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Introduction to Sustainability for Middle School Students

Authored by EcoRise and Representaciones e Inteligencia Sustentable

45 minutes
Primary subjects: 
Environmental Education
5, 6, 7, 8
Average: 5 (1 vote)

This lesson sets the stage for students to develop sustainable intelligence. They begin by playing an interactive game that illustrates how innocent actions can turn into unsustainable practices that impact everyone and the Earth we call home. Students then discuss how the game illustrates a concept called the tragedy of the commons. Next, they watch a video and discuss the concept of sustainability. Together, the elements of this lesson help students create a base of understanding from which they can begin to exercise sustainability thinking as they analyze and explore a range of topics and apply what they learn in their everyday lives.

Key objectives for students
Define sustainability.
Understand the impact that our lifestyles and choices have on one another and the environment.
Identify ways to live in balance with nature and society.
Describe the importance of cultivating sustainable intelligence.
Understand the conditions that lead to a “tragedy of the commons.”
Secondary subjects
Art, History, Language Arts, Mathematics, Physical Education, Social Studies
sustainability, sustain, Balance, resource, tragedy of the commons, Fish
Collaboration, Communication skills, Creative problem solving, Critical Thinking, Systems thinking
Curiosity, Empathy, Global Leadership, Mindfulness, Optimism, Resilience
Brain-Based Learning, Multi-Disciplinary, Multiple Intelligences, Real-World Application
Background information for teachers

We are living in a time when the world is changing rapidly. It is under stress from a variety of complex and interconnected human and natural influences. This time requires a generation of new leaders to rethink much of what we do—the way we eat, the way we move, the way we build, the way we consume, and even the way we educate. Cultivating new leaders can begin when we take a close look at our actions and their influence on the world and understand how interconnected we are with natural systems. Looking at the long-term well-being of the planet and the people who inhabit it is sustainability thinking. It is giving serious consideration to how we can sustain the health of this wonderful planet we call home.

To help foster sustainability thinking, we must offer students the tools and opportunities they need to reconsider our impact upon the world and tackle complex global environmental challenges. This process begins with each of us recognizing our personal impact on the Earth as well as our responsibility to be a steward of Earth. Next we can cultivate a deeper understanding of how to act sustainably, how to understand our impact on Earth’s systems, and how to balance the dynamic relationship among people, the planet, and profit. With this approach, we can encourage teachers, students, and parents to rethink and redesign human systems and creations to exist in balance with natural systems, and we can create a new generation of leaders—young and old.

A great way to learn how human systems and societies impact the world is to start by taking a close look at local systems, structures, traditions, and geography. By first appreciating what we love about our communities, we can instill a deep connection to the place in which we live. From this sense of connection, we can begin to dream up solutions to local problems and seek out the ways that other communities have successfully addressed similar issues. Then we can begin to find motivation to relate to other people’s perspectives and experiences around the world and a larger sense of responsibility to the Earth.

The goal of this program is to help grow a lifelong commitment to sustainability thinking in ourselves, our students, and our communities. The program helps us become more aware of how human wants and needs impact our planet’s well-being and helps us constantly evaluate whether we are integrating human and natural systems effectively. It also promotes a curiosity to rediscover lost wisdom from ancient traditions, helps us adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, and encourages us to rethink and redesign unsustainable habits and practices.

Most of all, this program teaches us that each of us has the capacity to share ideas, offer creative solutions, and exercise our power to make a difference in this world so that generations to come can look forward to a healthy, sustainable future.

Previous skills needed

Following instructions, cooperative learning skills, critical thinking skills

In Advance

Read through the lesson in advance—be sure to review the Additional Teaching Tips, too. Choose a location to play the Going Fishing! game. If students will be playing the game in the classroom, prepare the room by pushing desks and chairs to the sides of the room. If students will be playing the game outdoors, use rope or another material to define the “ocean” boundaries. The area should be obstacle-free and large enough for students to play a game of tag comfortably while classmates stand around the edges of the space. Determine what you will use to represent money when students “catch” more than two “fish.” Ideally, you would have about 30 play dollar bills or tokens so that you can award one each per extra fish caught.

