The Michigan Sustainability Cases Initiative: Adapting Case-Based Teaching for Innovative Sustainability Science Education

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Meghan Wagner, Stephanie Kusano, Rebecca Hardin, and Malinda Matney

Historically, lectures have dominated university instruction, and many or most of today’s scholars have likely received their education through this mode. More recently the idea of active and engaged learning has increasingly taken hold, including at the University of Michigan. The institution has committed to shifting pedagogical norms on its campus toward engaged learning and defines the concept as any educational experience in which “students have opportunities to practice in unscripted, authentic settings, where stakeholders (including the students themselves) are invested in the outcome” ( In other words, practice and meaningful work with a topic or problem are prioritized over passive knowledge uptake. 

This paper continues a series of Occasional Papers that reflect on a major effort to instill engaged learning at the university, the Transforming Learning for a Third Century (TLTC) Initiative. Below, a brief description of the TLTC Initiative is given, followed by a description of the TLTC project that is the focus of this paper: Michigan Sustainability Cases (MSC). The paper then takes an immersive approach by describing the progress and accomplishments of MSC through three short narratives, henceforth referred to as mini-cases. These mini-cases will read very differently from most research articles. This stylistic choice has the advantage of putting the reader in the place of a case-based learner, thus providing a tangible demonstration of how case studies work to actively engage students in the learning process. 


Introduction to the Third Century Initiative

The Office of the Provost launched the Transforming Learning for a Third Century (TLTC) Initiative in 2012 with an ambitious agenda to define and cultivate a culture of engaged learning at the University of Michigan. The TLTC initiative funded innovative projects aimed at improving teaching and learning, with the following desired learning outcomes:

  1. Creativity
  2. Intercultural engagement
  3. Social/civic responsibility and ethical reasoning
  4. Communication, collaboration, and teamwork
  5. Self-agency, and the ability to innovate and take risks

The TLTC initiative provided $17.5 million in funding to support innovative projects, faculty development, and assessment and evaluation. Twelve proposals received Transformation Grants to enact large-scale changes to infrastructure and/or instruction, and 116 proposals received Quick Wins and Discovery Grants to support smaller-scale, “shovel-ready” projects (; Hallman et al., 2018). Participants included 352 faculty and staff members representing all of the schools and colleges across campus. More than 10,000 students were directly involved in one or more of these funded projects. One of the goals of this initiative was to disseminate best practices discovered by the innovative pedagogical methods under trial by TLTC participants. The Michigan Sustainability Cases initiative (MSC) is one of those projects that received a Transformation Grant. MSC illustrates how adapting existing case-based methods can transform and improve students’ learning experience in higher education in fields such as sustainability that have not historically employed case-based teaching.


The Michigan Sustainability Cases Initiative

The Michigan Sustainability Cases initiative launched in February 2016 as an effort to improve the classroom experience for both students and faculty through the use of case-based teaching. Case studies have long been used in fields such as business, law, and medicine to equip students with the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind they will need as successful professionals, but the use of cases for environment and sustainability education is relatively newer. Although case studies take many forms, they all may be described as “stories with an educational message” (Herreid, 2007a). Environment and sustainability case studies, like case studies used in other fields, rely on the inherently engaging nature of stories to teach. They differ from business, law, and medicine cases in the topics covered, skills addressed, and sometimes the pedagogical methods employed to analyze a case. Specifically, case analysis reflects the emerging field of sustainability science, involving spatial and temporal complexities beyond those of conventional legal, medical, or business cases.

From the outset, MSC was uniquely positioned to integrate case studies into the environment and sustainability fields because it could draw on decades of in-house experience in teaching with cases at its home school, the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE, now the School for Environment and Sustainability, or SEAS). Recent research highlights the ineffectiveness of lectures in promoting knowledge retention, and fostering analytical and creative thinking (e.g., Freeman et al. 2014; Deslauriers et al., 2019). Case studies, in contrast, have been shown to be highly effective in fostering critical thinking, for example teaching students to consider diverse perspectives and engaging students in the learning process (Srinivasan et al., 2007; Herreid, 2011). Moreover, case studies are especially important in a professional school setting because they can bring the real world into the classroom and provide practical skills training. 

