Problem Design Lab -  Educating for Sustainability

The Problem Design Lab is a summer incubator supporting the National Action Plan for Educating for Sustainability. The Lab is designed for secondary-level educators (grades 6-12) and leadership students selected from Sustainability Ambassadors.

Guiding Question…

“How can we empower students to meet educational standards using real world content while, at the same time, measurably improve sustainable community conditions?”

The Lab supports inter-departmental teams on integrating local/global, primary source curriculum materials into existing or new units of instruction. The purpose of using primary source documents is to increase relevance for students through problem-based learning that aligns education standards with what the community actually needs to do to improve sustainable conditions.This practice motivates students to apply academic excellence and reignites in teachers a passion for the art of teaching. 

Get the Guide: Problem-Based Learning Unit Planning Template 

Primary Source

Using primary source material such as local sustainability indicators, city comprehensive plans, green business plans, annual reports, policy frameworks and professional career pathways, ensures that learning about real work, doing real work and measuring impact become the foundation for 21st Century learning.

Students understand that the quality of their research and effectiveness of the projects they design will have measurable impact on sustainable community conditions; that their report card is related to their community’s reports card and that both are essential to ensuring a sustainable future.

Sustainability Performance Measures

The following sustainability performance measures inform curriculum design and drive student inquiry and problem-solving at scales that range from household environmental behavior, to green school actions, to community indicators, to county and state government and world-wide trends.

City Sustainability Indicators Issaquah Example

STAR Community Rating System

Community Sustainability Summit, Annual Sector Reports

King County DNRP Performances Measures

Puget Sound Vital Signs

Results Washington

World Watch Institute, Vital Signs

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Testimonials from Teachers

“The Project Design Lab was an excellent combination of flexibility and direction. I felt respected as a professional while learning a ton at the same time. It was hands down, the best professional development I’ve been a part of. Prior to the lab, I wondered how I would be able to embed sustainability in our curriculum. Now, after 3 days in the Project Design Lab, I wonder how we can NOT embed sustainability. I think the lab was key in the confluence of energy and motivation at Denny. The timing couldn’t be better for us.”

Ben Evans

6th Grade Science Teacher

Denny International Middle School, Seattle School District

“My mental model has shifted. The Project Design Lab has finally given me the pathway to break down the walls of my classroom and unleash the enthusiasm of the students to actually use what they learn.  It also enables the cross curricular learning that I was passionate about years ago, but gave up on when our system did not support cross curricular teaming and the situations were always contrived.”

Jeff Burgard

Pine Lake Middle School, Issaquah School District

8th Grade Science

“Best professional development of the year. Through the Project Design Lab teachers were allowed time to collaborate, design and plan for implementation of powerful (and empowering) lessons on the sustainability of our planet. At Denny a core of 6th grade teachers had been working on the periphery to try to integrate each other’s subject throughout grade level classrooms; a way to create a culture of learning regardless of subject. The Lab allowed us to coalesce around storm-water runoff, a subject dear to the students in our school because our Longfellow Creek runs through their neighborhood. As a collaborative team, were able to create a cross subject project to engage a culturally and economically diverse group of 6th graders around saving their creek.”

Christian Herdener

Denny International Middle School, Seattle School District

“Personally and professionally I have found this experience immensely empowering and inspirational. I feel like I have so many tangible ideas to bring to my students. I have been craving a way to bring more relevance into my curriculum and I think my introduction to sustainability themes and project-based learning is the perfect platform for making my classroom relevant.”

Alyssa Eckhardt

Issaquah Middle School, Issaquah School District

“I think the most powerful experience for me has been to witness the skills and knowledge the student Sustainability Ambassadors have from your teaching and encouragement.  It has really given me a boost in my thinking that project-based learning is THE method for teaching that encourages students not only to know how-to-do-school, but really gain practice in how to be successful contributing citizens right now.  Educational standards are not just something to be tested on and 'mastered' in the classroom, but they should be something that students are given to apply to the real world and shown how this is not just textbook information, but something that is real, tangible, and which deserves their attention and understanding.  By showing students they are a contribution to their community, they have ownership in the collective and a deeper understanding of themselves and where they want to go in life.  They shouldn't have to wait until college, or career to develop this view.”

Rachel Finley

AP Environmental Science

Garfield High School, Seattle School District

“This Lab experience for me was wonderful.  Getting ideas from other teachers on the work they did during these three days was enlightening.  And having the student Sustainability Ambassadors involved gave me an opportunity to see things from another, younger perspective.  Listening to them speak with such authority touched me as a teacher.  It showed me that if students are empowered they will not only meet expectations, but exceed them.  To have that many of them thinking about our project and giving input helped a lot.  This brainstorming session was fantastic.  It wasn't student to teacher, it was person to person exchanging ideas and coming up with tangible plans.”

Rasa Conklin

7th Grade, Integrated Environmental Sustainability Academy

Lakota Middle School, Federal Way School District

“The design lab has exceeded my expectations. When you challenged someone at the beginning to try to find a subject area that didn't tie into sustainability I was skeptical, but now I see it is true. So many connections have been made between subject areas, lines of inquiry, and on a human level between colleagues. The student ambassadors were a revelation. So much poise, expertise, and passion--I was very, very impressed. To know that we can tap into that kind of potential at my school made it that much more powerful.”

Brian DeBroux

Issaquah Middle School, Issaquah School District

“Project Design Lab was an opportunity to connect the dots. In the last three days I have been inspired, empowered, and am now mobilized as a teacher with my colleagues to continue the work of embedding sustainability education into my classroom and school. I leave the Project Design Lab with new professional networks, authentic and local resources, and an action plan to increase the rigor and relevance of work done in my classroom.”

