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ANT 365 Environment, Culture and Sustainability

Curricular materials created for the 2016 SAIL seminar:

Silicon Valley as an Innovation Ecosystem

ANT 365 Environment, Culture and Sustainability combines anthropological theory, ethnographic case studies, current thinking about environmental challenges and human-centered design, a practical, hands-on problem solving method currently popular in tech circles and some development work.

Faculty member Misha Quill will use the concepts of innovation, entrepreneurialism and design-thinking to facilitate learning about sustainable choices, development and environmental action.

Note: Adapted from original curricular project.


This is an upper level anthropology course, designed for juniors and seniors, with a focus on Environmental Anthropology.

The prerequisite for the course is ANT 101 (Introduction to Anthropology) and one upper level course in Anthropology or Sociology. Students who enrolled in the January 2017 course had also taken at least one course in Environmental studies. Students shared some common language and basic understanding of some of the environmental problems we were addressing.

The first module will include a self-study and reflective writing assignment in which students consider their own impact on the environment.

The second module will ask students to use the Human Centered Design process and the related skills of interviewing and participant observation to identify environmental concerns on campus, in Mount Vernon, Iowa or in the larger Linn County area.


The third component of the class will include a series of readings and discussions designed to help students see the creative solutions being deployed by diverse peoples around the world.


Updated Mar 10, 2017

Content/Concept Goals

In this course we will examine the anthropological contribution to our understanding of how humans interact with their environments. We will explore six interlocking aspects of this domain:

  1. The complex interconnections between human evolution and the environment.
  2. The ubiquitous nature of human impacts on the environment (not just a problem of contemporary, industrial modern societies).
  3. The introduction of the Anthropocene, the new(ish) geologic epoch proposed to describe the period of time in which human activity has been the dominant force on the planet.
  4. Anthropological contributions to the study of climate change, sustainability and the environment.
  5. Ethnographic studies of communities and the environmental challenges they face.
  6. Exploration of Human Centered Design as a way of addressing and understanding environmental challenges.

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals

Students will:

  • Understand some of the complexities of human-environment interactions
  • Evaluate the evidence for human impacts on the environment
  • Articulate important methodological, theoretical or ethnographic contributions made by key anthropologists, ecologists and others
  • Conduct and present independent community research
  • Understand the intersectionality of gender, class, race, sexuality, and age in human cultures and history
  • Understand the complexities of environmental challenges from a variety of disciplinary perspectives

Other Skills Goals

  • Critically evaluate complex academic journal articles by considering thesis, main points, methods, data (supporting evidence) and conclusions
  • Understand and use the tools of human centered design
  • Successfully apply the arguments presented in academic articles to non-anthropological writing


Updated Mar 10, 2017

Module 1: Self-study and reflective writing

Each student will track their own environmental footprint and practice using the design process to find ways for mitigating their own impact on the environment. In small groups, students will do rapid prototyping of new habits, followed by reevaluations and reiterations throughout the block.

Module 2: Human-Centered Design

Students will identify key stakeholders in the environmental concern they’ve identified. Using the methods outlined in The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design, will work on “Ideation” (developing potential solutions). If possible, they’ll also work on Rapid Prototyping, Evaluation, and developing new Iterations.

Module 3: Creative solutions deployed around the world

Students will think critically about development projects (even those based in human-centered design), in which more powerful actors from the developed world are assumed to have expertise, skills, knowledge and ability to innovate. Concurrently, they will challenge the assumption that those in the less developed world lack these characteristics.

Environmental Advocacy Analysis Paper

Two short papers that ask students to compare perspectives, methods and communicative strategies of different films and readings

Suggested Films

Hollywood Films

  • Avatar
  • The Happening
  • Wall-E
  • The Day After Tomorrow
  • Erin Brockovitch
  • The China Syndrome
  • Soylent Green
  • Silkwood
  • Gorillas in the Mist
  • Syriana
  • I Heart Huckabees
  • The Road
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Chinatown

Documentary Films

  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • Blue Vinyl
  • Who Killed the Electric Car?
  • Gasland
  • More than Honey
  • The Human Experiment
  • Chasing Ice
  • 11th Hour
  • Crude
  • Winged Migration
  • Food, Inc.