Edward Waisanen; field trip teaching of cherries caseMSC additionally aimed to re-imagine the case study by presenting published cases on an open-access learning platform and enhancing case text with multimedia elements. By opting for an online medium, MSC strove to make case repositories and resources more immersive, engaging, and adaptable. Together, these innovations in case study use and design formed the backbone of an ambitious experiment to transform sustainability education and to better prepare the next generation of sustainability leaders to deal with the complex, interdisciplinary challenges of our time. 

Armed with the above knowledge and vision, MSC began to produce and pilot cases focused on sustainability dilemmas, with the goal of building a case library for use across professional schools and traditional departments. These early cases, and most of MSC’s current library, tell the story of a real-life decision maker who has to confront a challenging situation. Case users are asked to make a decision on the best course of action, often with imperfect or incomplete information, while balancing the objectives of competing stakeholders. 

MSC introduced a novel method for case production by assembling teams of students, faculty, and practitioners. In this model, prospective case teams submitted a proposal, which was subsequently reviewed by MSC’s curricular advisors. Case teams with accepted proposals then worked with MSC’s project manager and multimedia projects manager to sketch out more detailed plans for case content and pedagogy. Students typically lead case production--which includes conducting research and interviews, writing the narrative, and curating media--supported by their faculty and practitioner mentors. Once cases are complete, they are published on a custom-built learning platform called Gala. Recently, the introduction of author tools that allow anyone to post his or her own case study on Gala has opened up new possibilities and models for case production that MSC continues to support and refine.

Novel Practices and Characteristics of Michigan Sustainability Cases
  • Cases produced by teams of students, faculty, and practitioners
  • Cases published on an open-access learning platform called Gala
  • Cases consist of a comprehensive narrative supported by multimedia features and an engaged learning exercise
  • Cases based on real and complex issues, which offer students opportunities to practice interdisciplinary collaboration and enhance problem solving skills

The online format of provides exceptional opportunities to expand how cases are used and what they can do. Each case consists of a text-based narrative, Edgenotes (curated or produced multimedia content displayed alongside the narrative) that provide jumping-off points for deeper exploration, and supplemental audio or video content. Additionally, each case includes an engaged learning exercise that challenges students to work intensively with issues presented in the case and provides students with practical skills training. Lastly, an online discussion forum facilitates interpersonal connections and exchange of ideas across classrooms and sectors. These multiple components are designed to take advantage of current trends in content consumption patterns: away from text alone and toward more audio and video. Inititial assessments of MSC has found that cases also provide a richer learning experience and greater flexibility and accessibility, especially for nontraditional students, first-generation college students, and those from underrepresented groups. MSC also built an instructor-oriented offshoot of the discussion forum called Caselog. This feature allows users to share their experiences and results with a peer network of instructors following implementation of a case.

Assessment of how cases are working and for whom has been a crucial component of the MSC initiative from the start (Hardin et al., 2016). Early assessment efforts comprising surveys and focus groups concentrated on collecting user feedback for iterative improvement of case content and design. For example, a focus group conducted with students revealed that the students did not realize they could click on Edgenotes because they looked too much like static textbook images; Edgenotes were subsequently redesigned to better signal them as an interactive feature. As assessment efforts have matured, additional tools have been introduced to investigate student learning on a continuum from case content to sustainability concepts and finally engagement skills. The learning platform now hosts instructor-customizable pre- and post-tests to measure content knowledge acquisition, and student surveys now include questions that probe development of complex skills such as systems thinking ability. Classroom visits by MSC staff and focus groups also provide detailed information about case implementation, which instructors then use to improve their teaching, in collaboration with MSC and CRLT staff.