Set up and test your audiovisual equipment to make sure you can share the embedded video quickly. If you prefer, you can substitute any simple and playful introductory video that shares a message about sustainability and the impact of our actions on our future. You can use the Going Fishing! Data Collection Worksheet to keep track of student progress if you like—print a copy to update during the activity or plan to update it on an electronic device as the activity progresses.

Materials needed
  • Watch or clock with a second hand
  • Play money or tokens that can serve as money during the game
  • Audiovisual equipment
Key vocabulary
sustainability, sustain, sustainable, unsustainable, balance, Resource, tragedy of the commons
Safety information

Caution students to exercise care during the tag activity so that they do not run into other students or objects.

Time Exercise Description
5 min. Introduction Get students thinking about a simple practice: fishing.
20 min. Going Fishing! Game Students play multiple rounds of the Going Fishing! game.
5 min. Discussion Lead students in a discussion about the game and introduce the concept of the tragedy of the commons.
10 min. Video Show students the video and discuss the concept of sustainability.
5 min. Wrap-Up Help students synthesize what they’ve learned with a final discussion and question/answer session.
  1. Introduction: Begin class by encouraging students to talk about any experience they’ve had in the past around fishing. Use questions such as the following to stimulate discussion: Have you ever been fishing before? If so, where did you fish? Were you able to catch anything? Were you able to eat any of the fish you caught? When you eat fish in a restaurant or at home, where does that fish come from? (Sample answers: the market, a restaurant, the grocery store, etc.) How much do you know about what it takes to get fresh fish from the ocean to a grocery store or restaurant? (Accept all answers at this point.)
  2. Encourage students to list places where fish can come from. (river, lake, pond, stream, ocean, fish hatchery, fish farm, etc.) Explain that fishery operations are popular around the world, and especially in coastal areas or areas with large lakes. In many locations, people have fished for tens of thousands of years. However, as the human population has grown and technology advanced, there has been a greater demand for fresh fish, with the result that some areas are suffering from overfishing. Overfishing occurs when more fish are caught in an area than the fish population can naturally replace. Ask: What might be some of the reasons for overfishing? (Sample answers: Larger numbers of professional fisherpeople with larger boats and new technology harvesting more fish than in previous years; people harvesting more fish to keep up with growing demand.) Ask: What are other reasons why there may be fewer fish? (Sample answers: water pollution causing fish to die; environmental conditions, such as the area getting too hot or too cold or becoming overrun with plants or something the fish don’t like.)
  3. Tell students that fishing is a good way to introduce the topic of sustainability, which is the focus of this lesson. Let’s dive into the topic by playing a game called “Going Fishing!”
  4. Going Fishing! Game: Tell students to imagine a wide, blue ocean where fish live in the center of the room/area. Point out the boundaries of the designated area.
  5. Next choose 16 students, and then tell everyone to imagine that these students are fish.
  6. Direct the “fish” to stand in the middle of the ocean.
  7. Next, tell students to imagine that this ocean is the only source of food for the four families that live nearby. It is wintertime and the families are all extremely hungry. They have only one chance per year to fish at this ocean, so it’s very important that they bring home a lot of fish!
  8. Call on four students and tell the class that each of these students is the head of one of the four families that depend on the ocean. These students are responsible for catching fish to help their “family” survive and be healthy. Direct each student to a corner of the “ocean” and tell them this is their designated homestead area. Each area has a pretend fish pen where any fish they catch can be stored.
  9. Direct the remaining students to stand at the edges of the “ocean” for this first round. (They will serve as the next generation of fish during the second round.)
  10. Explain that each “family” will have 15 seconds to fish in the ocean. During this time, they can catch up to four fish. For their family to survive, they must catch at least two fish. If they catch more than two fish, they can sell those extras at the market to get money for other things the family needs.
  11. Next explain that if any fish remain in the ocean after the 15 seconds are up, those fish can reproduce one time (each round).
  12. Tell students that to “catch” a fish, the family leaders must tag one of the students role-playing a fish and then walk that “fish” over to the fish pen at their homestead. They can catch only one fish at time.
  13. Explain that this is like a game of tag with the fish trying not to get caught. Everyone must stay within the boundaries of the ocean. Remind the heads of families that they can catch up to four fish. It’s possible that they won’t catch any fish! They need to catch at least two fish to keep their family healthy and if they catch any more than two fish, they can sell those extras. Once a head of household catches four fish, he or she must stop fishing and go “home.”
  14. Start the first 15-second round, enlisting the bystander students to help you make sure that heads of household and fish stay within the boundaries of the ocean.
  15. When 15 seconds have passed, identify whether any heads of household caught more than two fish. Pay them using a designated amount of play money or a token for each extra fish they caught.
  16. Next, count how many fish remain in the ocean and add one new student (who hasn’t played yet) into the ocean for every fish that remains. Tell any heads of household who caught zero or one fish that this is sadly not enough food for their family to survive, so they must move to another area. (They are out of the game.)
  17. Play another 15-second round. At this point, you may want to switch students’ roles so that everyone has a chance to play either a fish or a head of household.
  18. After everyone has participated in the game for at least two consecutive rounds, add some variations or begin to debrief the game. See the Additional Teaching Instructions for interesting variations.
  19. Discussion: When the game is over, encourage discussion, using questions such as the following:
    • Did anyone in your group take too many fish, leaving other families to starve? How did that make you feel as one of the starving families? As the family with the most fish?
    • Did anyone sacrifice the amount of fish they caught to preserve more fish for other families?
    • Did your group choose to work together to develop a fishing strategy?
    • Did anyone choose to change his or her fishing strategy? What prompted the change (or lack of change)?.
  20. On the board, write “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
  21. Explain that overfishing and dumping of plastic trash in the ocean are examples of “the tragedy of the commons.”
  22. Ask: What are “commons”? (“Commons” are resources and spaces that everyone can share.) Ask for examples of common places or resources we share. (parks, bathrooms, libraries, streets, rivers, beaches, oceans, some fields for grazing livestock, the air we all breathe)
  23. Point out that in the game, the “ocean” was a commons resource because all four of the heads of household (and anyone else who happened into the area) were free to fish from it. Point out that there were some rules, which are like laws that govern public spaces. What happens when there are no rules? (Sometimes people think only of themselves and take more resources than they need, damaging or destroying the resource for everyone.) Whose responsibility is it to take care of these spaces? (It is everyone’s responsibility.)
  24. Explain that the “tragedy of the commons” is a phrase that describes what happens when individual people take too much of a shared resource or don’t take care of a shared resource, to the point that the resource is damaged or can no longer sustain human needs and the needs of other organisms. Part of the problem is that when something is a “common” space/resource, people think they are not responsible for taking care of it. What could people do to help use these resources and spaces more wisely? (Understand that just as we can all use the resource, we are also all responsible for taking care of it.)
  25. Video: Show the class the following video about sustainability.

