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Introduction to Sustainability for High School Students

Authored by EcoRise and Representaciones e Inteligencia Sustentable

50 minutes
Primary subjects: 
Career and Technical Education (CTE): Architecture & Construction, Career and Technical Education (CTE): STEM, Economics, Environmental Education, Social Studies
9, 10, 11, 12
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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 what the term sustainability means and begin exploring two important concepts: the tragedy of the commons and the triple bottom line. In this way, they 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.
Describe the importance of cultivating sustainable intelligence.
Understand the conditions that lead to a “tragedy of the commons.”
Define and explore the value of approaching business ventures with the perspective of a triple bottom line.
Secondary subjects
Art, Biology, Career Technical Education (CTE), General Science, History, Language Arts, Mathematics
tragedy of the commons, sustainability, Fishing, Environment, Balance, triple bottom line, ocean, marine, Trash
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

cooperative learning skills, critical thinking skills

In Advance

Read through the lesson in advance. Determine how many groups you will need. The activity is written for groups of four students; if you have a group with more or fewer students you can adapt to accommodate them. With larger groups, you can give some students special roles such as timekeeper, materials manager, coast guard (for enforcing rules), etc. Once you know how many groups you will have, you can collect the appropriate amount of materials. You may wish to set up game stations in advance of the class period and pre-populate each station with the necessary materials.

Determine what you will use to represent money for students who catch more than two fish. Ideally, have about 50 play dollar bills or tokens so that you can award one each per extra fish caught and provide extra incentives if you choose.

Set up and test your audiovisual equipment to make sure you can share the embedded video quickly. Watch the video in advance to ensure that it is suitable for your class. It is quite fast-paced, so you may wish to plan to play it several times or have students watch it again later for homework.

Materials needed
  • Goldfish crackers, large box (per class)
  • Pencil or chopstick (one per student)
  • Bowl of water (one per team)
  • Watch or clock with second hand (per class)
Key vocabulary
sustainability, Resource, tragedy of the commons, triple bottom line
Safety information

Caution students not to eat the goldfish crackers. Check to see if any students have an allergy to the ingredients in the goldfish crackers. If so, you could substitute a food they are not allergic to or give them a role that does not involve their interacting with the food, such as timekeeper or data keeper.

Time Exercise Description
5 min. Introduction Get students thinking about the fishing industry.
15 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 sustainability.
15 min. Video View and discuss the “What happened to the Grand Banks cod?” video.
10 min. Wrap-Up Discuss the video and answer any questions students have.
  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: Divide the class into groups of four and distribute Going Fishing! supplies to each group (four pencils or chopsticks, 16 goldfish, and one bowl).
  5. Next, tell students to imagine that the bowl of water is a lake that provides the only source of food for four families that live near the lake. It is wintertime and the families are all extremely hungry. They have only one chance per year to fish at this lake, so it’s very important that they bring home enough fish to feed their families.
  6. Share the directions and rules for the game:
    • Each of you is the head of household for one of those four families.
    • For this game, the pencil (or chopstick) is your “fishing pole.” To catch a fish, use the pencil to get a fish from the “lake” and place it on the table in front of you.
    • You will have 30 seconds to fish from the lake and during that time you can catch as many fish as you like for your family. Factor in that it takes only two fish to keep your family alive until the next fishing season. If you catch any additional fish, you can sell them for a profit.
    • Each round of fishing represents one generation of fish. Any fish left in the lake at the end of the round can reproduce and repopulate the lake for the following year (round).
    • If you run out of fish, you have overfished the lake and the game is over for your group. (No more rounds for any group that overfishes.)
    • The first round is a silent round—no talking allowed.
  7. Start the first 30-second round by asking the students to drop their fish into their bowls and then lift their pencils. They can begin fishing when you say “Go!”
  8. After saying “Go!,” walk around and ensure that students are following the rules.
  9. At the end of 30 seconds, ask students to drop their pencils and conclude the round.
  10. Go around and pay any student who caught more than two fish, using your predetermined system (e.g., pay them one dollar per fish in play money or one token per fish, etc.). Also note whether any students failed to catch more than one fish. If so, tell them that, sadly, their family cannot survive, so they are out of the game. Any groups that have consumed all the fish in their lake have overfished the lake, so the game is over for them, too.
  11. Next, for each group, count how many fish remain in their bowl and add one new fish for every fish that remains. Tell students that the fish in their “lakes” repopulate in-between rounds.
  12. Play another 30-second round. This time, tell students they are welcome to talk. Hint that they may want to work together to come up with a strategy.
  13. After four consecutive rounds, add some variations or begin to debrief the game. See the Additional Teaching Instructions for interesting variations.
  14. 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)?
  15. Next, write the word SUSTAINABLE on the board and call on student volunteers to define the term. Write their definitions on the board. (Sample answer: Sustainable means that something is in a healthy state and can last for a long time so it will be around for us and future generations.)
  16. Ask students: Did you learn anything about sustainability from the fishing game? (Sample answer: It is 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.)
  17. Video: Show students the “What happened to the Grand Banks cod?” video.

