Chapter 1 Sustainability Faculty Fellows Program Explained

 Sustainability Faculty Fellows Program Explained

When I, Aditi, joined the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) in 2019, my new colleague Heather Ross was quick to share the benefits of Open Educational Practices. I immediately saw how the teaching and learning process benefits when educators and students share and collaborate.

Within a few months, she identified my passion for outdoor and environmental education, including education for sustainable development, particularly through the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While education for sustainable development was not part of my assigned duties at the time, Heather is a connector in the world of Open Educational Practices, so she quickly shared a link to the Kwantlen Polytechnic University SDGs Open Pedagogy Fellowship. In this program, educators from around the world work together to develop open learning activities for their students and share their impact at the end of the year. I was interested but had other priorities at the time.

When education for sustainable development became a larger part of my assigned duties in 2021, Heather and I began to explore what role faculty leaders might serve at our own institution and what impact we wanted them to have. We admired Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s engagement with international partners; however, we were more interested in amplifying our own educators’ practices in education for sustainable development.

I interviewed over 30 USask educators who were known to use high-impact teaching practices toward sustainability. These experts described five teaching practices that resulted in students who “got it,” students they felt would continue to be sustainability practitioners beyond their credentials:

  • Prioritizing student agency
  • Changing mind, heart, and skill sets
  • Designing reflective practices
  • Leveraging interdisciplinary relations
  • Fostering community connections

Toward that end, I developed a “wraparound” module (Learning for Sustainability) that any educator could use to reflect on a wide range of learning activities related to sustainability. However, to change hearts and minds, we had to create connections to land, stories, and time. The USask experts I interviewed were clear that ambitious teaching requires ongoing persistence and the fostering of relationships inside and outside the classroom. The instructors I interviewed were seen as friendly neighbours in their units who were experts in their domain, but perhaps not as influencers and leaders from whom others could learn.

In the past, the Gwenna Moss Centre had supported intensive communities of practice focused on course development or learning innovation; however, these communities were only for individuals and were not intended to create systemic change. Thus, Heather and I began envisioning a program to fill this gap. We defined our ideal participant in a brief “in search of” statement:

Academic units that are willing to adopt broader change with the help of an appointed Sustainability Faculty Fellow in the domains of education for sustainable development and Open Educational Practices.

The Sustainability Faculty Fellow is an individual who

    • can meet commitments;
    • wants to embed Open Educational Practices and sustainability within their own course such that students are taking action toward sustainability and the SDGs;
    • is supported by academic leadership and their academic unit to pursue this work; and
    • demonstrates qualities of an amplifier:
      • clear personal philosophy on their teaching beliefs and can describe their positionality
      • empathy for the lived realities of others
      • ability to have difficult conversations with peers
      • open to new ways of doing and being.

The Sustainability Faculty Fellow wishes to do the following:

    • Develop their academic leadership skills
    • Act on internal motivations for a more sustainable and just world
    • Bridge their teaching and scholarship
    • Engage with a community of practice.

We were looking for educators who wanted to make a difference beyond their own classroom but who maybe didn’t yet feel like experts in teaching for sustainability. We thought participating in this fellowship would help educators find peers with whom they could share ideas about how they grew their teaching skills. They could support each other as they incorporated sustainability into their courses and show others that change was achievable. They would also need strong support from academic leaders in their units if they were to influence policy or practice across many courses. We realized that to achieve this, the fellowship process would need to be at least two years—one year for the Sustainability Faculty Fellows to try new teaching strategies and another year to activate change across their units. That is how the two-year Sustainability Faculty Fellows program was born.

It is one thing to have desired outcomes and another to achieve the desired impact. We brainstormed a set of learning outcomes for the Sustainability Faculty Fellows and the evidence we would look for to indicate that they were making progress. Some of these ideas have been realized, and the fellows have also found other ways to articulate their growth. This illustrates agency and voice in the Sustainability Faculty Fellows—they were able to step out of their roles as participants in the fellowship and see how they could lead this type of collaboration both with their own students and with colleagues.

Following are some of the learning outcomes we identified when brainstorming and examples of evidence that would indicate progress.

Learning outcomes Examples of evidence of progress
Align learning outcomes related to sustainability, assessment, activities, and teaching strategies within one’s course design
  • Syllabus and course design that articulate activities (ideally experiential), outcomes, and assessments (including reflection and feedback) related to sustainability
Justify one’s disciplinary contribution to sustainability and the SDGs
  • Open Educational Practices resource in development
  • Conversations with community and industry partners
  • Relevant SDGs identified in syllabus
Model and encourage perspective taking on sustainability issues by both students and colleagues
  • Activity on perspective taking implemented in the classroom
  • Activity on perspective taking implemented with colleagues
Model and encourage students in selecting effective technologies to exchange ideas, facts, and perspectives about sustainability with others in their course or beyond

Model and encourage peers in selecting effective technologies to exchange ideas, facts, and perspectives about sustainability with others beyond their courses