  26. Write the word SUSTAINABLE on the board and ask students to describe what the word means. Write their ideas on the board. Then explain that sustainable means that something is in a healthy state and can last for many generations. It will be around for you, and for the kids you have when you grow up, and for the kids they have, too. A sustainable river or lake is one that always has healthy fish and other organisms living in it and drawing from it.

  27. Ask students: What did we learn about sustainability from the fishing game? (Sample answer: We can’t just take everything we want when we want it.) Emphasize that it is sometimes easy for us to get caught up in catching the most fish, being the best at something, or earning the biggest prize, like money. We must be careful, though, to remember that the things we do impact other people and the environment.
  28. Explain that places in nature like forests, lakes, oceans, and rivers all need certain things to be able to be sustainable, or to be able to stay healthy for years and years to come. Tell students to think about what they learned about fish and the lake and then consider: What kinds of things do you think might make it difficult for a forest to stay healthy? (Sample answers: People cutting down too many trees at once, people dumping their trash in the forest, etc.) Explain: Trees need resources like fresh air and water to live, and animals need trees to live in and to eat from. So it’s also important that we protect the air and the water resources trees need, too. Explain that we saw the great ruler in the video make changes to help improve sustainability—he switched from polluting power plants to wind and solar plants, for example. Encourage students to share any other thoughts they have about a particular environment and what it needs to be sustainable.
  29. Wrap-Up: Encourage students to summarize what they think the word sustainable means now. Revise any incorrect earlier definitions you wrote on the board and add new, accurate updates. Ask if students have any questions. Then end by sharing that it feels really good to do sustainable things because it’s easy and fun and it helps keep our planet healthy!
Additional teaching tips

