The complex nature of sustainability problems requires the input of people from different disciplines, generations, and cultural backgrounds to create practical solutions. At Michigan Sustainability Cases(MSC), we use case studies to enable such collaborative problem solving, and we believe that case creation and implementation provide a level of engagement that no other approach can facilitate.

Leveraging two years of experience in case production with teams of students, faculty, and practitioners, MSC and the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) hosted Galaxy from June 7-9, 2018, to showcase MSC’s progress, share our methods of case design, and further collaborative innovation in sustainability pedagogy. Forty participants, including U-M students and faculty, community practitioners, and teams from global partner universities convened to refine their case studies and pilot Gala’s new author tools.

Underpinned by MSCs, two public events facilitated wider conversations with more than 500 people on this year’s theme: water. A charrette involved experts, citizens, and public officials on the dioxane contamination in Ann Arbor’s ground water, and a film screening brought together water justice advocates from Flint neighborhoods, tribal organizations, and Detroit for dialogue across environmental, economic, and cultural boundaries.

The Case Innovation Studio

Realistic, effectively designed cases can guide learners through complex information and prepare them with knowledge and skills through analysis of how sustainability problems can be approached. Therefore, Galaxy was anchored with a Case Innovation Studio. It allowed participants to workshop their existing projects into cases for effective teaching and wider reach through sessions on elements of case design, storytelling techniques, strategies for practitioner input, and production and curation of high-quality media.

Participants practice storytelling at the Case Innovation Studio
Participants practice storytelling at the Case Innovation Studio
Gala interface for author tools
Gala interface for author tools

Additionally, participants piloted the new author tools on MSC’s learning platform for sustainability science, Gala. Building on existing Gala functionalities, the tools marked the next level of open access for Gala by allowing authors to post their case studies, embed media resources, and build in-line discussion communities directly on Gala.

Sessions were led by Meghan Wagner, MSC’s Project Coordinator; Ed Waisanen, MSC’s Media Director; and Cynthia Wei, Associate Director of Education at SESYNC (now at Georgetown University). They were supported by Ryan Wilcox, Media Specialist at U-M’s Duderstadt Center; Leana Hosea, BBC journalist; Elena Godin and Vadim Besprozvany, faculty of the U-M School of Information; Al Lewandowski and Randy Raymond, GRACE project; Mark Lindquist, U-M Professor of Landscape Architecture; and Jeff Pearson, U-M Multimedia Librarian.

Screening “Thirst for Justice”

Cases have the power to explore solutions by illuminating patterns of environmental problems. Held at the Michigan Theatre in partnership with the Cinetopia Film Festival, Galaxy’s community-wide film screening highlighted patterns of water contamination and environmental injustice through the director’s cut of documentary “Thirst for Justice.”

In the film, director Leana Hosea engages with and advocates for a wide range of American communities—people of color, the working class, and tribal organizations in particular—who are facing water quality and health challenges. To humanize these issues, she followed the stories of three brave women: Navajo mother Janene Yazzie, African American Flint activist Nayyirah Shariff, and blue-collar stay-at-home mom Christina Murphy. Through their fights with industry and government to protect water for their family and communities, the film revealed connections among these communities in emerging major public health and sustainability related social movements, from Standing Rock to the “Rust Belt” cities of the U.S. Midwest.

Flint residents share their stories with the audience
Flint residents share their stories with the audience

Following the screening, over 100 audience members filled out the onsite feedback form, expressing anger and frustration toward responsible parties in the water contamination, while feeling hopeful and encouraged by the power of the community-led actions depicted in the film. Those insights are informing the final cut of the film, for which U-M will play a large part in developing teaching materials for use in classrooms and communities going forward.

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor closed the Film Screening, ceremonially cutting a tiny ribbon on a cell phone to call attention to more accessible cases about water use in Michigan, inviting audience members to learn more on this topic as engaged citizens. He invited those present to join him for a stroll on Liberty, Main, and Washington Streets after the screening for the annual Mayor’s Green Fair featuring many sustainability organizations and products in our area.

