Empowering Teachers for Systemic Change

A Partnership of Urban Green Lab, the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation's Division of Solid Waste Management, and Vanderbilt University’s Center for Science Outreach

Individual, corporate, and foundation giving campaign to raise $40,000 before 2020 to support Sustainable Classrooms 

Individual, corporate, and foundation giving campaign to raise $40,000 before 2020 to support Sustainable Classrooms 


A partnership between Urban Green Lab, the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation's Division of Solid Waste Management, and Vanderbilt University, Sustainable Classrooms trains teachers how to integrate sustainability into the classroom.  The statewide program includes a one-year study of metro educators, development of a Sustainable Living Curriculum supplement supporting STEAM academic standards, two-day professional development trainings on how to infuse sustainable living into the classroom, and hands-on student-led household waste audits that reinforce literacy and engage student families in the learning process.

Sustainable Living Curriculum

The Sustainable Living Curriculum, developed by Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), Urban Green Lab, and a steering committee of partner organizations, is a supplemental curriculum that reinforces the state Next Generation STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) standards and aligns with the Mayor’s Livable Nashville Plan.  Based on national samples but specific to Tennessee, the Sustainable Living Curriculum is a packet of seven simple printed monthly lesson plans focused on critical daily household behaviors that reduce waste, protect natural resources, like energy, water, and food, and foster a sense of individual responsibility.


While wonderful examples of environmental education in Tennessee exist, we still need a systemic, centralized effort that is consistent and aligned, and within reach for marginalized urban populations (72 percent of Metro Nashville students).  And while some schools have STEM academics, most have no directive linking earth sciences to daily sustainable living behaviors that impact our planet every day.  Furthermore, Tennessee still needs to fully map the true need for sustainability curricula in our state, especially around teacher pedagogical development.  Some 30 states have better emissions records than Tennessee and Nashville’s blooming metropolis is ripe for this movement.  Our need here is urgent.


The goal of Sustainable Classrooms is simple: Make sustainability education a priority in Tennessee schools by empowering teachers.  Humanity’s footprint is growing wider and deeper every day, and there’s never been a more important time for environmental sustainability.  In fall 2016, the Tennessee Department of Environment & Education’s (TDEC) commissioned Urban Green Lab through a $419,000 2017-2019 grant to create a state-wide flagship initiative (piloted in Nashville) that realizes its mandate of strengthening sustainability education in schools.  Together, Urban Green Lab, TDEC, Vanderbilt University, and Metro Nashville Public Schools established Sustainable Classrooms to do the following:

  1. Prioritize and integrate sustainability literacy in Tennessee schools and administrations

  2. Strengthen teacher pedagogies and confidence for teaching environmental sustainability

  3. Foster student sustainability literacy AND strategies for long-term behavioral change

  4. Engage student families in the learning process and link them to community services


Lasting Partnerships


The Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC) exists to enhance quality of life for all citizens in Tennessee, and steward our natural environment through protection and responsible regulation.  The mission of TDEC’s Division of Solid Waste Management (DSWM) is to protect, improve, and promote health and environmental quality through the responsive, effective oversight of waste management activities and the beneficial use of recovered materials.  DSWM’s role in Sustainable Classrooms is to serve as the founding source of financial support, link the partnership with other departments, advise development of the program’s leadership, and serve on the steering committee.


The Center for Science Outreach (CSO) at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education develops and implements a variety of programs focused on enhancing K-12 science education.  One of the most successful programs of CSO is the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV), which offers a unique learning environment for highly motivated and talented students in Metro Nashville schools.  In Sustainable Classrooms, CSO will design and implement a formative evaluation strategy used to guide the proposed educational activities and a summative evaluation that communicates outcomes.  CSO will also utilize an existing longitudinal survey to track participants throughout the course of the award.


Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is the school district serving Nashville, Tennessee, and Davidson County.   With some 89,000 students, 8,000 teachers, and  155 schools, MNPS is the nation’s 42nd largest school district.  The mission of MNPS is to deliver great public school education to every student, every day, with a vision to be the fastest-improving urban school system in America, ensuring that every student becomes a life-long learner prepared for success in college, career, and life.  MNPS’s role in Sustainable Classrooms is to offer strategic perspective in curriculum design, align resources and experts, and encourage principals and educators to adopt Sustainable Classrooms in their institutions.




Three activities define Sustainable Classrooms.  First, a Sustainable Living Curriculum is being developed by a steering committee of partners and serves as a supplemental curriculum reinforcing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) standards while aligning with Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s Livable Nashville Plan.  Based on national samples, but specific to Tennessee, the Curriculum is a packet of seven monthly 45-minute lesson plans on critical daily behaviors that reduce waste (energy, food, water, recycling, etc.) and foster a sense of both individual responsibility and collective impact.  Making this ready-made is key for teachers who are otherwise overworked and underpaid.