There are a number of ways you can adapt the game to make it last longer, teach additional sustainability lessons, or make it more exciting for older students. The following are some suggestions as well as reflection questions to help students process what they learn:

  • Based on the ability of your class, you can extend the time of the rounds and/or the number of fish a head of household could catch so that all the fish can be caught within one round. This can lead to a discussion of overfishing: with no fish left for the next year, everyone must move just to survive. Use questions such as the following to stimulate conversation:

    • What happened to the game when all the fish were taken? (It ended.)
    • How did you feel when all the fish were gone? (Sample answers: sad, angry, mad, disappointed, etc.)
    • Was everyone trying to catch as many fish as possible? (yes)
    • Was your goal to catch as many fish as possible in order to make extra money? (yes)
    • Did it occur to you that you might have to move if you took all the fish from the ocean? (No!)
  • Pull the fish aside and secretly encourage them to work together, like a real school of fish that moves in a group. Explain that by moving as a group they can help protect one another because the heads of household can catch only one fish at a time. This can lead to a discussion about how much hard work it can take to fish in nature because of the way fish work together. Use questions such as the following to stimulate conversation:

    • How did it feel to be on the outside of the school of fish, as an easy target? (Sample answer: Not fair but kind of fun.)
    • How did it feel to work together as a group to protect one another? Did it work? (Sample answer: Yes! It worked really well for the fish on the inside of the group.)
    • Was it harder for the heads of household to catch the fish they needed to feed their families? (Sample answer: Yes—they each caught only one or two fish.)
  • Introduce a mega-trawler fishing boat into the game. Explain that a mega-trawler is a giant fishing boat designed to help a fisherperson catch as many fish as possible at once. Tell one of the heads of household that you are giving him or her a (pretend) mega-trawler. This boat allows the fisherperson to tag and catch as many fish as possible at once. Because the fish can be stored in the boat, they don’t need to be put in the pen right away and there are no limits to how many fish can be caught. Any fish caught by this head of household should drop to the ground until the 15 seconds are over. Use this variation as an opportunity to discuss how trawling boats can be extremely destructive because they can wipe out a fish population and make it more difficult for them to survive to reproduce. They also make it more difficult for other families to compete for limited resources when they can catch only one fish at a time. Use questions such as the following to stimulate conversation:

    • How did it feel to have the mega-trawler enter the game? (Sample answer: It didn’t feel fair. That head of household had such a huge advantage that the rest of us were barely able to catch any fish!)
    • How did the advantage of the mega-trawler affect your ability to keep playing? (Sample answer: It ended the game very quickly because there were no fish left!)
    • How might this be similar to what happens in real life? (Sample answer: When some people have big advantages over most people, all those other people will have a hard time catching as many fish. The fish will also have trouble surviving if so many get caught at one time.)
  • Throw about a dozen clean plastic bottles or other plastic items into the “ocean.” Tell students these bottles simulate plastic ocean trash and if any “fish” touch it, they must freeze in place to simulate choking on the trash and they cannot be caught by the fisherpeople because they are “tangled” in trash. Ideally, it will be difficult for students to avoid touching the plastic items. Use questions such as the following to stimulate conversation:

    • How did it feel to lose fish to this ocean trash? (Sample answer: It was awful. I couldn’t believe fish weren’t available for feeding our families because of ocean trash!)
    • How many families didn’t survive because of the trash? (Sample answer: 1)
    • Did the amount of fish available after the fishing period decrease because of the trash? (Yes. There were a lot fewer fish to survive and reproduce, making it much harder for the fish to recover from the fishing.)
    • How do you think the ocean trash got into the ocean? (Sample answers: people tossing trash from the sides of boats or on beach holidays; cities dumping municipal trash; companies dumping trash legally or illegally)
    • Whose job is it to clean up ocean trash? (Sample answer: The ocean is a shared, common, resource, so we should all take responsibility for keeping it clean.)
Reflection Questions

