Training STEM Technicians for the “Green Economy”

A new reality for the “green economy” is emerging. The green economy is less a separate sector and more integrated into existing businesses and markets. What’s more, most green occupations can be performed with existing traditional skill sets or with enhanced green training to supplement traditional skills, rather than completely new skill sets . . . What is clear is that government and business will continue to invest and integrate green practices to buffer against growing energy insecurity and rising resource prices.

– Feasibility Study: Education and training opportunity in the green economy appropriate to south King County. (2012) Highline Community College, Economic Development Programs.


The current STEM technician pipeline is insufficient to meet the future workforce needs of the Inland Northwest. Spokane Falls Community College (SFCC) has received funding from the National Science Foundation to help K-12 and community college faculty develop problem-based learning communities to improve the pipeline into technical careers that are becoming part of the “green economy.” The need for faculty development in this area arises from several realities. First, Spokane’s economic recovery is being led by the professional, scientific, and technical services sub-sector. Between 2011 and 2016 this sub-sector is forecasted to increase by 20%, adding nearly 3,000 jobs. But the demand for highly skilled STEM technicians is outpacing the supply.

Second, local and regional sustainability-minded industries report significant skills gaps in the current science and technology workforce. Gaps include traditional STEM skills as well as soft skills rarely emphasized in STEM courses. Finally, the “green economy” is growing but elusive because it is being integrated into existing jobs rather than arising as a separate, well defined jobs sector. Thus, training for the green economy may be most effectively achieved by integrating sustainability into existing educational programs.

We are attempting to address these issues by providing professional development opportunities in which teachers, working closely with industry partners, develop authentic problem-based learning communities that integrate sustainability into the curriculum using pedagogical approaches that will address skills gaps and help inform teachers and students about STEM technician career opportunities that will become part of tomorrow’s green economy.

This professional development project is founded on several evidence-based instructional methods that will help accomplish the projects goal and objectives. We believe that addressing real-world problems in teams will help improve student performance and increase completion rates. Learning is more effective and interest is greater when students can connect classroom content to what they will be doing in the workforce. The interdisciplinary learning community approach for which we are offering training will provide students with STEM technical training while improving soft-skill that are desired by regional STEM employers. While other projects have used similar approaches, our project attempts to integrate the best components of previous work in a unique combination to facilitate sustainability training for technicians. Our approach considers recent reports that have found the green economy is being integrated into existing jobs as opposed to a separate green sector of the economy. We believe that this approach responds to local STEM employer needs for sustainable skills using a synergistic approach of pedagogical approaches selected to address these needs while improving student success.



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE-1400699.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Why organizations [should] care about sustainability

Sustainability can provide many organizational benefits. Examples include

  • risk reduction
  • enhanced brand value
  • cost reductions
  • talent attraction
  • creation of competitive advantages
  • entrance into new markets
  • maintaining relevance to investors
  • launching new business models

There are several reasons for change, founded in fundamental ecological principles and economics, as well as evolving societal influences. At a foundational level, the global population is growing, affluence is increasing, and resources are limited, leading to increased geopolitical tensions over resources. Economic growth has outpaced resource efficiency gains. This has led to the increased use of more expensive energy sources, more conventional power plants, and climate change. Additionally, industrial processes tend to be linear, resulting in supplies at risk and waste production. Increases in demand have led to increasingly risky practices, leading to more catastrophic events, new regulations, balancing costs and risks of compliance, and forced supplier transparency. Prevalence of smart phones and social media means that information is shared widely and quickly. This affects consumer behavior and public awareness, potentially impacting brand name or employability.[1]

Businesses have become the dominant social institutions of our time. But with powerful social and political influence comes increased scrutiny from watchdog groups and individual stakeholders, making sustainability and corporate responsibility valuable business practices. Walmart, often maligned for what many viewed as corporate irresponsibility, has made significant changes in recent years. Walmart exceeds $400,000,000,000 in revenue, employs approximately 2,000,000 people, and has a reputation for strong influence on its supply chain, introduced its Supplier Sustainability Assessment Survey in 2009, which works to better protect the environment and labor rights in its supply chain.[2] Furthermore, Walmart has publicly established sustainability goals (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. of being supplied by 100% renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to sell sustainable products.