Each of the Sustainable Living Curriculum’s seven monthly lesson plans is tied to a simple week-long take-home student-led household waste audit that gives students practical, hands-on application of the sustainability lessons they’re learning in the classroom.  Topics include energy waste, water waste, food waste, recycling analysis, a carbon footprint calculation, etc.  The audits reinforce the Curriculum through a project-based learning (PBL) approach while collecting invaluable data on waste trends that can be shared with TDEC, MNPS, and other agencies; linking households to local waste reduction services (retrofitting, composting, food recovery, etc.); and engaging student families in the learning process too.


Teachers are agents of change in schools.  Starting summer 2018, Urban Green Lab will train 30 teachers and principals in clusters of 2-3 at 10 pilot STEAM-ready middle schools (any discipline – art, history, science, etc.) through free two-day official fall professional development trainings on how to implement Sustainable Classrooms.  Taught by master teacher trainers at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, trainings include a copy of the Sustainable Living Curriculum, a one-day spring Impact Review meeting together, appointment as their school’s designated sustainability stewards, $200 for supplies, and certification as LEED Green Classrooms Professionals by the U.S. Green Building Council.  Sustainable Classrooms trainings are meant to develop leaders while fostering networking and communication skills.


At the core of Sustainable Classrooms is the citizen scientist, the student who understands they have the power to change the world from the comfort of their own household.  In addition to prioritizing sustainability in schools, boosting teacher confidence in sustainability education, and exposing student families to the learning process, students themselves develop a deeper sense of ownership and responsibility, service learning, social emotional learning (SEL), and citizen science by growing their sustainable living literacy and especially through practicing strategies at home that result in real results. 




Before any of the above activities, we need to first understand teachers’ needs.  In 2017, five researchers with Vanderbilt University’s Center for Science Outreach will conduct a year-long assessment investigating what Nashville teachers currently teach about sustainability and what they need to do it better.  Methods of the assessment include a literature review, key informant interviews, and a wide-scale digital survey.  Results from the study will inform development of the Sustainable Living Curriculum, audits, and trainings (above) and likely contribute to a retrospective longitudinal case-control study that will inform best practice.


At Urban Green Lab, data drives decisions.  For this reason, Vanderbilt’s Center for Science Outreach is also evaluating the impact of the overall Sustainable Classrooms program around five core areas of change: 1) teacher pedagogy, 2) student literacy and activism, 3) family engagement, 4) administrative policy development, and 5) linkages of households to services.  The program also hopes to measure CO2e offsets estimated through the audits.  Methods of measurement include the baseline teacher assessment, pre/post testing, audit analysis, and spring Impact Review meetings.  For every teacher trained, an estimated 750 students and 2,250 family members are engaged over a five-year tenure.


Some of the most important instruction comes from teacher-to-teacher sharing.  In fact, teachers are as important to each other as they are to their pupils.  One of the most important aspects of Sustainable Classrooms is year-round mentorship, not just between teachers, but between the schools themselves.  In addition to trainings and impact reviews, all teachers trained in Sustainable Classrooms will join a special email listserve where they can exchange best practices year-round, and receive guidance and opportunities from Urban Green Lab and partnership organizations – an invaluable connection.  Teachers also become eligible for the annual Sustainable Teacher Awards, an event hosted by Urban Green Lab.  


Urban Green Lab built Sustainable Classrooms with its own sustainability in mind.  First, Sustainable Classrooms is focused on systemic change – what every school can do to make sustainability education a built-in priority.  If one of the three educators trained in a school cluster leaves, two others remain to sustain momentum.  Involving principals also helps secure support at a policy level and designating a school administrator as the  “sustainability steward” for that school is vital.  Volunteers from local corporations and the general community are available to aid teachers in classroom implementation.  And commitments from other agencies connected by TDEC will also sustain the partnership over time.


Sustainable Classrooms is a state-wide program, but Nashville is the pilot city for both the program as well as its unique research model.  In 2019, Sustainable Classrooms will begin expanding to affiliate cities – Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, including potential rural schools – working hand-in-hand with peer nonprofits and public institutions to further prioritize sustainable living education throughout the state.


Registration is not yet available for the fall 2018 Sustainable Classrooms trainings, but click here to let us know you’re interested.  Check back here for updated information and the official registration.


To learn more about Sustainable Classrooms, including registration, volunteers, and media inquiries, please email Todd Lawrence (Executive Director for Urban Green Lab) at director@urbangreenlab.org

Steering Committee 

The Steering Committee, including Todd Lawrence and Chris Vanags, for Sustainable Classrooms is composed of partnership representatives, educators, and industry experts who guide development of the program.