Use the following questions to prompt critical thinking and guide students to reflect about the lesson:

  • It’s always tempting, as in the fishing game, to “win” by getting the most of something. Why isn’t this always a good idea? (Sample answer: Because other people and/or the environment can be hurt when one person or group thinks only about its own immediate needs.)
  • What did the fishing activity teach you about why it’s important to think beyond what is happening right now and into the effects our actions might have in the future? (Sample answers: If we catch all the fish, there won’t be any for us in the future. We have to be careful not to use too much of something so that it can stay healthy and continue into the future.)
  • What are some things you do here at school and at home that are sustainable? (Sample answers: We recycle; we fish for only one fish at a time; we don’t put more food on our plates than we can eat at one time.)
  • What are some things you do here at school and at home that are unsustainable? (Sample answers: We throw away things that could be recycled; we ride in cars when we could walk; we buy lots of things we really don’t need and then throw them away.)
  • How can we make a difference in helping to create a sustainable world? (Sample answer: We can learn more about how the things we do impact other people and the environment. We can make decisions based upon not just how something helps us right now, but also how it impacts other people and the environment in the future.)
  • If you were to play the fishing game again right now, what would you do differently? (Sample answer: I’d work with the other heads of household and determine in advance that we were all going to get only two or three fish.)
  • What does it mean to show “sustainable intelligence?” (Sample answer: It means to show that I am thinking about how what I do impacts other people and the Earth, so I should make choices that won’t harm anyone now or later.)
Assessment Opportunities

Use the Going Fishing! Data Collection Worksheet to observe and record student participation in the Going Fishing! Game. The Reflection Questions on the Assess tab provide a great way to assess students’ understanding of key concepts from the lesson. The ideas offered on the Extend tab offer additional opportunities to observe and assess students’ understanding of the topic.

Standards assessment

This lesson, with all components included, is linked to the following standards:

Common Core State Standards (CCSS):
Grade 5:
RF.5.3a, RF.5.4a–c, RI.5.7, W.5.1a–d, W.5.2a–e, W.5.4–9, W.5.10, SL.5.1a–d, SL.5.2–6, L.5.1a–e, L.5.2a–e, L.5.3a–b, L.5.4a–c, L.5.5 a–c, L.5.6
Grade 6: RI.6.7, W.6.1a–e, W.6.2a–f, W.6.4–9, W.6.10, SL.6.1a–d, SL.6.2–6, L.6.1a–e, L.6.2a–b, L6.3a–b, L.6.4a–d, L.6.5 a–c, L.6.6, RH.6-8.1–8, RST.6-8.3, RST.6-8.6, WHST.6-8.2a–d, WHST.6-8.4–10
Grade 7: RI.7.7, W.7.2a–f, W.7.4–8, W.7.10, SL.7.1a–d, SL.7.2–6, L.7.1a–c, L.7.2a–b, L.7.3a, L.7.4a–d, L.7.5 a–c, L.7.6, RH.6-8.1–8, RST.6-8.3, RST.6-8.6, WHST.6-8.2a–d, WHST.6-8.4–10
Grade 8: RI.8.8, W.8.2a–f, W.8.4–8, W.8.10, SL.8.1a–d, SL.8.2–6, L.8.1a–d, L.8.2a–c, L8.3a, L.8.4a–d, L.8.5 a–c, L.8.6, RH.6-8.1–8, RST.6-8.3, RST.6-8.6, WHST.6-8.2a–d, WHST.6-8.4–10

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS):
Grade 5:

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes: 5-LS1-1
Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics: 5-LS2-1
Earth and Human Activity: 5-ESS3-1
Grade 6:
Middle School:

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes: MS-LS1-5
Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics: MS-LS2-4
Earth and Human Activity: MS-ESS3-3, MS-ESS3-4
Engineering Design: MS-ETS1-1, MS-ETS1-2