Elements of Good Cases
  • Has content that is aligned with the learning objectives
  • Tangibly links real-world situations or applications to course content
  • Is complex and multidimensional, and creates opportunities for collaboration and debate

Early experience with case production highlighted that while it is a rewarding experience for case producers, it is also not an easy undertaking, requiring months of dedicated work to produce a high-quality case (i.e., one that has a well-written narrative, clearly articulated and addressed learning objectives, and good cohesion among all case components). Additionally, since beginning to build a case library, MSC has discovered a nascent convergence of the environment and sustainability field on case-based teaching (Wei et al., 2018) and resultant parallel efforts at other institutions to build their own case libraries. However, many of these cases are underused and lack visibility. For these reasons, MSC has shifted its focus from producing a large number of cases (~150–200) during the course of its four-year funding cycle to producing fewer cases (~50) and curating an equal amount of high-quality content from partner institutions, such as the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) at the University of Maryland and the Center for Case Based Learning at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, India. To enhance the visibility of cases and increase their ability to generate solutions to sustainability problems, MSC also convened its first Annual Sustainability Learning Galaxy 2019 presentation, curtsy of Michigan PhotographyExchange, called Galaxy, in Ann Arbor during summer 2018 for Gala platform users and case producers. The event culminated the two-year evolution of case study learning from the classroom, to cohorts, and finally to communities.

The three mini-case studies linked below chronicle this evolution and the accompanying successes, challenges, and lessons learned. Additionally, by using a narrative style and format similar to cases found on Gala, the mini-cases demonstrate how MSC leverages the effectiveness of storytelling for conveying information in context and engaging learners. 

Mini Case 1: Case Study Learning in the Classroom

MSC began by producing and piloting case studies in classrooms around the University of Michigan campus. One early adopter, Professor Jeremiah Johnson at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, developed two of MSC’s first case studies with students from his class. The narrative describes the learning and assessment that took place with those cases, as Professor Johnson attempts to answer the question “Can student work promote classroom learning for other students and contribute to faculty scholarship?”

Read Mini Case Study 1

Mini Case 2: Case Study Learning in Cohorts

The Michigan Sustainability Cases initiative grew partly from faculty experience in teaching and learning with case studies. That experience led to the insight that cases need not be confined to the classroom, and in 2013, a case study was used for the first time at new student orientation at the formerly named School of Natural Resources and Environment (now School for the Environment and Sustainability, SEAS). In 2016, MSC adapted the case for its online learning platform and journeyed to the University of Michigan Biological Station to observe case deployment. The mini-case tells the story of that trip and MSC’s collaboration with the SEAS Office of Academic Programs as they grapple together with the question “Can a case study build relationships among students at orientation?”

Read Mini Case Study 2

Mini Case 3: Case Study Learning in Communities

As MSC matured, the potential for cases to foster engagement and problem solving outside of university spaces became more obvious--and more important, with President Mark Schlissel’s call in late 2017 for increased faculty public engagement. However, to MSC’s knowledge, case studies had not previously been used in this way, so MSC began to experiment. The mini-case follows MSC Faculty Director Rebecca Hardin as she explores the question ‘“How can case-based public engagement events be designed and linked to convene communities for solving sustainability problems?”

Read Mini Case Study 3


Lessons from Mini-Cases

The strength of case studies for cultivating engaged learning lies in their ability to actively engage readers through storytelling, as we have demonstrated with the three mini-case studies above. The TLTC initiative has largely been successful in embedding engaged learning across the University of Michigan (Hallman et al., 2018), and MSC makes up a part of a much larger transformation that will take years to come to complete fruition (Hallman et al., 2018). Early indicators (Figure 1; Hardin et al., 2016) suggest that students are benefiting from the case studies as a form of engaged learning. MSC hypothesizes that by combining a compelling narrative with a thoughtful complementary engaged learning activity is especially powerful, and MSC continues to assess the effectiveness of this approach. However, given the long time frames over which progress toward the engaged learning outcomes is expected to unfold, direct evidence from MSC of student progress in meeting these outcomes will accumulate over the years to come.