Alexandra Kattar
Mercer Island High School - International Studies

“These three days provided an unusual opportunity for learning and collaboration about a topic that was familiar to me on a very superficial level. After going more deeply into fundamental topics around sustainability a colleague and I have developed lesson plans that will provide a LA-based introduction to this important topic to our class of 300 7th grade students. Working alongside student ambassadors who are living the life that I hope to open up to my students makes me see that young people can provide the drive and impetus for this necessary lifestyle change. It is impressive to see teenagers with the poise and motivation to speak before powerful adults (a school board, a CEO) presenting their views in order to make changes in the status quo.”

Nancy Lindeberg

Maywood Middle School, Issaquah School District

Advanced Language Arts and French, LA Department Chair

“By far the most significant and hopefully enduring impact of the Project Design Lab for me will be the effectiveness of the model you have developed involving the student interns.  As a teacher "in this business" for 30 years, I have grown weary of the steadily decreasing tolerance of rigor and steadily increasing perceived lack of relevance in the curriculum. This model has re-energized me to shift to more of an inquiry-based, student-led model, which requires a level of rigor needed to truly explore the leading questions, promote thinking, application, and presentation skills, and instill a love of learning.”


Jane Watkins

Maywood Middle School, Issaquah School District

“I thought the lab was very productive and I learned more than I can process all at once about water issues, about community, about building green, about current foundations and rating scales, and even about a design lab classroom. I feel much more informed about the topics covered in this lab and I really enjoyed the format of working with students (VERY knowledgeable students!) and colleagues—learning together and having time to plan units and methods of embedding what we have learned into what I teach every day.”


Cynthia Moore

Maywood Middle School, Issaquah School District

7th Grade Social Studies and 7th/8th Take 3! (Language Elective)

“The lab pushed me to incorporate sustainability curriculum into my social studies classes, which I have not done before. This allows me to address the state mandated curriculum in a subject area that I had not been anticipating doing before. Prior to the lab, I saw sustainability as a science topic. I was most excited to be working cross curricular with team members across grade levels. I was able to establish a new dialogue with team members and feel that I can easily follow up and check in with them throughout the year.”

Carin Redmon

Maywood Middle School, Issaquah School District

“My experience in the Project Design Lab has been enriching personally and professionally beyond measure.”

Stephanie Tolonen

Maywood Middle School, Issaquah School District

“The ambassadors are amazing! They obviously have a passion for sustainability. How wonderful for all of us--that they are going to be our voices of the present and also of the future. It feels wonderful to be learning together with the students. I forget that they are students--as they act and talk in such a wise format. We will take the resources to our schools, to our districts, to our communities. We will teach, and we will learn.”


Traci Brewster

Math, Issaquah Middle School, Issaquah School District

“Although I consider myself a greenie from the 70s this lab brought my understanding of sustainability to a new level. Out of my league were the complexities of understanding how creating a sustainable village tied into social governments, policies and regulations. CommonAgenda is now my starting place and portal to share with all friends who are also passionate about creating sustainable futures. The model of using ambassadors to teach teachers is beautiful because teachers often do not see the future fruits of their labors.”

AnnaMaria Austin

Issaquah Middle School, Issaquah School District

“The Project Design Lab was productive and challenging at the same time. It communicated the current trends within sustainability movements as well as the role of education. The most important lesson learned was that sustainability NEEDS to be integrated within the curriculum in order to produce results that are lasting and impactful. In educator’s perspective, bringing relevancy is a top priority. The Lab enabled our team to come together, invest time and effort to design a curriculum that will be rich in content and hands-on.”

Ashley Choi

6th Grade Science

Denny International Middle School, Seattle School District

“Over these three days, I have learned much more than I imagined I would, been shown how concepts have come to life in real-world examples, and been given time to collaborate with colleagues. A win/win/win situation for sure. Thanks for giving us this opportunity.”

Kathy Saxon

Denny International Middle School, Seattle School District

My mind is abuzz with a wealth of information and ideas.  The process came too quickly to analyze and synthesize in so short of time.  I am truly inspired by the spaces, the teacher collaborators and the student ambassadors.”

Brian Hampsch

Physics, Mercer Island High School

“Project Design Lab provided a time to develop to my ideas on project based learning that had previously only been swirling through my head. As a relatively new teaching professional, I have used elements of student-led learning, real world problems, and solution-based thinking but have yet to put it together into a large scale learning strategy. Three days of time and encouragement without the looming, immediate lesson of tomorrow allowed me to think long term about project-based learning. In addition, collaborating with colleagues added concrete examples and helped turn thoughts into plans.”

Amanda Mattocks
Social Studies, Mercer Island High School

“I enjoyed viewing education through the lens of the students who immediately became my peers and educators. I can't wait to model and experience the same wonder and awe with my own students.
Our entire school and potentially school district will be impacted as our students share their learning with their grade level community, school community, and district. Our school is about 750+ strong plus teachers and administrators. Multiply that across our district and beyond…

Michelle Dayley

6th Grade, Integrated Environmental Sustainability Academy

Lakota Middle School, Federal Way School District

“I was very impressed with the abilities, knowledge and collaboration with the ambassadors, they were amazing and invaluable and effective. So often they are not asked or allowed to have ownership or an equal place in the learning environment but here they were equal. Allowing them to drive the learning and interests in a real-world standards education where measurement is imperative. The lesson and impact should play a part in the whole learning community.”

Laurie Sukola

8th Grade, Integrated Environmental Sustainability Academy

Lakota Middle School, Federal Way School District