Cloud Education for Sustainability (EfS) Standards & Performance Indicators:
Grades 3–12:
A4, A7, A8, B7, B9, B10, B13, C1, C3–15, C18, C22, C23, C28, C29, C34, C37, C40, D1, D5, D7, E1–6, F1–6, G1, G4–8, H7, H9, H11, I16, I18–20, I28, I37, I38

Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills
Grade 5:
§112.16.b.1.B, §112.16.b.2.B, C, E, F, §112.16.b.3.A, B, C, §112.16.b.4.A, §112.16.b.9.A,C
Grade 6: §112.18.b.1.B, §112.18.b.2.B, C, E, F, §112.18.b.3.A, B, §112.18.b.4.A, §112.18.b.7.B
Grade 7: §112.19.b.1B, §112.19.b.2.A, D, E, F, §112.19.b.3A, §112.19.b.4.A, §112.19.b.12.F
Grade 8: §112.20.b.1B, §112.20.b.2.A, D, E, F, §112.20.b, 3A, §112.20.b.4.A, §112.20.b.11.D

Estándares Secretaría de Educación Pública (México):
Primaria Alta
LIT.PA.1.1–1.4, 1.7, 1.9–1.15, PTE.PA.2.1, 2.2, 2.4–2.6, 2.8–2.11, PTOPCO.PA.3.1–3.8, FUL.PA.4.1, 4.2, 4.6, 4.7, AL.PA.5.2–5.5, 5.9, 5.10
Ciencias: CC.PA.1.7, ACT.PA.2.1, 2.2, HC.PA.3.1, 3.5, 3.6, AC.PA.4.1, 4.3–4.5, 4.7, 4.8

LIT.SE.1.1, 1.2, 1.4, 1.7, 1.8, PTE.SE.2.1–2.11, PTOECO.SE.3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.5, 3.6, FUL.SE.4.1, 4.2, AL.SE.5.3, 5.4, 5.5, 5.10, 5.11
Ciencias: CC.SE.1.1, 1.2, ACT.SE.2.1, 2.3, 2.4, HC.SE.3.1, 3.2, 3.4, 3.5, 3.7, 3.8, AC.SE.4.1, 4.3, 4.4, 4.6

Community connections

Invite parents and guardians to the classroom to let them know that you are beginning this module on sustainable intelligence and to invite them to get involved with their child as he or she learns about sustainability. Begin by having students share what they have learned so far about sustainability and the tragedy of the commons. Discuss areas in your community that have been impacted or could be impacted by the tragedy of the commons and things we could do to help restore or protect them. Encourage the group to help you list some sustainable and unsustainable habits and behaviors on the board. Then have everyone form smaller groups of parents and students and come up with a list of sustainable things they can do to improve the community. Conclude by creating a classroom list of “concrete steps we can take to show our sustainable intelligence.” Plan a date to meet again to check progress against those goals.


Adapt the game as necessary to include students with disabilities. For example, you could allow extra room for a wheelchair to navigate in the “ocean” area. You could also encourage visually or hearing impaired students to participate as fish or heads of household, but give them an opportunity to navigate the space in advance or practice with the class first before the game begins. You could also give students a special role such as timekeeper or manager of a fish pen. In addition, you could allow students to watch the video on their own at their own pace and with subtitles or headphones as necessary.

Cross disciplinary connections

Language Arts

  • Have students practice their writing skills with a timed journal-writing activity. Write a short phrase on the board such as, “The reason we should think sustainably is…” Then give students 5 minutes or so to write a short journal entry about the importance of sustainable living and how the way we live our lives impacts our planet.
  • Encourage students to write a short story about the tragedy of the commons and how a group of environmental advocates reinvigorated the space.
  • Suggest that students create a digital or analogue public service announcement (PSA) that is aimed at creating a conversation around sustainability on campus. Encourage them to share their PSA with the school during morning announcements.


Have students use the Going Fishing! Data Collection Worksheet to tally the results of the activity each round. Then use the data to have students calculate various scenarios. For example, you could ask: “We started with 16 fish in the ocean. Suppose there are 40,000 fish in the ocean—about how many people can fish from the ocean before there are not enough fish left to reproduce each year? Have students consider and then graph a scenario to help keep the fish population of the ocean sustainable.