Classroom experiments using case studies as an assignment have demonstrated that engaging students as primary case authors fosters immersive learning both for case producers and for later case users. Specifically, case studies excel at connecting theory to practice, and providing a low-stakes environment for that practice. Case studies also foster the development of critical thinking and perspective-taking skills. For faculty, case production can provide opportunities to connect teaching and research in ways that enhance their own scholarly portfolios. At the cohort level, participating in a case study exercise can create common ground for building community among a group of new students. Case studies are also inherently flexible, capable of deployment both within and outside of traditional classrooms. Finally, novel application of case studies outside school or campus settings can bring communities together at multiple scales to advance learning, build coalitions, and generate solutions to pressing sustainability problems. Engaging local experts in knowledge creation and problem solving processes furthermore forges deep connections between academic and non-academic communities that benefit both. 

Key Lessons from Case Studies
  • Case studies offer opportunities for deep, meaningful learning for both case producers and case users
  • Case studies excel at connecting theory to practice, and provide a low-stakes environment for that practice
  • Case studies develop critical thinking and perspective-taking skills
  • Case studies connect teaching and research, and offer additional ways for faculty to build their scholarly portfolios
  • Using a case study can be a shared experience that anchors cohort formation among new students
  • Case studies are flexible in form and method of deployment
  • Case studies can bring together disparate communities for problem solving and mutual learning

Despite the benefits of case studies, barriers to their widespread adoption in STEM education remain, including the perception that case studies are an inferior to lecturing for content delivery, lack of faculty experience in facilitating discussion compared to lecturing, and a greater amount of preparation time required. MSC is actively working to overcome these barriers through, for example, creation of a robust case library and a campus learning community centered around cases. Assessment methods for measuring learning and community impact stemming from case studies are still under development, although MSC has created and tested several tools that are generating useful data. 


Preparing for Case-Based Teaching

A good case study not only reads well but also functions as an effective teaching tool, one that works best when instructors and students alike are well prepared to engage with it. However, in disciplines such as environment and sustainability, case-based teaching has historically been uncommon;  hence few instructors or students have had experience with it. The following sections introduce some important considerations when preparing to use a case that should help both instructors and students to get started. A comprehensive discussion of how to execute case-based teaching is beyond the scope of this paper, and interested readers are referred to resources such as Harvard Business School and Herreid (2007a). 

Instructor Preparation

Whereas lectures typically consist of one-way information delivery from instructor to students, case studies require more interaction and dialogue. The role of the instructor can be summarized as that of a guide through the process of discovery. Case studies can unfold in a number of different ways, depending on the needs and preferences of the instructor. One of the first things to consider are the learnings goals and outcomes the instructors has defined for the course, and how the use of case studies could align with and support students' achievement of those goals. Next, instructors should consider time management and what is feasible for the time available. Instructors should decide what will happen inside and outside of the classroom, keeping in mind the length of each class period as well as over how many class periods the case will unfold. For example, with MSC's case studies, students typically are asked to read the case before coming to class and perhaps to listen to a podcast as well. A class discussion usually occurs during the class period. 

Critical questions to answer when planning for time include:

  1. Will students read the case and/or listen to the podcast before they arrive to class? Or is there enough time for students to complete these activities during the class period?
  2. Will there be a class discussion? Discussions can constitute an engaged learning exercise, or they can be coupled with other assignments. The time available may also dictate the structure of the discussion: whole class (Socratic method), a debate, a town hall, small group work, or something else.
  3. Will students do the engaged learning exercise in class or for homework? Many of MSC's case studies use an engaged learning exercise to analyze the case and make a decision. These exercises do not preclude a discussion, and a discussion is often a helpful complement to the engaged learning exercise.

Another important consideration is how a case study will be supported with lectures or other instruction. It is often helpful to explicitly tell students how the case study relates to the course material. Without explicit alignment, students may be confused about what they are meant to learn from the case. 

Questions to answer when thinking about how to support the case include:

  1. How does the case fit with any lecture material? 
  2. What knowledge should students have to begin the discussion? 
  3. Will students get all the information they need from the case, or will they get some from lecture or supplemental readings, videos, etc.?

For example, MSC's case studies often follow a lecture about a related topic or about the case itself. The cases vary as to whether students get all the information from the case or are asked to engage with supplementary readings or videos. 