  18. After the video, call on a student volunteer to summarize the video. (It describes a situation in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Canada, which were home to one of the largest stocks of codfish in the world for over 500 years. In 1992, cod fishing was no longer possible in the area because the cod nearly went extinct. To this day, there are not enough fish in the Grand Banks to be commercially viable.) Ask students: So what’s the big deal? Couldn’t people just fish something different? (Cod is an important commercial fish for many reasons. There were not easy substitutes for everyone, so a lot of fishermen were put out of work. Local economies that were dependent upon the huge cod industry suffered—people probably had to move or find other jobs. Some people became very, very poor.)

  19. Point out that the video describes how scientists and researchers saw the problem coming, but nothing was done to stop it. Why not? (Because putting limits on cod fishing was unpopular with people who fished cod. People were enjoying catching huge loads of fish and enjoying the profits that came along with it. No one wanted to slow down. The researchers were trying to get politicians to change the laws that governed the fishing industry, but the politicians didn’t want to do it because it would make them unpopular with the huge fishing community and people who depended on the fishing community.)
  20. On the board, write “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
  21. 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)
  22. Point out that in the game, the “lake” 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.)
  23. 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.)
  24. On the board, write the words “Triple Bottom Line” and draw a triple bottom line tree like this one.
    Alt text
  25. Share with students that one possible strategy for addressing the tragedy of the commons is something called the triple bottom line. Encourage discussion about the phrase and graphic, prompting students to talk about what they think it means.
  26. Tell students that a man named John Elkington first shared the concept of a triple bottom line. The idea is that for a sustainable future, we must structure our businesses to consider people, profit, and the planet (environment). In other words, when a business is making a profit by using Earth’s resources, it must also consider the well-being of the people at large and the environment in order to be sustainable. This is a way of avoiding the tragedy of the commons.
  27. Ask students whether they think most businesses today consider the triple bottom line or if instead they focus on one aspect, such as profit. Encourage students to discuss any examples of businesses that seem to practice the triple bottom line and what might entice additional businesses to adopt this approach. Also prompt students to talk about whether they agree with the approach and what its advantages and disadvantages might be.
  28. Wrap-Up: Facilitate a final discussion while students are clearing up their game stations. Ask: If you were to return to your “lakes” and fish again, how might you integrate the triple bottom line to avoid the tragedy of the commons and promote sustainability? (Sample answer: We could determine in advance how many fish we could each fish to keep the lake sustainable, and then we could all honor that agreement.)
  29. Remind students about the Norwegian example in the video. Ask: what did the people in Norway do to protect their fishing resources that the people in Canada did not do? (In Norway, the body that creates laws for managing marine ecosystems is separate from the central management authority and not influenced by politicians. After Norwegian researchers identified the overfishing problem, the system restricted fishing and the area went through a period of economic hardship. However, the marine ecosystem recovered, and now it is one of the healthiest in the world. By addressing the problem head-on instead of denying the problem, they created a sustainable path forward.) So, in Norway, governing bodies represented the interests of the people and the environment, while businesspeople and fisherpeople consider profit. The government often takes this role, and if doesn’t, situations like that in Canada result and everyone suffers. However, many people resist government control and restrictions, so perhaps the idea of businesses proactively adopting a PPP (People, Profit, Planet) attitude is a better solution.
  30. Remind students that all natural and human-made systems have requirements for sustainability. Explain that the focus of this Sustainable Intelligence course is to cultivate a new way of thinking about the world that allows us to be more aware of what these systems require and to come up with second-nature solutions for maintaining them for generations to come!
Additional teaching tips

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

  • Lengthen the time of the rounds so that all the fish are caught within one round. This leads to a discussion of overfishing: with no fish left for the next year, everyone starves the following year. 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: frustrated, sad, angry, mad, disappointed, etc.)
    • Was everyone trying to take as much as possible? (yes)
    • Was your goal to catch as many fish as possible in order to make extra money? (yes)
    • Were you thinking short-term or long-term when you took all the fish from the lake? (short-term)
  • Stress the profit element of the game by announcing that a bonus will be awarded to the student who catches the most fish. Use questions such as the following to stimulate conversation:

    • How did the game change with this incentive? )(People became much more excited about getting as many fish as possible.)_
    • Do you see stressing profit as a short-term or a long-term action? Explain. (Short term, because if everyone is concerned only about profit, we will overfish the lake very quickly.)
  • 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. Give a ladle to one of the heads of household in each group and explain that this is a mega-trawler. This “boat” allows them to “catch” as many fish as possible at once. 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!)
    • Do you think situations like this happen 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.)
  • Add pieces of plastic into each group’s bowl to simulate human trash that ends up in bodies of water.