Dissemination Strategies

For this course, I sought to provide a balance between readings, films, workshops and assignments that would address each of these, but other faculty member might decide to balance them in different proportions.

My first task was to familiarize myself more deeply with human centered design. To do so, I enrolled in and completed two different (and free-of-charge) on-line courses (see Resources & Materials):

  1. Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design
  2. Design Kit: The Facilitator’s Guide to Human Centered Design

The Facilitator’s Guide, noted above was particularly useful, including a series of handouts which were used in the classroom. The Presentation Deck for Your Workshop (see Resources & Materials).

My second task was to figure out how to integrate this process with the content and theory of the course.

Since Cornell College operates on a compressed One-Course-at-A-Time format (a semester’s worth of work in 18 days), I decided that we could take advantage of the longer class hours to use the first week to introduce basic content, theory and anthropological perspectives and contributions to our understanding of human impacts on the environment. 

I began the second week in a day-long workshop introducing Human Centered Design. I used “The Presentation Deck for Your Workshop” noted above and modified it slightly, so that the Design Challenge students were asked to respond to was “What can we do to help students (and others on campus) be more healthy?” 

Students were sorted into four groups, and after some initial training and work-shopping, went off in the middle of the day to interview different people on campus. I encouraged them to decide who to interview and which parts of campus to visit ahead of time, so that they were not duplicating each other’s work.

I was pleased to see that students took the workshop and the Design Challenge seriously. After taking the steps outlined in the workshop, each group had come up with a prototype they were ready to test out on their peers. It was impressive to see what creative solutions students came up with, including:

  • Creating a work-study position that pairs student athletes with non-athletes (non-exercisers) for training in how to use the equipment in the gym and weight-room and for encouragement.
  • Hiring a nutritionist (and/or training students) to be on-site daily to answer questions about specific meal choices in the dining room.
  • A somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion that we recruit local adults from the community willing to serve as a local “mom” who could check with students about their eating, sleeping, drinking and exercise habits and invite them over for a home cooked meal once in a while. (While this suggestion was met with a great deal of laughter, I noticed that it was made by a couple of first generation college students who explained that they don’t like to worry their parents, who are far away and don’t understand the stresses of college life.)

Once students had completed the workshop, they were put into four groups of 4-5 to conduct research on local environmental problems, with instructions to use the Human Centered Design process to try to understand the nature of local environmental challenges, to brainstorm possible solutions, and to iterate/ create rapid prototypes and solicit feedback on these.

The third week of the course, students split their time between reading and discussing an ethnography (see Mafia Island in Resources & Materials), finishing data collection, brainstorming possible solutions and writing a first draft of their final research report paper.

The final few days of the course, students work-shopped their papers, gave presentations and finished discussion of the readings.


Teaching Notes

To give students different options for research, and to facilitate initial contacts, I suggested that groups select from the following research options:

  • On-campus environmental challenges
  • Environmental challenges affected the town where campus is located
  • Environmental challenges in the nearby city (same county)
  • Environmental challenges faced by local farmers

For each of these areas I made preliminary contact with a local expert who could get them started with understanding some of the environmental challenges of Eastern Iowa. These included the head of the campus food service, the head of the local parks department, a local organic farmer and the head of the department of public health for our county. All agreed to meet with students.

I also scheduled class time during weeks two and three in which students could work in small groups and could get feedback on their work from me and their peers.

