Case studies have emerged as a globally relevant pedagogical tool across multiple fields, spanning the breadth of environment and sustainability issues. The value of case studies is not limited to classrooms, however, and the opportunity to use them for broader social, economic, and environmental impacts is becoming increasingly clear. Recognizing a critical need for knowledge exchange in this area, Michigan Sustainability Cases (MSC) convened a group of colleagues from initiatives that have pioneered the use of case-based learning and innovative digital tools for environment and sustainability education.

This gathering (Oct 13-15) brought together a group of local, national, and international collaborators to exchange insights about the future of case-based learning and explore areas for more formal partnership. Attendees included participants from Harvard University, the Indian School of Business, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), Tsinghua University (China), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Yale University, along with Academic Innovation and School for Environment and Sustainability (University of Michigan), and the City of Ann Arbor.

MSC strategic advisors
Left to right: Rebecca Hardin (MSC), Minna Brown (Yale), Cameron Bothner (MSC), Cynthia Wei (SESYNC), Michaela Thompson (Harvard), Ed Waisanen (MSC), Meghan Wagner (MSC), Pearl Zeng (MSC), Jennifer Perron (MIT), Geetika Shah (ISB), Sucila Fernandes (UM SEAS), Leana Hosea (MSC), and Ling Mu (Tsinghua).

Dr. Rebecca Hardin, MSC Director, opened the meeting on Friday evening by framing the mission of all present: to attain the potential of case-based learning for training an ever wider variety of learners to understand, integrate, and implement sustainability sciences, advancing potential solutions for problems facing present and future societies. Dr. Meghan Wagner, MSC Program Lead, led a discussion session the following day to honed in on the unique challenges of environment and sustainability education, and what case studies can offer. Participants noted that these issues tend to be complex, emphasize human aspects, and describe problems characterized by high levels of uncertainty and no single “right” answer. As such, information rich yet narratively accessible cases are crucial for anchoring the requisite combined knowledge forms and perspectives to create constructive action. To those ends, Rebecca led a brainstorming session on a Sustainability Learning Summit and Annual “Gala”, which would include co-design studios for educators, hackathons and makeathons for tech innovators, and stakeholder charrettes for specific cases and problems that are ripe for solutions.

showcasing VR
Mark Lindquist, MSC Associate Director, demonstrates some of his lab’s virtual reality work and highlighted its potential for enhancing case studies.

The MSC team then highlighted a new space for collaboration: the open-access Gala platform. (Click here for the presentation slides of Gala features.) Though it currently hosts content produced through the MSC initiative, the platform offers multimedia integration, analytics tools, and other features that may benefit multiple case study producers to improve visibility and impact of high quality content. Participants noted several exciting things these features can do, including facilitating more active stakeholder engagement, providing different spatial perspectives, and allowing users to visually anticipate future scenarios. Overall, the group expressed strong support for having a flexible, open access, multimedia-enabled platform like Gala, and several have committed sharing their own case studies as prototypes for how the platform might enhance the use of their material, inform their efforts with embedded analytics, and help guide the development of new cross-sectoral training tools for economic, social, and environmental transitions to sustainability.

MSC strategic advisors meeting
Rebecca Hardin, MSC Director, introduces the vision for an Annual “Gala” and Sustainability Learning Summit

The weekend wrapped up on Sunday with a field trip to Saginaw Forest, led by Sucila Fernandes of SEAS and Matthew Naud of the City of Ann Arbor. The forest is home to Third Sister Lake, the site where the contamination of Ann Arbor’s groundwater with 1,4-dioxane was first recognized. Since its discovery several decades ago, the issue has dogged the city, and the dilemma over how to clean up the pollution is now the subject of a Michigan Sustainability Case. The visit highlighted the potential for cases to capture the multiple dimensions of sustainability and environmental issues and interface with real world actors. A charrette about the issue is in planning stages for the inaugural Sustainability Learning Summit in 2018, given the ubiquity of chemical contamination challenges in water across many sites worldwide, and the need to leverage local lessons learned across communities.

MSC strategic advisors at Saginaw Forest
Matthew Naud, Environmental Coordinator for the City of Ann Arbor, leads a field trip at the Saginaw Forest

As participants returned home, we shared not only a few mosquito bites from the unseasonal warmth in the woods of Michigan, but also a common vision of the potential of this watershed moment in higher education. We see a future where innovation and collaboration foster problem-driven work, combining core concepts, theories, and methods from many fields in new forms of research and teaching that wide audiences can use. We look forward to next steps in collective wisdom and tools for assessment of learning outcomes, engagement beyond campus borders, and evaluation of broader impacts.

MSC strategic advisors at Third-sister Lake
MSC-Gala collaborators at Third Sister Lake in Saginaw Forest, a UM-SEAS property in Ann Arbor, Michigan