and clinical associate in the Stanford Teacher Education Program

“Students are much more likely to talk, to ask questions, to interact, and ultimately to learn more when they’re working in small groups with their peers,” Diffenbaugh said. “The goal in this class was to take the groupwork approaches and scale them to a larger class so that more students could have access to the course, but in a format where each of them could learn more.”

Kai Blankenship, a sophomore studying science, technology, and society, enrolled because she wanted to learn from Diffenbaugh – for his prominence in the field, but also for his unconventional approach.

“We were able to learn the data, understand it, comprehend it, and really dive deeply into it,” Blankenship said.

For the first time, she felt confident explaining climate projections to other people. She even shared materials from the class with her family over winter break.

Innovation for real people

One question was central to Khalid Osman’s Sustainable Innovation for Disaster Resilience course: “Who are we sustaining for?”

“Sustainability is amazing, but if we’re not thinking about who we’re sustaining for, we’re not really achieving sustainability,” said Osman, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. 

Without listening to vulnerable people and adapting to a community’s changing needs, he said, sustainability efforts only reinforce the status quo.

Student teams worked with nonprofit partners through the Haas Center for Public Service to design or improve a product or tactic – but the partners didn’t come with projects to assign. The students were challenged to listen to and empathize with community members’ needs, then innovate.

“It’s really about getting out of the Stanford bubble and figuring out how students can use access to great education and instruction and share that access with their communities to create better infrastructure services for the people who have been historically disadvantaged,” said Jacob Totaro, a teaching assistant for the class.

Students initially struggled with the open concept, Osman said. But they quickly realized how working with community partners taught them to turn techniques they learned in the classroom into meaningful action. Students didn’t have time to prototype or test their ideas, but they left their partners with actionable plans.

Varun Shirhatti, a junior Earth systems major, and his team worked with Climate Resilient Communities, which builds rainwater-capturing gardens to reduce runoff in East Palo Alto. CRC wanted to scale up but didn’t have the infrastructure to manage more people. To help solve this problem, the team developed a plan for a new position dedicated to improving volunteer recruitment and coordination to ensure a steady stream of enthusiastic and informed pro bono workers.

Shirhatti said he’s enjoyed taking other Cardinal Courses, but this class was interesting because of its emphasis on developing practical solutions.

“It’s very much focused toward problem identification and development, and I think it’s really amazing that we got to think about that specifically in the context of sustainability,” he said.

Possibilities for the future

School leaders continue to consider how undergraduate educational offerings should evolve, Hildemann said. More SUSTAIN classes may be developed down the road, based on student interest. 

The series’ winter quarter offering is a reframed version of SUSTAIN 101A, now called Sustainable Energy for Future Presidents, in which students work through real sustainable energy problems to understand how leaders make complex decisions. The school also expects to offer SUSTAIN 101C and 101D again.

Blankenship hopes other students take advantage of the opportunities the school provides.

“If all majors at Stanford and all people from different disciplines are able to really apply climate change to their discipline, then they’re going to be a lot better for it,” she said. “I think that we can make a lot of change if we all go forward with sustainability in mind.”

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