Michigan Sustainability Cases

Transforming Case-Based Teaching and Environmental Training

The School of Natural Resources & Environment’s (SNRE) and College of Literature, Science, & the Arts’ Program in the Environment (PitE) are adopting an approach to teaching graduate and undergraduate students that exposes them to case-based learning using digital multimedia materials. The goal is to connect students with scholars from humanities; the social, natural and biomedical sciences; engineering and landscape architecture by creating Michigan Sustainability Case models that link students, faculty and professionals from the field in exploring sustainability topics. A master case already created, titled “Wolf Wars: Should We Hunt Gray Wolves in Michigan?” provides podcasts, videos and other digital materials that explain the debate among groups pushing for a hunt, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Natural Resources Commission and groups that are opposed to the idea.

Project Background

Ongoing changes in workplaces, emergence of new learning technologies and increasing diversity of student cohorts interested in sustainability demand a shift in existing courses and curricula. Yet most schools and programs in the environment—whether at Yale, Duke, Columbia, UCLA, UCSC or Stanford—continue to practice sustainability education using a dated approach combining lectures, discussions and written assignments. One alternative is the Harvard-inspired case method, now almost universally adopted worldwide by schools of management. Cases hold great promise for sustainability education as problem-based learning. They are extensive in form, capable of delivering quantitative and qualitative insights, and have the ability to vividly illustrate technological and social dilemmas. However, in the absence of suitable cases (they are costly to create), few sustainability-focused faculty have training in using the case method. This project will address both of these obstacles to broaden the adoption of case-based learning, while also creating new and rigorous norms for case materials in the Third Century.

Project Description

This project will transform the case-based approach into a distinctively innovative, creative Michigan Sustainability Case (MSC) model. MSCs are digitally accessible multimedia products that can travel well into a range of intercultural teaching contexts. They feature hands-on collaborative production by student/faculty teams, adoption through mixed faculty and student learning communities and improved learning outcomes in terms of analytical, communication and collaboration skills development. It will connect students with scholars from humanities, social, natural and biomedical sciences, engineering and landscape architecture—all teaching aspects of sustainability—to develop the proposed curriculum. A resource hub for MSC materials in preliminary design through pilot support for this grant will be completed to coordinate implementation.

This project aims to accomplish this dual transformation by changing the form, process, and goals of case-based education. Traditional cases are written materials (form), produced by experts (process), to deliver a theoretical insight/analytical skill via an empirical example (outcome). An MSC will be different in all three respects: It will comprise written, audio, and visual materials (accessible, dynamic form). Student/faculty teams will produce cases with input from professionals (interactive process). Collaborative production and classroom use will develop workplace and citizenship skills including engagement with diverse public audiences through new interfaces of scholarly text, broadcast, visual, and social media (substantive and social/technological outcome).

For the first MSC created, an SNRE graduate student and an undergraduate student from computer science and linguistics were instrumental in the development of the website while two other SNRE graduate students were the lead student case writers. They collaborated with faculty, fellow students and field colleagues to create both an innovative model that keeps pace with the latest innovation in podcast and digital video based learning tools, but is also grounded in hands-on experiential learning in Michigan landscapes such as the Biostation, the city of Detroit, and the U-M campus itself.

Transformative Impact

This project benefits from the unprecedented commitment of SNRE leadership. The MSCs build on a school-wide curricular review, individual course experimentation and assessments, and insights from work accomplished with a range of pilot funds. More than 700 U-M undergraduate and graduate students have benefitted recently from these efforts. Materials developed and leveraged through courses in SNRE (via our MSC hub and the new CANVAS learning management system) will reach up to 5,000 U-M students and faculty as we achieve scale over four years. The MSC materials will impact both SNRE and PitE classes (for which 60% of SNRE faculty offer courses), certificate and dual degree students enrolled in SNRE and allied U-M units and non-SNRE students enrolled in our courses. It will first change SNRE’s and PitE’s teaching toward case production, analysis, and diffusion. Learning from this experience, the project team will engage faculty and students in allied departments and units on U-M campus. There are also plans to expand the project’s reach through global competitions for case materials and collaboration with strong partner institutions in Brazil, China, India and Africa in case-based teaching and assessments.

Project Team:

Arun Agrawal, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Jennifer Blesh, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Daniel Brown, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Rosina Bierbaum, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Bilal Butt, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Bradley Cardinale, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Raymond De Young, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Rebecca Hardin, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Ines Ibanez, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Jeremiah Johnson, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Maria Carmen de Mello Lemos, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Robyn Meeks, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Michael Moore, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Joshua Newell, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Steven Yaffee, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Michaela Zint, School of Natural Resources & Environment, School of Education

Student contributors:

Cameron Bothner
Katherine Browne
(Mohammed) Arman Golrokhian
Pearl Zeng