The final projects (prototypes) suggested by the various groups included:

Group A - Environmental concerns on campus

The group decided that students could improve their participation in recycling efforts with two new initiatives:

  1. Information fliers that would better explain campus recycling to be posted above each receptacle. The group found that many recycling bins were unlabeled and unevenly distributed. They realized that without a budget they could not change the number or location of recycling facilities. They could, however, help educate students, staff and faculty. The group produced a flier about what could be recycled and their prototyping efforts involved posting these in residence halls and soliciting feedback.
  2. The group also learned that large dumpsters full of potentially re-useable items from student dorm rooms were discarded each year. Their prototyping suggestions included two options:
    1. Ask college administration for space where items could be stored and then given away or sold to incoming/returning students.
    2. Invite local non-profits to come and collect items on move-out day.


Group B - Sustainable farming practices and local environmental concerns

This group found that pest control was the biggest problem for local farmers. They came up with the idea of promoting the use of bat houses, since bats eat many of the species of insect pests that are problems in Iowa.

Since the group did not have time to mock up examples or sell them at the local farmer’s market, they came up with a prototype flier instructing local farmers and homeowners on how to make these at home.

Group C - Local environment in Mt Vernon 

This group found that although members of both the college community and the local town shared a willingness to do more to improve the health of bees, there was little shared knowledge or resources. They also found some local residents were resistant to students’ efforts to cultivate bees and that there was not enough good bee habitat.

Their prototype was to create a work-study position that would function as a “bee-aison” (bee liason) between campus and town. This student would also work with the Bee interest group on campus to grow bee-friendly flowering plants that could be used by campus and sold cheaply to local homeowners. This aimed to help people in town avoid planting annuals and perennials that have been treated with Neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been linked to honey-bee colony collapse disorder.


Group D - Cedar Rapids - Environment and Public Health 

This group decided to focus on local water supply (the Jordan Aquifer) and its depletion. They correctly noted that this is not widely understood by average citizens in the affected area.

Their prototype is to create an educational campaign that would help the public understand local water issues and how to better conserve water. They also hoped that this campaign could include an education component for grade school children and subsidies for water saving devices like low-flow showerheads.

Resources and Materials

Note: the workshop on Human Centered Design requires that student have walls or large paper to work on, as well as lots of Post-its and markers.

On-line Resources

Design Kit, developed by and Acumen

The Course for Human-Centered Design

The Facilitator’s Guide to Human Centered Design

The Presentation Deck for Your Workshop



(included in the Presentation Deck and attached below)


Text Readings

Haenn, Nora, and Richard Wilk. The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living. NYU Press, 2006.

Walley, Christine J. Rough waters: nature and development in an East African marine park. Princeton University Press, 2010.


Articles and Book Chapter Readings

Barnes, Jessica, Michael Dove, Myanna Lahsen, Andrew Mathews, Pamela McElwee, Roderick McIntosh, Frances Moore et al. "Contribution of anthropology to the study of climate change." Nature Climate Change 3, no. 6 (2013): 541-544.

Bodley, John H.  "Chapter 2: Adaptation, Culture Scale and the Environmental Crisis" in Anthropology and contemporary human problems. Rowman Altamira, 2012. Correia, David. "F**k Jared Diamond", Capitalism Nature Socialism (2013): DOI: 10.1080/10455752.2013.846490

Coward, Tim, and James Fathers. "A critique of design methodologies appropriate to private-sector activity in development." Development in Practice 15, no. 3-4 (2005): 451-462.

Crate, Susan A. "Climate and culture: anthropology in the era of contemporary climate change." Annual Review of Anthropology 40 (2011): 175-194.

Hasbrouck, Jay and Charley Scull. "Hook to Plate Social Entrepreneurship: An Ethnographic Approach to Driving Sustainable Change in the Global Fishing Industry." Handbook of Anthropology in Business (2016).

MTF Design Principles - The Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion at the University of California, Irvine.

Krulwich, Robert. “What Happened On Easter Island - A New (Even Scarier) Scenario.” NPR, 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.

Lazrus, Heather. "Sea change: island communities and climate change." Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 285-301.

