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What Is Sustainability Education?

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Maintaining a healthy environmental climate is crucial to the future of humanity. Tomorrow’s leaders will be tasked with addressing social, economic and environmental sustainability in creative ways. Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is key to developing today’s students into tomorrow’s solution-focused workforce.

The number of “green” jobs, or jobs in sustainability-focused sectors, is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. STEM education (K-16) will play a vital role in developing this growing workforce.

“Sustainability Education,” or education for sustainable development, is an exciting new field that blends a range of pedagogical techniques to promote an understanding of the connections among the environment, the economy and society. A still-evolving field, sustainability education has the primary goal of harnessing the power of education to advance environmental literacy and civic engagement that prepares students for jobs that contribute to a more equitable and sustainable future. 

According to the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, education for sustainability is defined as a “combination of content, learning methods, and outcomes that helps students develop a knowledge base about the environment, the economy, and society, in addition to helping them learn skills, perspectives, and values that guide and motivate them to seek sustainable livelihoods, participate in a democratic society, and live in a sustainable manner.”

The report outlines three core standards that shape sustainability education:

  1. Students must understand and be able to apply the basic concepts and principles of sustainability.

For sustainability education to be effective, educators must provide students with a foundational understanding of sustainability. In 1998, the Brundtland Commission published its Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

While environmental science has greatly evolved since 1998, this definition is still utilized by national and international commissions to understand the driving idea behind sustainability. Humanity needs clean air, clean water, efficient agricultural systems and other life-sustaining resources to survive, but humans must also ensure these same resources will be available to future generations. Sustainability education aims to help students comprehend the importance of sustainability as well as its ultimate aim.

  1. Students must recognize sustainability as an interdependent condition of ecological, economic and social systems.

Students must understand the relationship among economic, environmental and social factors in order to make informed decisions later in life. Multidisciplinary STEM education is uniquely situated to promote these relationships and improve student engagement and comprehension.

Educators can harness STEM educational techniques to help students comprehend system interconnectedness. Students might learn about how lightbulbs work in the classroom while also discussing energy conservation and the science behind it. Outside the classroom, students simultaneously learn how plants grow while discussing plants’ importance to humans and animals. Or, students might learn through digital spaces, such as iNaturalist, which encourages students to become “citizen scientists” by documenting their experiences with wildlife, learning about these species and connecting with other “citizen scientists.”  

  1. Students must 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.

Sustainability education focuses not only on imparting knowledge but also on empowering students to become real-world problem-solvers. Luckily, educators can utilize a variety of STEM techniques to connect knowledge of sustainability to inquiry and action.

Project-based education, for instance, encourages students to participate in long-term, real-life projects that prompt them to answer complex questions using knowledge from a variety of disciplines. Place-based learning is another promising example of an educational technique that can help students develop the knowledge, attitudes and skills to address sustainability issues. Place-based learning leverages local assets such as parks, public spaces, museums and businesses to get students out into the world and understand how places shape the environmental, social and economic systems (and vice versa).

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM Education online program.


Buck Institute for Education: PBL Works

Celf Education: What Is Place-Based Education and Why Does it Matter?


National Science Teaching Association: STEM Education Teaching and Learning

Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Career Outlook: Green Growth: Employment Projections in Environmentally Focused Occupations

US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development: National Education for Sustainability K-12 Student Learning Standards

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