Integrating Sustainable Living into the Classroom

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



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.

Household Waste Audits

Practice, practice, practice!  Each of Sustainable Living Curriculum lesson plan is tied to a simple take-home student-led household waste audit exercise, giving students practical, hands-on application of the sustainability lessons they are 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 project-based learning (PBL) while collecting invaluable data on waste trends, linking households to local waste reduction services (retrofitting, composting, food recovery, etc.), and engaging student families in the learning process.

Teacher Professional Development

Teachers are agents of change in schools.  Starting summer 2018, Urban Green Lab will train cohorts of 2-3 teachers and administrators per school through free two-day fall professional development trainings on how to implement Sustainable Classrooms.  Teachers of any discipline – art, history, science, etc. – are eligible.  Taught by master teacher trainers at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, the trainings include a copy of the Sustainable Living Curriculum, $200 for supplies, a two-day spring Impact Review meeting, appointment as their school's sustainability stewards, networking with like-minded educators, and certification as LEED Green Classrooms Professionals by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Baseline Teacher Assessment

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 in order to aid them in strengthening this part of their pedagogies.  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.

The Citizen Scientist

At this 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 service learning, social emotional learning (SEL), and citizen science through Sustainable Classrooms by growing their sustainable living literacy and especially through practicing strategies at home that result in real results. 

Measuring Impact

At Urban Green Lab, data drives decisions.  Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach is also evaluating the impact of Sustainable Classrooms around five core areas of change: teacher pedagogy, student literacy and activism, family engagement, administrative policy development, and linkages of households to services.  The program will also measure CO2e offsets estimated through the audits.  Methods include the baseline assessment, pre/post testing, audit analysis, and impact reviews.  For every teacher trained, an estimated 750 students and 2,250 family members will be engaged over their five-year tenure.

Statewide Expansion

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


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

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.