Sustainable practices have the potential to create business value. Research suggests that CEOs primarily care about sustainability because of brand, trust, and reputation. Other factors include the potential for revenue growth and/or cost reduction, consumer demand, and personal motivation. To a lesser extent, employee engagement and recruiting, government regulation, business impact, and shareholder pressure are reasons CEOs care about sustainability.

In some cases, businesses need to rebuild their brand name following negative publicity. The Exxon Mobile Corporation and Nike are two examples. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was a widely publicized environmental catastrophe and poor working conditions in overseas Nike factories were also publicly scrutinized. Sustainable practices have helped improve public perceptions of these companies.[1]

Some entrepreneur’s found their businesses in sustainable practices. Molly Moon’s Ice Cream out of Seattle, Washington, is one example. Molly Moon’s business plan included providing 100% health care coverage for all employees; using local, organic, seasonal, and fresh ingredients; and for all waste coming from the business to be compostable. This business model created a brand name that has been very successful. Since the opening of her first shop in May 2008, the business has grown to include six shops across Seattle in addition to online merchandise and an ice cream truck that can be booked for birthdays, weddings, and other events.[3] Likewise, Hopworks Urban Brewery out of Portland, Oregon, is monikered Portland’s first Eco-Brewpub, along with the Hopworks BikeBar. This brewery uses organic, fresh, local ingredients and provides a family-friendly atmosphere. Their buildings are built and operated sustainably. They compost, use salvaged materials, operate on 100% renewable energy, are carbon-neutral, and use pervious pavers in the parking lot.[4] These examples highlight a growing number of businesses that have built a brand name on sustainable principles and established themselves in a corner of the market where the customer base values sustainability.

Striving to improve sustainability has become an important business practice. In 2011, more than 5,500 companies issued sustainability reports. tracks corporate responsibility reports. At the time this was written, the directory included 63,870 reports across 12,299 companies. Timothy Mohin suggests that “the economic winners of tomorrow will be the innovators who find ways to do more with less.”[2] Sustainability really has become an integral part of successful businesses in the 21st century.


[1] Graf, P. 2014. The Business Case for Sustainability. Sustainability and Business Innovation. SAP.

[2] Mohin, T. J. 2012. Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations. Greenleaf Publishing.

[3] Exclusive Interview with Ice Cream Entrepreneur Molly Moon. 2015.

[4] Green at HUB. 2014. Hopworks Urban Brewery.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE-1400699.


Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Defining Sustainability

When we first began this project, many of the business partners and colleagues with whom we spoke asked us just what we mean by “sustainability.” At first, this seemed like an odd question, but the frequency with which we encountered this question made it clear that we needed a working definition. It wasn’t that nobody knew what sustainability was; rather, everyone wanted to know what we meant when using the term. The term is often used by others synonymously with environmental stewardship. But our view of sustainability is not purely environmental. In fact, we believe that it is difficult to sustain ecosystem services if human economic and social needs aren’t also considered.

To sustain something means that it is maintained over a long period of time. The term sustainability essentially refers to the maintenance of the human population on earth. This maintenance rests upon the three pillars of sustainability: environment, economy, and society. That’s a big concept that may seem daunting for individuals, organizations, or businesses to accomplish. It is. Thus, sustainability may best be viewed as a continual process in which we attempt to become more sustainable, rather than establishing the goal of becoming sustainable. Even if we could become sustainable, it would likely be short lived if we felt that we had reached our goal. Sustainability is dynamic and a system with environmental, economic, and social benchmarks may be better viewed as a juggling act as opposed to a place in which we are attempting to bring these three items to rest. Sustainability is not simply a set of environmentally friendly, economically efficient, and socially just actions; sustainability is a mindset that informs actions.

The Brundtland Report from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development is often credited with first articulating a widely accepted definition of sustainability and with establishing the need for these three pillars in sustainable development. The Brundtland Report states that sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own goals.” Satisfaction of human needs is the primary objective of development, and human needs are dependent on the ecosystem services as well as economic and social wellbeing.

