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Problem-Based Learning and Ecological Economics

This case study provides an overview of recent work done on problem-based learning (PBL) and ecological economics: 1) work done independently by an economics graduate, and 2) a module taught at Keele University. Both elements of work used Joshua Farley's Ecological Economics: a workbook for problem-based learning. Here are some of the key issues.

The student project

As part of the Higher Education Academy's Education for Sustainable Development project on "what makes a town sustainable", a recent Economics graduate from the University of the West of England was given the workbook with the remit to focus on a sustainability problem in the market town of Thornbury. Her "sponsor" was the local community group Sustainable Thornbury.

The module

A module on the Political Economy of Sustainable Development was taught by Dr. Stephen Quilley at Keele University. It was a one-semester, level 3 module delivered to 27 non-Economics specialists via a two-hour weekly seminar. Reading for the module was broad, but based on Common and Stagl's Ecological Economics: An Introduction and Daly and Farley's Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. The Farley workbook was used as the basis for seminar discussions. The module was assessed via a 2500 word essay or projects based on the exercises in the workbook, plus an exam. In addition, Dr. Quilley used 'the campus as a sustainable community' as a theme through the module.

Key issues

A number of key issues and lessons are evident from both the project and the module.

Skills and capacities

The student's brief was to consider the sustainability of the market town of Thornbury. She had access to a wide range of material which she had to digest and reflect upon. She then chose local food as the key issue on which she would focus. Her work shows a lengthy process of explaining that choice. Similarly, students faced with the large topic of 'local community' or 'sustainable campus' would need to digest complex material and make an informed choice about focus. This process may improve their decision-making skills.

List of skills the student developed:

The module also stressed contrastive thought, policy implementation and dealing with concrete, complex cases. Group assessment encourages the development of group-working skills.


As outlined above, a self-chosen and self-directed project may lead to the achievement of several key learning outcomes.

A managed group project on a topic or case chosen by students (possibly from a range), perhaps applied to a case study in the local area, e.g., a business wanting to act more sustainably, or even the university itself.

  • To capture the systems thinking aspect of ecological economics it may be advisable to ask group members to write individual pieces on specific elements: e.g., if the group is considering food, individual members would also consider how transport, housing, and recreation relate to food.
  • The project would need to be managed, in order to force students to think early on about their topic and their methodology.

However, institutional constraints on location, ethics, health and safety, etc. may prevent such an approach. For example, lecturers may lack the freedom to be flexible in assessment, particularly in how group work is marked. In that case, a narrower range of topics could be specified; or essays or exercises could be chosen.

A mixture of time-constrained elements could be used, including multiple choice, short answer and essay exam questions. Again, this would assess and develop a range of skills within students.

Thinking differently

In addition to the skills listed above, the ability to think differently might be an outcome from studying ecological economics, particularly if taught via PBL. This may constitute a significant intellectual challenge. As a good example, multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) is an essential feature of ecological economics, but is intuitively difficult.

Students of conventional Economics may find the transition to ecological economics difficult. This was a problem encountered by the student - although she enjoyed the opportunity. This may have been less of a problem to the students on the module, who were non-Economics specialists.

Learning resources

For non-specialists (including the lecturer, Dr. Quilley, in this case) doing ecological economics puts them on a steep learning curve with regards to the technical material. The amount of material in the workbook, in general, felt very intensive. However, Dr. Quilley felt that the textbook was readable in one semester.

Given the structure of the British academic semester, Dr. Quilley felt there was too little time to fully explore the problems from the workbook. Ideally the module would involve much more problem solving with the workbook.

ICT is important in the delivery of this topic, particularly if the requisite resources are developed.

Delivery and engagement

Some students tend to see the work instrumentally in terms of accruing marks; this can affect group dynamics. Consequently, enthusiasm for the module material was mixed.

A crucial exercise is to encourage engagement by demonstrating the context and scale of the sustainability problem. This might be done by:

  • highlighting contemporary issues and debates on peak oil, north/south globalism and climate change; or military conflicts; or
  • taking a historical approach to capitalism and globalism, ecology of industrialism, 1970s Neo-Malthusian, or the early debates on sustainability; or
  • making the problem more personally relevant to students, perhaps focusing on demographics and birth rates: What are their plans for having children?

Students in the module enjoyed the PBL nature of the activities but wished there had been more structure and more time. Because each seminar was PBL, the onus is on the students for learning. This would have worked better if there was greater time to work thoroughly on one problem; example problems from the workbook weren't enough.

In an ideal module situation, the workbook would have been used for a research project (as was the case for the independent student) and then the subsequent work would be part of the teaching exercise. Either way, more problem solving should be incorporated as part of the module.


  • If we want to increase the take up in Britain of the Daly textbook and Farley workbook, perhaps the authors would be open to suggestions as to how the books could be adapted to our audience.
  • The UK academic community may wish to put together a bid for a small ERSC grant in which several of us do a footprint exercise for a small community but in such a way that we are developing a teaching package for ecological economics. An example of this could be a two-semester Campus Sustainability Project which creates a standardized package. The technical material will have already been completed and smaller exercises would be part of a series of problems that students build upon in their learning.
  • Another idea would be to bring in academics (mostly from the United States) who have worked on ecological economics problems in their modules, and set up an exchange. Perhaps two or three people could go to the Gund Institute to work with the graduate class. Once UK academics felt confident in the model used at the Institute, they could emulate it within the Transition Network structure.


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