    • How did the plastic impact your ability to fish? (It made fishing much more difficult.)
    • What might the plastic simulate? (The plastic trash humans make that ends up in lakes and oceans.)
    • Do you think human trash impedes fishing in natural marine ecosystems? Explain. (Yes. I’ve heard of fish getting tangled and dying in human trash. I’m sure it also gets tangled in nets and makes harvesting fish more difficult because fisherpeople need to separate the fish from the trash.)
    • Have you ever seen plastics in the ocean or on a beach or lakeside before? If so, what was it like and how did it make you feel? (Sample answer: Honestly, I’ve tossed trash in the ocean before. I thought the ocean was kind of like a giant system that could easily process waste. It’s so huge! I thought it was kind of cool to see my water bottle bounce along the top of the waves. It never occurred to me that it might impact fishing or ocean life.)
    • What are some of the sources of marine trash? (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:

  • What is sustainable intelligence, and why might it be worth cultivating? (Sample answer: It is a way of thinking about the world that extends beyond what we need or think we need this moment and into a consideration for our future and a consideration for the rest of the biosphere. I think it’s important because many of the things we are doing now—like using large amounts of fossil fuels are causing problems for Earth but we everyone is doing it. We need to be taught how to think differently about our future and about how our actions impact the Earth that supports us and other organisms.)
  • What is a simple way you can demonstrate sustainability thinking? (Sample answer: When I go to the park I don’t think of it as I think of my backyard and, honestly, I don’t care for it as well. This may be because no one is standing there asking me to take care of it, the way my father asks me to clean up the backyard. I think this is an example of the tragedy of the commons, and I can address it by treating the park like my backyard and caring for it by picking up trash and making sure I don’t break anything or crush the plants.)
  • Did learning about the triple bottom line change the way you think about businesses and corporations? (Sample answer: I think most businesses are consumed by the idea of profit. If they put more thought into the long-term needs of people and the environment, we probably wouldn’t have fast food, so much packaging, so much plastic, etc. I think it would be useful to see how these companies would adapt if they had to describe how their businesses might impact people and the planet in the long term and had to act sustainably to protect those interests.)
  • Can you share an example of a sustainable business you’ve seen? What makes it sustainable? (Sample answer: There is a great gift shop near my house that sells products that come from all over the world. The idea is that by cultivating relationships with local craftspeople in parts of the world that are suffering from deforestation or other environmental damage, these people have a healthy alternative to damaging the environment. People burn down forests to farm so they can feed their families. If they can, instead, create crafts from local materials and sell those in developing nations to feed their families, we are working together to protect those resources.)
  • What are some of the lifestyle choices you and your family make that might not be sustainable now that you know more about it? (Sample answer: So many of the products we purchase are disposable—it’s ridiculous how much trash we create and we don’t even think about it. Also, I have never once considered that the fish I eat may be contributing to overfishing somewhere. We just don’t know because no one talks about these things. We drive our cars to buy plastics and electronics and seafood at the big-box store just like everyone else without ever stopping to ask where they come from or if doing this is having a negative impact on the world. It seems like someone else’s problem—I guess that’s where the tragedy of the commons comes in.)
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):
Grades 9–10:
RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.4, RI.9-10.1, RI.9-10.10, W.9-10.1a–e, W.9-10.2a–f, W.9-10.4–8, W.9-10.9, W.9-10.10, SL.9-10.1a-d, SL.9-10.2–6, L.9-10.1b–d, L.9-10.2.2a–c, L.9-10.3a, L.9-10.4a–d, L.9-10.5a–b, L.9-10.6, RST.9-10.1, RST.9–10.3–9, WHST.9-10.1a–e, WHST.9-10.2a–f, WHST.9-10.4–10, RH.9-10.2, RH.9-10.4, RH.9-10.10
Grades 11–12: RI.11–12.2, RI.11–12.4, RI.11–12.7, W.11–12.1a–e, W.11–12.2a–f, W.11–12.4–8, W.11–12.10, SL.11-12.1a–d, SL.11–12.2–6, L.11–12.1a–b, L.11–12.2a–b, L.11–12.3a, L.11–12.4a–d, L.11–12.5a–b, L.11–12.6, RST.11-12.1, RST.11-12.3–9, WHST.11-12.1a–d, WHST.11-12.2a–e, WHST.11-12.4–10, RH.11-12.2, RH.11-12.4, RH.11-12.10