Since that time, others have added more components to sustainability. The Curriculum for the Bioregion (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. from the Washington Center at The Evergreen State College states that “Sustainability encompasses four intertwined ideas: economic wellness, social justice, human health, and biodiversity and ecological integrity. It is a systematic concept, relating to the continuity of economic, social, institutional, and environmental aspects of human society.” This definition expands upon the environmental, economic, and social aspects of sustainability to explicitly include health and institutions. Some might argue that this are social components of sustainability, which may be true, but the Curriculum for the Bioregion felt it was important enough to explicitly mention these ideas. Curriculum for the Bioregion is a great source of sustainability resources, including curriculum materials using examples from the State of Washington.

Andres Edwards modified the core concepts of sustainability as The Three E’s Plus One: ecology/environment, economy/employment, equity/equality (society), and education[1]. According to Edwards, environmental sustainability is dependent on three ecological perspectives: 1) temporal scaling or transitioning from a short-term to a long-term perspective, 2) systemic rather than piecemeal understanding of ecological relationships, and 3) the concept of built-in limits. The economy/employment “E” recognizes the importance of economic development and employment in sustainable societies. Overexploitation and pollution can be detrimental to the environment. When people experience economic hardship, it can encourage unwise management of natural resources because contemporary survival outweighs concerns for future generations and stifles longterm thinking.

Similar to the interdependence of the three pillars, there is an interdependence of individual and community wellbeing. Even if there is a recognition for environmental and economic sustainability, a lack of equity can impair social cohesion. Globally, inequity has made it difficult to make significant strides in curbing climate change, for example. Even when developed countries recognize the long-term environmental and economic challenges associated with atmospheric carbon dioxide and are willing to take some actions to reduce their own emissions, these steps seem disingenuous in light of inequities, as do forest conservation efforts that increase contemporary economic hardships for indigenous peoples that rely on forest resources. Disadvantaged communities often suffer pollution from more affluent parts of the community as well. Inequities can impair social sustainability.

Active commitment to public education, Edwards argues, catalyzes understanding of the dynamic interrelationship of the Three Es. He states “Through education, sustainability can become firmly established within the existing value structure of societies while simultaneously helping that value structure evolve toward a more viable long-term approach to systematic global problems.”

The essence of sustainability is the long-term preservation of mankind, recognizing the fundamental roles of natural resources and ecosystem services; the production, distribution, and use of goods and services; and the ability of individuals to contribute to their community and realize their potential in society. Significant social, economic, or environmental disruptions may impair longterm viability of businesses, institutions, communities, societies, or even mankind as a whole. However, while sustainability is a global issue, actions toward sustainability must occur on a smaller scale, often at the level of the individual or organization.

Professor Greg Möller of the University of Idaho provides a nice set “doculectures” as part of his Principles of Sustainability course. The course uses the textbook Introduction to Sustainability: Road to a Better Future by Nolberto Munier; the doculectures follow nicely from this text. I’ve provided a link to Professor Möller’s doculecture, Definitions of Sustainability (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..
[1] Edwards, A.R. 2005. The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift. New Society Publishers.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE-1400699.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Useful resources for integrating sustainability through problem-based learning communities

For a number of reasons, which I’ll discuss in another post, I believe that one of the best ways to integrate sustainability and the skills desired by employers that are thinking about sustainability is through problem-based learning communities. I’ve included links to several online resources below, which are intended to make it a little easier to put this into practice. Do you know of other resources that you would like to share? This post is a work in progress and will continue to grow.


Sustainability, US EPA

Environmental Justice, US EPA

OSPI K-12 Integrated Environmental and Sustainability Education

OSPI Examples of Integrated Environmental and Sustainability Education in Washington State

Greg Möller’s online open course, Principles of Sustainability, at the University of Idaho

Peter Graf’s online open Sustainability and Business Innovation course at openSAP




Systems Thinking

Linking(Thinking) from WWF

Sustainable Tomorrow

Vensim systems modeling and simulation software from Ventana Systems, Inc.