  • Activities where students select the tool based on the context or need
  • Peer review (new template) or other conversations about teaching
Collaborate with diverse groups or sectors on approaches to sustainability
  • Community partners identified
  • Inter-institutional partners identified
Integrate learning activities where students will apply adaptive design, system thinking, and problem-solving to sustainability problems
  • Syllabus with explicit description of course design leading to sustainability
  • Contribution of sample activities to this guide (see following chapters)
Create opportunities for students to reflect, share, and act on sustainability issues through Open Educational Practices by considering impacts on personal resilience and the 5P Framework of People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, Partnership
  • Syllabus and course design (assignments, connections to experiential learning, good questions for students to reflect upon)
Support colleagues in using technologies for good course design that integrate sustainability
  • Feedback from departments
  • Survey of staff, faculty, and students
  • Results from Usask Student Learning Experience Questionnaire
  • Reciprocal peer review of teaching and learning

The USask Sustainability Faculty Fellows program began with a foundation of over 30 hours of professional development from May to August 2022. The purpose was to set the tone for what the next two years would entail. These beginning steps included

  • a bus tour of our city to connect with land and community,
  • a virtual book club reading of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and
  • many other experiences that the fellows discuss in Section III, “How Can This Be Done?”

Then we let our fledglings fly for their first semester of teaching for sustainability (September to December 2022).

We initiated pre-course and post-course surveys to determine if the teaching practices used by the fellows were helping students

  • reflect, share, and act on sustainability;
  • communicate meaningfully about sustainability; and
  • cultivate confidence toward learning for sustainability.

A total of 265 students in six courses (from 200- to 400-level) across five colleges experienced learning for sustainability embedded with the fellows in fall 2022. Of these, 135 students responded to the pre-course survey and 114 students responded to the post-course survey.

Approximately 10 students (3.8%) withdrew or achieved a grade less than 50% overall. Campus-wide, 11.7% of undergraduate students withdrew or achieved a grade less than 50%. There is little known about correlation or causation in this; however, it does suggest that high-impact teaching practices resulted in a greater percentage of students experiencing success.

Overall, students said they had been successful in their course and that learning about, and even taking action upon, the SDGs can help them advance their professional and disciplinary expertise.

Table 1: Student responses to the pre-course survey (n = 135) and the post-course survey (n = 114). Students were given slider scales with a range from 0% to 100% to respond to the survey questions.

Survey Question Pre-course average (%) Post-course average (%) Change (percentage points)
How confident are you in communicating meaningfully about sustainability? 54 72 +18
How confident are you in nurturing relationships and managing conflict to achieve sustainable solutions? 58 67 +9
How confident are you in leveraging technology (digital tools or systems) to achieve sustainable solutions? 54 63 +9
How confident are you in being able to find creative solutions to complex sustainability problems in your discipline? 54 68 +14
How knowledgeable are you about cultural norms of different groups with whom you work/study? 53 67 +14
When reflecting on the challenges facing people and the planet, how do you feel about your ability to be the change the world needs? 56 66 +10

Table 2: Student responses to the question “Have you experienced sustainability education as a student?”

Surveyed group No (%) Yes (%) Not sure (%)
Students who responded to the pre-course survey (n = 135) 32 29 39
Students who responded to the post-course survey (n = 114) 4 88 9

Following are some of the comments from students in the post-course survey:

  • Now that I understand the definition of sustainability more, I am confident in my abilities to contribute to the SDGs. I feel that a better understanding of the SDGs will allow me to be prosperous in my personal, work, and economic life, as well as educate others on the importance as well.
  • I have learned so much how kinesiology can influence sustainability through so much more than just good health and well-being. While it obviously has a strong connection with good health and well-being, this SDG is closely related to many other SDGs such as sustainable cities and communities, infrastructure, reduced inequalities, life on land, climate action, quality education, and institutions. They are all interconnected and there are small solutions that everyone can take part in to promote sustainability throughout the world.
  • I learned from this course about the potential to have sustainable farming. For awhile I believed [it] was a myth or something for the future to find out. It just happens that we are that future, we can provide sustainable agricultural practices.
  • A better understanding of the micro components that need to be focused on [if] you want the macro visual effect of sustainability.
  • I gained confidence to talk about any form of planetary issues that can affect human health with solutions for a healthy environment.

The goal of all education for sustainable development is simple—we want students to have the competencies to address the planet’s greatest issues. Most students will only develop these competencies if they practise them, get feedback on them, and reflect on them throughout a program of study. Sustainability Faculty Fellows are an example of embedded experts who can support students in this learning.

The fellows are also experts among their peers and can help those peers advance their own education toward sustainable development teaching and learning goals. This is an extension of Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development. When a learner is close to mastering something but still needs the guidance of an expert, they are in their zone of proximal development. As the “more knowledgeable others” among their peers, the Sustainability Faculty Fellows can provide instruction and support and will be valued and appreciated.

Our goal for the second year of the fellowship (currently underway) is to help Sustainability Faculty Fellows

  • describe the value of education for sustainable development to their peers,
  • influence peers or coach them to develop capacity, and
  • work to embed the SDGs across the curriculum.

Ideally, we will see more

  • students reflecting on sustainability competencies,
  • embedded opportunities for acting on the SDGs, and
  • changes in unit culture.

We are excited to work with Sustainability Faculty Fellows to “bring it all together” over this year, and to see the lasting impact they will have on USask students for a regenerative future.


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Cultivating Change: A Prairie Guide to Sustainability Teaching and Learning Practices Copyright © by Aditi Garg; Brooke Klassen; Eric Micheels; Heather M. Ross; Kate Congreves; Shannon Forrester; Tate Cao; and Ulrich Teucher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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