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS):
Middle School
From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes:
Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics: MS-LS2-1, MS-LS2-5
Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity: MS-LS4-1
Earth and Human Activity: MS-ESS3-3, MS-ESS3-4
Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science: MS-ETS1-1, MS-ETS1-3
High School
Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics:
HS-LS2-1, HS-LS2-7, HS-LS2-8
Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity: HS-LS4-2, HS-LS4-5, HS-LS4-6
Earth and Human Activity: HS-ESS3-1, HS-ESS3-3, HS-ESS3-4, HS-ESS3-5, HS-ESS3-6
Engineering Design: HS-ETS1-1, HS-ETS1-3

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 (TEKS):
§112.34.c.1.B, §112.34.c.2.H, : §112.34.c.3.A, : §112.34.c.7.D, E, §112.34.c.12.D
Earth and Space Science: §112.36.c.1.B, §112.36.c.I, §112.36.c.3.A, §112.36.c.12.D
Environmental Systems: §112.37.c.1.B, §112.37.c.3.B, §112.37.c.4.F, G, H, §112.37.c.5.C, D, E, F, §112.37.c.7.C, §112.37.c.8.B, C, E, §112.37.c.9.A, D, J

Estándares Secretaría de Educación Pública (México):
LIT.SE.1.1, 1.4, 1.8, PTE.SE.2.1–11, PTOECO.SE.3.1, 3.3–3.6, FUL.SE.4.1–4.3, AL.SE.5.2–5.7, 5.10, 5.11
Ciencias: CC.SE.1.13, 1.14, ACT.SE.2.2–2.5, HC.SE.3.2–3.5, 3.7, 3.8, AC.SE.4.1–4.3, 4.6, 4.7
BA.CG.1.1, 1.2, 2.4, 3.5, 3.6, 4.7, 5.8, 6.9, 6.11
BA.CDB.CO.4.1, 4.2, 4.5, 4.6, 4.8, 4.12
BA.CDE.CE.1.9, 1.11, 1.15, CO.2.1–2.5, 2.7, 2.10, CS.3.3

Community connections

Have students do research to see if there are any local businesses that incorporate the triple bottom line into their business planning and decision making. If so, suggest they contact the business owner or manager to schedule a field trip or classroom visit. Have students write questions in advance to find out how they incorporate sustainable practices into their business. Then have students summarize what they learn in an article for the school newspaper or newsletter.


You may want to determine the groups in advance in order to create well-balanced groups that can consider the issues effectively. You may wish to give struggling students or students whose first language is not English the link to the video in advance of the class. This will give them time to watch the video at their own pace and consider the issues before coming to class. While this may reduce the power of the activity, it should allow those students to understand and participate in the group discussions.

Cross disciplinary connections

Language Arts

  • Have students form teams to represent a business and brainstorm how they might incorporate the triple bottom line into a business plan. After brainstorming, have them write a mission statement for the business that demonstrates their commitment to people, profit, and the planet. They could also include basic operating principles that show specific steps they can take to honor the triple bottom line. Have students share their plans with the class and discuss how to make the plans realistic.
  • Give students a free-writing assignment that answers the question: How sustainable are my habits and actions right now? At the end of the course, have them answer the question again and then compare the two to see the progress they have made.
  • Suggest students write an essay about a common resource in your area and how the tragedy of the commons has impacted it. They could create a photo essay documenting problems and progress, and make recommendations they can share with the city officials who oversee that community property.
  • Encourage students to create and launch a public service announcement (PSA) campaign designed to get students and staff at the school to begin thinking about the impact of their choices on the environment.


Have students use the Going Fishing! Data Collection Worksheet to tally the results of the activity each round. Then integrate this lesson with one on economics. Study the ups and downs of the activity and the impact an emphasis on profit has on the people and the environment throughout the rounds. Encourage students to pretend this is an actual situation and create impact analysis studies and summaries of economic and environmental trends and how they overlap.


  • Suggest that students create a digital or analogue poster art series aimed at creating a conversation around sustainability on campus.
  • 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 and the triple bottom line. They could create a diagram, representative painting, or infographic to relay what they understand about the concepts.

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 explore the situation referenced in the video related to the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland in greater detail. Encourage them to look at the fishing industry there in its earliest days and how it has evolved to this day. 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


Wed, 07/18/2018 - 10:10

Natalie Townsend


This will be a perfect way to engage students and introduce them to the concept of sustainability.