Sustainable Engineering: Construction

This lesson is the culmination of a unit on earthquake resistant buildings. As the students conclude the section of the course focusing on geology, they begin to learn about some of the forces that act on houses during earthquakes (compression, tension, etc.). They then construct a series of model homes using various designs and materials, which they test on an improvised “earthquake shake table.” Finally, after three iterations of a model tent, wood frame house, and masonry building, the students are asked to construct the tallest model building possible that withstands the highest magnitude earthquake for the longest time. It is a contest among the student teams. Additionally, we added a sustainability criteria so that the students must justify their construction materials and methods according to the triple bottom line of planet, people, and profit (See presentation: SE_construction).

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Food Access and Geographic Information Systems

This lesson builds upon the exploration of food systems and consumer decision making by introducing the concept of food access and utilizing GIS (geographic information systems) as a tool for measuring and mapping food access.

We first explored the idea of food access with this presentation: Food Access_GIS

Then the students completed an activity using the USDA Food Environment Atlas: Food Atlas Assignment

After completing this assignment, we revisited and tied together the previous three lessons with the following presentation and a discussion (SEP wrap up).

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Food Choice Modeling

In this lesson I began to introduce my research to the class explicitly. I began the unit by simply giving the students an overview of the NSF GK-12 program, the GLACIER program in particular, and the research process. I then moved into my research, specifically and tried to give them a sense of how I arrived at my current topic of interest: understanding the decision making factors of the urban food consumer. Students then worked in small groups of 3 and 4 students on an activity (Food Choice Factors_Activity) designed to get them to think about the factors that influence the food purchasing decisions of a variety of individuals, and hopefully, to understand that different factors will be more important to different people according to their situation and perspective. For homework the students were instructed to write a paragraph describing their own five most important factors in determining their own food purchases, as well as to give an example of a favorite food.
For the second class we began with a short worksheet (where does food come from_worksheet) and shifted from thinking about how we determine what foods to consume to examining how our foods are grown, processed, and distributed, introducing the concept of the food system. We also discussed the concept of “food miles” and the associated environmental, health, and economic relationships (see presentation: food system). We concluded with an activity (Four Food Systems_activity) in which there are four groups, each representing a version of the food system. The iconic food systems were borrowed from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and included the “industrial”, “industrial organic”, “local sustainable”, and “hunter-gatherer” systems. Each group picked a food and explained how it was produced according to their particular system, the major environmental impacts associated, and one benefit and one drawback of the system. Finally, the students completed the following homework on the unique aspects of urban food systems (urban food system_HW).

This was a great lesson both for me and the students. Getting their perspectives as food consumers helped give more insight into my research.

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Sustainable Engineering: Agriculture

The basic idea is that the student’s design, build, and maintain a system to grow lettuce and to recycle nutrients from food wastes and other organic materials through composting in order to supply fertilizer to the lettuce. This unit allows us to introduce the idea of resource scarcity and limitations to growth and production alongside with the opportunities presented by innovative design and engineering. In this way the students can begin to grasp the challenges we are up against as a civilization while simultaneously gaining hands on solutions oriented experience. Additionally, this unit allows us to hit on key points in the curriculum including: the cycling of matter in nature (e.g. carbon, nitrogen, water cycles), cycling of energy (food webs), the needs of living things, and the design and engineering process.

We began the unit by handing out a double sided instructional sheet: sustainable engineering.

This handout contains all the information and instructions that the students need to complete their projects. It is a lot of information to take in at once, so the students are given about 10 minutes to go over both sides and ask any questions they might have. Once student inquiries and concerns are addressed, we used the set up of the assignment to pose the question to the students, “Why do we impose the constraints we do?” In other words, why do we insist in the instructions on using a minimum amount of space and inputs? Or even more plainly, “Who cares?” In this way, by instigating a discussion of resource limitations, we can help to make the connection between what we see at a larger scale and the student’s projects and help to “create the need” for this assignment. This discussion is accompanied with an introduction to soil resources, and the idea of a footprint calculator. The mention of soil is important for one because it is central to agriculture and that is central to this project, and also I personally feel that this is a topic and resource that is not given enough attention in general in environmental education. The introduction of the footprint calculator ( helped to reinforce the connection of this project to larger issues for the students as well as to introduce them to a fun and interactive tool on the Web. The rest of the class period was used for the students to break up into groups of 4 or 5 (into which they were assigned) and to begin researching various approaches to designing and building their lettuce growing and composting systems. The rest of the week was structured similarly, with a brief lecture (10 – 15 min) at the outset of class and the rest of the class time dedicated to researching, designing, and building their systems. (See lectures here: _waste_, engineering sustainability slides)
Overall, this project has been rewarding. Getting the students engaged in hands on projects with some practical application (composting their home food waste and growing lettuce) seems to be a great way to introduce the core curriculum in a tangible way. I was inspired recently by this TED talk ( which documents an effort to revitalize a rural school system in North Carolina by introducing practical projects that the students work on and benefit the community directly. There are, however, challenges with this approach. In our case, simple nuisances like fruit flies and bad odors require attention and time to address. Furthermore, this hands on approach requires materials and a physical setting conducive to such projects, to which not all teachers and schools have access. So, while not without its challenges, I am excited about this Sustainability Engineering project in particular and the idea of using practical hands on projects as educational opportunities in general.

See pictures: Student Design, Supplies, Prototypes

Finally, we had the students qualitatively and quantitatively evaluate their projects with the following assignment: SEP evaluations_STUDENT

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This lesson focused on food webs and how energy moves through ecosystems. We began by reviewing the students’ reading assignment from the previous night, inquiring about the characteristics of producers, consumers and decomposers. This was followed by a brief discussion of why energy is necessary for organisms, how energy is transferred from one organism to another, and how humans and other species maximize energy intake vs. expenditure through agriculture. We then watched a short video on ants farming aphids ( as an example. Students were then instructed to form a circle and were assigned an organism (indicated by a picture that they hung around their neck) and we constructed a model of a food web to emphasize how intricate and overlapping they can be and to demonstrate that feeding interactions in ecosystems are not always linear as implied by a food chain, but can be very complicated and complex. Finally, the students reassembled at the front of the classroom and we displayed the compost bins complete with red worms to emphasize that we humans are also organisms part of a larger food web and interacting with our ecosystem for energy and material transfer as well.

This lesson was followed up by a field trip to the Charles River where we were able to observe first hand and expand on our in-class discussion.

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Climate Change and Phenology

The first lesson I introduced to the class this year was an introduction to citizen science, climate change, and phenology.

The students are given a handout with some basic questions to answer as I introduce some concepts and they participate in the discussion: Citizen Science Leaf Drop Project_STUDENTS

Following the distribution of the handout, I introduced the basic premise for the theory of climate change using a basic diagram drawing on the board. Then we discuss what observing trees might be able to tell us about how the climate may be changing. We then discuss the idea of citizen scientists collecting data at a fine scale to be used by other researchers to draw more general conclusions. Finally we head outside with our field guides to identify trees that we will continue to observe throughout the year as the leaves change color, are shed, and are grown again in the spring.

This lesson is a pertinent introduction to the scientific process. Students must practice observation over an extended time period throughout the year and it puts the issue of climate change front and center, but does so in a way that allows the students to directly observe impacts in an immediate fashion rather than imparting feelings of overwhelming confusion and desperation.

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