Other important considerations relate to creating a positive learning environment through relationship building, preparing physical space, and motivating engagement. These best practices that support case-based teaching include:

  1. Get to know students and their names. It's easier to call on someone if you know their name, and knowing something about their interests, work history, and so allows an instructor to direct questions to the students most likely to help move the discussion forward.
  2. Make sure the students know one another. This helps to create a comfortable, respectful space for discussion.
  3. Decide how to set up the classroom, if it is possible to move the furniture. If not, determine how students might be clustered into small groups if there is auditorium-style seating to work with, for example.
  4. Prepare an intentionally productive space for discussion. An instructor might want to establish some ground rules to share with students, such as criticizing ideas and not people.
  5. Make sure that students have a stake in the outcome of the case, such as by requiring a product. If students do not have sufficient motivation to engage with the case, they likely won’t (Herreid, 2007a).

Choosing a Framework of Analysis

Students will also benefit from having an explicit framework of analysis. The problems described by case studies are often complex, and the decision made by a case user may change depending on the perspective taken. It is then important to narrow the teaching focus by deciding on a framework of analysis. The framework of analysis should help the case user make a decision about the central dilemma. For example, will case users take an ethical approach? Or will they consider risks and hazards? The case analysis is usually connected to the activity learners will do, and thus to the role of the instructor. Importantly, for whatever framework chosen, students should have enough information--either from the case itself or through supplemental material--to identify possible solutions to the problem posed and to do a meaningful analysis.

Student Preparation

Students also need to be prepared to use a case. If students have not used cases before, they likely will not know what is expected of them, or how to engage with a class discussion. It may be helpful to assign questions for students to answer before they come to class. These questions should guide students toward identifying the important information and questions present within a case, but they should not duplicate questions that will be asked during class discussions (SERC, 2018). One example of preparatory questions from a professor at Wellesley College has been made available by the Science Education Resource Center.

Prior to a class discussion, the instructor should explain to students how the discussion will proceed, as well as if or how the blackboard or projector will be used (e.g., for taking notes or recording important points) (SERC, 2018). Having students practice listening to and questioning their peers in class, or within small groups, before doing a case study may be helpful. With practice, students will become more proficient at learning with case studies and will require less prompting from the instructor. 

If students will be asked to read a case, listen to or watch complementary multimedia, or prepare answers to discussion questions before coming to class, instructors should consider including an element of accountability so that the work gets done. Quizzes, group work, and participation grades can all be used to motivate student preparation (Herreid, 2007b). Alternatively, as Herreid points out, the best solution might be not to require any advance preparation if possible.



Case-based teaching has long been an effective pedagogical practice in disciplines such as law, medicine, and business. MSC demonstrates how this practice can be adapted to effectively teach sustainability science education. Although MSC began by building a case library, along the way it became something more like a toolbox, and also a community for better teaching and learning about sustainability and the environment. Early experiments and successes have now positioned MSC to share its tools and strategies for using those tools with our campus and civic communities, and beyond.



MSC is grateful to our many supporters and collaborators at the University of Michigan and, indeed, around the world. The authors would like to offer special thanks to the following people: To Jeremiah Johnson for agreeing to be the protagonist in mini-case #1, for reviewing a draft of the manuscript, for sharing data, and for generally being a wonderful colleague to work with; to Jung Koral for agreeing to be the protagonist in mini-case #2, for reviewing a draft of the manuscript, and for support throughout the data collection and writing process; and to Rachel Niemer and the wider team at Academic Innovation for supporting the charrette and linked Teach Out process in mini-case #3. Thanks are also due to Sara O’Brien, Steve Yaffee, and the SEAS Office of Academic Programs for their support, especially in hosting MSC at the Biostation and helping to deploy a survey. Avik Basu (SEAS) provided invaluable assistance in creating, deploying, and analyzing the Biostation survey and in conducting the focus groups. And Sam Hallman (CRLT) provided exceptional support and collaboration during MSC’s early outreach efforts.

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