  • Encourage students, especially those who are visual learners or learning English as a second language, to use art to help them process the concepts of the tragedy of the commons. They could create a diagram, representative painting, or infographic to relay what they understand about the concept.
  • Suggest that students create a digital or analogue poster art series aimed at creating a conversation around sustainability on campus.

Social Studies

Encourage students to discuss specific current or historic examples of sustainable or unsustainable practices that impact the environment. Some examples might include:

  • A huge new mill that is dumping waste into a river is impacting the ability of people who depend on the river for fish, seaweed, water, etc., to make a living and feed their families.
  • A new factory is built next to a small village. The factory is causing air and water pollution that is making people in the community very ill.
  • A new dam is constructed to harness electricity for people who live in a city. Now fish are unable to swim their regular migratory route each winter, and the animals that feed on them are losing an important source of food.
  • An energy company drilling for oil has contaminated a river that people in the area depend on for drinking water.
  • A community that once harvested seafood with hook and line, pole fishing, or trap fishing methods has switched to trawling boats. After a few years, there are far fewer fish to harvest so people are having to look for other food sources and some of the fisherpeople are out of work.

Encourage students to pick an example and work in a group to identify several key ways an unsustainable practice might be made more sustainable. Then have each group share their thoughts with the class and solicit more feedback about solutions that might improve sustainability.


Have students pick an example of the tragedy of the commons that had a global or regional impact and study how it developed over time. For example, they could examine the fishing industry in a specific region in its earliest days and note how it has evolved to this day. They could also look at specific examples of problems that have occurred in the past and what was done to make the situation more sustainable. For instance, they could explore the fishing crisis that occurred in the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, in the 1990s. They could also look at how officials in Norway learned from the Grand Banks situation to create a sustainable fishing industry. Another example could be the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, which was impacted by overfertilization from farming projects near the Mississippi River.

Cultural adaptation notes
  • Be careful not to overload students with too much negative information about the environment or tax them with problems they cannot possibly address. One of the best ways to foster sustainability thinking is to help students appreciate and value the wonderful resources Earth provides. Avoid too much emphasis on gloom-and-doom scenarios without attention to what students can do to show their love, respect, and appreciation for the Earth.
  • Be sensitive to common cultural practices or industries in your area that are unsustainable. For example, some of the students’ parents may work in the fishing industry, which is used as an example throughout this lesson, or they may work in a different industry that is known for having unsustainable practices. Emphasize the importance of becoming aware of sustainable versus unsustainable practices and looking for ways to transition from unsustainable to sustainable. Discourage students from judging and criticizing one another or their families. Most of us have an impact on the world around us. By becoming aware of that impact we can make choices here and there that can go a long way toward living more harmoniously with the planet.
  • Keep in mind as you teach this course that Sustainable Intelligence is an international program that includes examples from all over the world. It’s a good idea to personalize each lesson by adding examples that are relevant to your community or region. You can also help students internalize lessons with exploratory questions related to the topic (e.g., What if…? How might we...? Why don't we…?). You can also take advantage of the fact that this is an international program by connecting your students to students in other parts of the world to share experiences they have related to different Sustainable Intelligence lessons. One tool you could use to facilitate this connection is PenPal Schools.
Professional Development Opportunities

Looking for support? EcoRise offers relevant, engaging, year-round professional development and can connect you to active networks of veteran teachers and green professionals. We also provide access to grant opportunities to help fund your students' campus sustainability projects. You can learn more at ​


Thu, 02/15/2018 - 12:42

Emily Hurd

Pro Reviewer

I loved this lesson and found every aspect of it to be engaging and well planned. The initial discussion provided a way for all students to share background knowledge and "enter" into the learning concepts. The fishing game is fun and provides a concrete way for students to experience more abstract concepts like sustainability and tragedy of the commons. The reflection questions focus on how students can take action in their local community. This is a really effective lesson for introducing students to sustainability and/or reviewing it and going deeper.