Film discussion panelists, left to right: Rebecca Hardin, MSC Director; Laura Sullivan, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Kettering University in Flint, and Governor’s Appointee for Flint Water Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee; Holly Bird, Attorney and Executive Director at Michigan Water Protectors Legal Task Force; Allison La Platt, Great Lakes Organizer of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter; Christina Murphy, Flint resident, activist and film protagonist; and Leana Hosea, film director.

Co-Designing Tools for Public Education

The sharing of perspectives on water quality challenges was powerfully initiated by the screening, and the conversation continued as experts, stakeholders, concerned citizens, and activists came together for a charrette on Ann Arbor’s struggles with water contamination problems for over three decades as a plume of 1,4-dioxane has moved through the city’s groundwater. Thus far, officials have lacked an effective tool to communicate with residents about the problem and its impact, though the MSC case study about the issue has shown promise. To address this challenge for more consistent and timely information about the problem, anchored with the case, the half-day event deepened participants’ understanding of the dioxane problem and elicited their input on a public education tool that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) is consulting with MSC, SEAS, and the City of Ann Arbor to build.

Galaxy charrette

A trio of talented scholars with scientific expertise and social engagement experience led the charette: Amanda Giang, Assistant Professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability and Mechanical Engineering at the University of British Columbia; Rachel Niemer, Director of Strategic Initiatives at U-M’s Academic Innovation; and Michaela Thompson, Research Fellow in Sustainability Science at Harvard’s Kennedy School. They worked together to facilitate a series of participatory activities, including an expert Q&A, a jigsaw stakeholder group discussion, and a conceptual design for an interactive, easily accessible and updatable online tool. Through engaging with participating experts—from the owners of the contamination site to epidemiologists to leaders of local activist organizations—participants also explored how different stakeholder groups negotiate and navigate the policy process, how scientific knowledge and uncertainty impact responses to environmental problems, and how to promote better cross-stakeholder communication.

Competition, Commendation, and Celebration

Galaxy created an opportunity for cities and regions to exchange sustainability practices with each other. At city scale, Galaxy joined forces with the Ann Arbor Mayor’s Green Fair to highlight local sustainability efforts. On a global scale, during the Award Ceremony, Galaxy recognized innovative, impactful, and inclusive case studies co-created by cross-cultural teams and piloted worldwide.

Impact Award: A Case Study of Detroit’s Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI)

Lef to right: Lauren Boone, Josh Thorne, Ed Waisanen. Award trophies by John Leyland from U-M Art & Design Ceramics Studio with locally sourced materials.

The MUFI case was used in multiple venues and has played tangible roles in connecting staff from the featured project on the ground with relevant academic and professional experts for their work. The case creation process enabled authors to master career-relevant soft skills that have shaped their interventions in educational and urban social landscapes.

The case was originally produced in a course on nonprofit management and has been adapted in a UM urban sustainability class. After its classroom pilot, the case’s podcast (produced by Ed Waisanen) was used to prepare a group of international property law faculty from the Association of Law, Property and Society for their visit to the MUFI site to get a better glimpse of tensions around gentrification and land use transformation in the U.S. Midwest.

Case authors published a journal article (written with undergraduate SEAS Doris Duke Conservation Fellow Josh Thorne) in Case Studies in the Environment to chronicle the case’s professional development value to undergraduate and graduate students, project staff, and faculty in its production and implementation. The article also recounts the pedagogical innovations and wider social impacts of the case across classroom, professional cohort and community use. Lead case and journal article author Lauren Boone shared how the case production process shaped her proposal for a community-serving nonprofit organization in Detroit, where she now works full time.

Inclusivity Award: Michigan Wolf Wars

Left to right: Mike Burbidge, Gislhain Djessi Tchouty

SEAS Professor Steve Yaffee led the writing of the Wolf Wars case and role-play activities in response to student suggestions that navigating this challenge of rural Michigan, where predatory animals coexist with ranching, scientific landscape management, and various tribal forest administrations, would offer incoming students a taste of the complexity of environmental decision-making.

The MSC team conducted surveys and focus groups during the incoming student orientations 2016 and 2017 focusing on whether the case helped students from different backgrounds better identify their similarities and differences with one another regarding attitudes toward the environment. Results have prompted revisions to case materials; for example, the case podcast was updated to reflect feedback from students from Anishaanabe and St. Saint Marie Chippewa to avoid stereotypes and better reflect various indigenous perspectives on the issue of wolf hunting.

