EE Research

Building Citizenship Skills: Developing Locally Relevant Sustainability Education Curricula

The Research:  Ireland, J. J. T., & Monroe, M. C. (2015). Should we use wood for energy? An education for sustainable development case study. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 14(2), 82–89.

Sustainability issues, such as energy sourcing and consumption, are complex and can be controversial to address as they are influenced by peoples’ opinions, values, beliefs, and attitudes Yet, the structure of education for sustainable development (ESD) can help to accommodate these controversies; it can help students develop the knowledge and skills for making robust, thoughtful, and community-oriented decisions. Additionally, ESD can strengthen students’ critical thinking and deliberative skills. Because of this, education for sustainable development may require extra time, focus, and resourcesfrom teachers.

In this study, researchers examined an instructional unit, designed by the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation, called Should We Use Wood for Energy? A High School Education Program. The study focused on the program’s pilot test results and, based on those findings, gives suggestions for addressing barriers to ESD while offering suggestions for creating future ESD curricula.

The authors developed the instructional unit in response to local teachers’ interest in educational materials about woody biomass. This interest was sparked because of a proposed biofuels facility in Florida. The curriculum, which is designed for grades 10 through 12, corresponds to state standards and includes four sections with 18 activities. The units incorporate a range of subjects, including environmental science, biology, economics, government, and language arts. The activities emphasize collaborating with peers to generate and address research questions, collect data, conduct experiments, discuss ethics, and explore issues from a range of perspectives.

The study’s authors found that—through focused activities, guided reflection, and discussion questions—the curriculum directly and indirectly incorporates three important components of sustainability: environment, economy, and society. The curriculum unit, which includes teacher-guided discussions and student worksheets, also promotes critical thinking about real-world issues. Many of the activities encourage students to consider multiple perspectives, identify biases, role-play, engage in community issues, and work toward solutions. The unit also facilitates students’ understanding the interconnectivity of sustainability issues and promotes discussion about consequences of actions. This process, known as systems thinking, helps students envision how different parts of a system are related and how relationships within systems may change over time.

The authors used pre- and posttests to evaluate the curriculum with three teachers and 152 students in grades 11 and 12. They used a survey and essays to examine changes in students’ knowledge of woody biomass, as well as community considerations of using wood for energy. The authors asked teachers to reflect on the curriculum’s usability and applicability. The authors found that, overall, the students enjoyed many of the activities, and the curriculum succeeded in increasing students’ knowledge of woody biomass. However, the authors also found that students had difficulty defining sustainability and relating it to the issue of using wood for energy. The authors found that teaching the material required a significant time commitment by the teachers.

Based on results from the pilot study, the authors revised the curriculum. They shortened some of the activities, provided more background information, added teacher keys, and included sustainability-related ideas in more of the activities. Since 2010, the instructional unit has been accessed widely; it can be found at

The study’s authors make two sets of recommendations derived from the pilot process and findings. The first relates to overcoming barriers to education for sustainable development in the classroom and the second relates to practitioners who are interested in developing education for sustainable development curricula. to address barriers in classroom-related settings, the authors recommend providing teacher workshops to help with program implementation. They also suggest including an outline and timeline for each activity to encourage teachers to actually use the activities. Finally, the authors suggest that teachers may wish to use the curriculum as a unit or implement it in teams to leverage expertise in science and social studies. For developing other curricula related to sustainability, the authors recommend focusing on locally relevant topics, including subject-specific activities that incorporate multiple components of sustainability, and infusing sustainability related themes into as many activities as possible.


The Bottom Line:

Sustainability education curricula are successful when they include activities that are locally relevant, build on subject-specific activities that incorporate multiple elements of sustainability, and involve sustainability themes throughout the curriculum. To support the curriculum, it is important to provide teachers with professional development, and it may be helpful to encourage them to work in teams to leverage their subject-matter expertise. When education for sustainable development is successfully implemented, students may benefit by understanding complex sustainability related topics, developing systems-thinking skills, and feeling empowered to address issues in their community. In this way, they ca become active citizens in addressing locally relevant environmental challenges.


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