Meggers, Betty J. "Environment and culture in the Amazon basin: an appraisal of the theory of environmental determinism." reprinted in The anthropology of climate change: an historical reader.  Dove, Michael R., ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Pilloton, Emily. "Depth over breadth: designing for impact locally, and for the long haul." interactions 17, no. 3 (2010): 48-51.

Potts, Richard. "Evolution and Environmental Change in Early Human Prehistory 1,*." Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 151-167.

Redfield, Peter. "Fluid technologies: The Bush Pump, the LifeStraw® and microworlds of humanitarian design." Social studies of science (2015).

   --       . "Bioexpectations: Life technologies as humanitarian goods." Public Culture 24, no. 1 66 (2012): 157-184.

Sayre, Nathan F. "The Politics of the Anthropogenic*." Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 57-70.

Schwittay, Anke. "Designing development: humanitarian design in the financial inclusion assemblage." PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37, no. 1 (2014): 29-47.

Wever, Renee, Jasper Van Kuijk, and Casper Boks. "User-centred design for sustainable behaviour." International journal of sustainable engineering 1, no. 1 (2008): 9-20.


Films and Video

Home (2009) Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Beverly Hills, Calif: Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 

The most successful marine reserve in the world (2015)

BBC News The Travel Show

New Caledonia: Home of the world’s largest marine park

Conservation International

Climate Refugees: The communities displaced by global warming (2015)

The Guardian

Bolivia: Leasing the rain (2002) Bill Moyers, William Finnegan, and Amanda Zinoman

Artic Villages Melting Away in Alaska (2015)

NBC News

The Hidden Connection Between Climate Change and Child Marriage (2016)

Take Part, The Thomson Reuters Foundation

Waste Land (2011) Lucy Walker

Almega Projects


Mafia Island | Efforts to create a marine resort off the coast of Tanzania

(profiled in the ethnography Rough Waters by Christine Walley)

Tanzania Camp tour: Ready to experience life on Mafia Island?

Diving Mafia Island (Tanzania – December 2016)

Pole Pole Bungalows – Mafia Island Tanzania | the garden and the bungalows 


Other links and resources

The Climate of Man (2005) Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker

Available by subscription or through library online databases.

Part I: Disappearing islands, thawing permafrost, melting polar ice. How the earth is changing.

Part II: The curse of Akkad.

Part III: Annals of science about global warming and the Bush Administration.

Why Scientists are Scared of Trump: A Pocket Guide (2016)

Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker

Global Climate Change: Vital signs of the planet

NASA’s webpage on climate change with extensive resources

Smith, A., Orlove, B., Strauss, S., Wilk, R. 2014. Changing the Atmosphere. Anthropology and Climate Change. Final report of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force, 137 pp. December 2014. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.


Outcomes and Significance


Student success in the course was evaluated based on:

  • Class participation
  • Weekly online reading responses
  • Two short papers that asked students to compare perspectives, methods and communicative strategies of different films and readings
  • Participation in the Human Centered Design-based Local Environmental Challenge (research, group presentation, paper draft, workshop and final paper)

The content goals of the course were largely evaluated based on class discussions, posting of discussion questions and the short papers.

Multidisciplinarity was encouraged/evaluated in their short papers. In addition, for their final papers on the Local Environmental Challenge, students were asked to write about the benefits and challenges of working on a team. They commented on whether the different kinds of interests and disciplinary expertise of their teammates brought to the work made a difference for the research and design process.

I was pleased to find, in particular, that students appreciated the diverse perspectives that their colleagues (teammates) in the humanities, hard sciences and social sciences brought to the research and discussion.

I conducted a student survey at the end of the course to evaluate their experience of Human Centered Design and the course. Overall, students were very positive. The one key complaint is that students did not have enough time to conduct their research. In the future, I plan to start the Human Centered Design training a little bit sooner, but feel the need to balance the teaching of this research method with providing students with a baseline understanding of the course content.

See Student Feedback on Human-Centered Design.

Lead Partner
Misha Quill
Assistant Professor, Cornell College
Sociology, Anthropology
(319) 895-4482
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