The case was then picked up by multiple U-M classrooms from anthropology to nursing, where surveys show non-traditional students appreciate its various features and feel it helps them learn better. In addition, U-M program REFRESCH translated the case into French for use in partner institutions abroad. When implementing the case at the University of Science and Technology in Masoukou, Gabon, SEAS alumnus and REFRESCH researcher Mike Burbidge and Gabonese graduate student Gislhain Djessi Tchouty found that the case increased community participation on sensitive human-wildlife conflict topics such as whether to legalize elephant hunting by rural communities. Their acceptance speech underscored how such curricular tools can build bridges for sustained collaboration with scholars, like francophone Africans, who are underrepresented in international technical expertise circles. Case collaborations can thus anchor improved inclusivity in interdisciplinary research on environmental problems like wildlife management, or water.

Innovation Award: Case on Ghana Electronic Waste

Left to right: Adam Simon, Jayson Toweh

The e-waste case was innovative in both its production and implementation processes. The case was co-produced by a U-M team and Ghanaian advocates and experts, including faculty in Public Health at the University of Ghana, Legon and University of Accra, Ghana. It offers first-hand footage of the laptops and other electronics dumped at the e-waste site outside of Accra, as well as testimonials about the conditions of workers there, collected by U-M professor Adam Simon, and students Jayson Toweh and Anne Canavati.

When deploying the case in his undergraduate Earth and Environmental Sciences classroom, Simon and his team of graduate student instructors piloted multiple Gala functionalities, from case assignment, to online discussion, to embedded pre-tests that unlock the case, and post-tests that measure content mastery. Simon continues to innovate with ideas about how exams in his course may cover case content in ways that randomize the questions so as to better evaluate content mastery across the student cohort, seeking more and better information about the value of a given case as a teaching tool. Simon has further innovated by connecting the case with local waste management topics such as the Michigan Stadium zero-waste plan and facilitating community conversations at the Ann Arbor summer festival.

Simon and Toweh’s comments at the Awards Ceremony focused on the power of letting curricular tools be student driven in significant ways, to better enable peer learning, inspire all kinds of learners, and provide clarity for students seeking to combine their passionate curiosity and concern with practical skills that can be professionally focused. Toweh noted he is now enrolled in a Public Health graduate degree at Harvard University having found his calling in that field, in large part through the work on the case.

Galaxy MCs

Three ambassadors for the case-based teaching approach emceed the Awards Ceremony: Jan McAlpine (left), former Director of the UN Forum on Forests and Lead Negotiator on Forests for the U.S. State Department; Arman Gholrokhian (middle), a graduate of the U-M SEAS and Public Policy and author of the NAPA case study, who is currently working with DTE Energy; and Madison Vorva (right) who, as a local Ann Arbor Middle School student began a successful campaign to get unsustainably harvested palm oil out of Girl Scout cookies. They represented the kinds of work needed for effective communities of Sustainability Science-in-Action from different generations, genders, cultures, and fields.

Galaxy 2018 concluded with a gathering on the Rackham Building balcony, overlooking an-open air performance at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. Participants reflected on the fact that solving environmental problems is not all technical, and not all doom and gloom; it can be celebratory, creative, collaborative, and rewarding. The pedagogy innovation will continue as we demonstrate inclusivity and impact through experiential and multi-modal components that not only help the mastery of complex natural and social science concepts, but also help learners operate and communicate in complex, sometimes conflicting situations, through the “soft skills” and practical components of cases.

Galaxy 2018 prototyped a wider collaboration—after we piloted case study co-creation with teams from UM-SEAS, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, the Indian School of Business, Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, and more partners in diverse communities this year—to further a vision of using case studies to enhance classroom experiences and connect them to real-world problem solving. Looking ahead, our community of collaborators share the vision to continue making teaching cases and facilitate not only improved learning about the complexity of sustainability science, but also anchor transformative engagement among campus, corporate, and civic communities.

Galaxy concluded on Rackham building rooftop