Insight Maker is a browser-based modeling and simulation option




Problem-based Learning

PBL Simplified Visually


National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science

Making Learning Real with Problem-Based Case Learning

Enduring Legacies: Native Case Studies

SC ATE Technology Gateway

PBL Projects at the New England Board of Higher Education

Learn PBL Now

Problem-Based Learning for Nursing Students

PBL in Criminal Justice

Dan Tries Problem-Based Learning



Learning Communities

The National Resource Center for Learning Communities from the Washington Center at The Evergreen State College

Learning Communities Research and Practice is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal






This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE-1400699.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Professional Development Opportunity

A limited number of spots are available for a 4-day sustainability workshop. The workshop is intended for middle school, high school, and community college teachers with students that may pursue or are pursuing STEM technical degrees. Preference will be given to interdisciplinary pairs of applicants (e.g., one science and one language arts instructor), but individuals will also be considered. An $800 stipend and STEM clock hours will be offered (pending approval of NEW ESD 101 proposal). Lunch, snacks, and coffee will be provided. The workshop will be held June 19-22, 8:30-3:15, at Spokane Falls Community College in Spokane, WA.

If you are interested in attending the workshop, please contact Scott Rollins (

Teaching Sustainability through Problem-Based Learning Communities

Research suggests that green economy is growing largely through the integration of sustainability into existing job rather than through the development of a separate, well-defined green jobs subsector. In addition, regional industry leaders have suggested that the demand for STEM technicians with skills necessary to compete in today’s green economy is outpacing supply. In this four day summer workshop funded by the National Science Foundation, we will discuss fundamental concepts of sustainability and systems thinking, why these matter to businesses, and how to integrate sustainability into the curriculum through problem-based learning communities.

Day one of this workshop will introduce the concepts of sustainability and systems thinking utilizing group discussions and hands-on activities. Participants will be provided resources and examples for introducing sustainability and systems thinking into their curriculum. Day one will end with an introduction to problem-based learning.

Day two of the workshop will explore methods for managing a problem-based learning classroom and how to assess student work in problem-based learning. Hands-on examples, exercises, and additional resources will be provided. Teachers will finish the day by developing or adapting a problem to integrate sustainability for use in their own classes.

Day three of the workshop will introduce interdisciplinary learning communities as an instructional approach through readings, discussions, and hands-on activities. Participants will be introduced to different forms of learning communities, the benefits of using learning communities, and how to assess integrative assignments. The day will end with teaching teams developing interdisciplinary, integrative sustainability assignments.

Day four of the workshop, participants will hear from a panel of industry partners and spend most of the day developing problem-based learning community assignments or modules that integrate sustainability. The goal is to have at least one assignment that can be implemented in the following academic year.

Often, just having the time to work together on curriculum development can be a challenge. We will provide lunch, snacks, a location, and support for teams that wish to continue working on their assignments on Friday.

Workshop instructors will facilitate the formation of industry partnerships to help teachers develop more authentic learning experiences for students. This support will extend beyond the workshop.

This training will also provide…

resources and examples (binder, books, online)

an $800 stipend for those that develop an assignment or learning community implementing the approaches and concepts covered by the workshop

snacks, coffee, and lunch

up to 24 STEM clock hours, pending approval of NEW ESD 101 proposal


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE-1400699.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Professional Development Opportunity: Preparing Students for Careers in Sustainability

Studies have found that the green jobs market is growing primarily through the integration of sustainability into existing jobs. As a result, sustainability-minded businesses are seeking employees with skills sets that extend beyond traditional technical training to help their businesses become more sustainable.

Through a National Science Foundation funded grant, we are offering a four-day summer workshop to interdisciplinary teaching teams. The goal is to help teams integrate sustainability and the sustainable skills desired by employers into their curriculum through problem-based learning communities. Ideally, teams will include one teacher from a STEM technical field and one that teaches courses in related instruction. For example, a community college engineering instructor paired with a technical writing instructor or a middle school math teacher paired with a language arts teacher. Larger teams or individuals will be considered if space is available.

Participants will receive training in sustainability, problem-based learning, and interdisciplinary learning communities. We will also facilitate partnerships with local businesses to help you create authentic problems for your students. Stipends ($400), lunch, snacks, teaching resources, and clock hours will be provided. Space is limited and preference will be given to teams with students in STEM technical pipelines from middle school through community college.

The workshop will be held at Spokane Falls Community College in Spokane, WA, June 19-22, 2017. A more detailed agenda will follow.

Interested faculty teams should contact Scott Rollins (scott.rollins[at] or Adriana Bishop (adriana.bishop[at] Please include the names and contact information for all individuals on your team, institutional affiliations, and teaching disciplines.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE-1400699. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.