Life Design

2021 Designing Your Sustainable Life Course

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‘Designing Your Sustainable Life’ is a course that I taught at Johns Hopkins University during their 2021 Winter Intersession. This post provides an overview of the course, day-by-day breakdown, and links to relevant activities.

Designing Your Sustainable Life Course Overview

Designing Your Sustainable Life is a winter intersession course. It was hosted by the JHU Earth and Planetary Sciences Department.

I owe much gratitude to Rebecca Kelly – Director of the Environmental Science and Studies Program – for her help in getting the class hosted and approved by the department. Also, a sincere thank you to Jenny Seat – EPS’ Academic Program Administrator – for helping me navigate the logistical and administrative aspects of getting the course ready for registration.

The course was 5 days/week for 1.5 hours each day over the course 2 weeks (10 sessions in total).

Course Description

This course focuses on three key areas:

  1. Defining sustainability by interrogating transdisciplinary research and literature,
  2. Ideating on the impact students want to have in the world, and
  3. Prototyping sustainable actions students can implement in their lives.

This interactive course will draw from intersectional scholarship from various disciplines, while situating individual student experiences and vision for the future.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  1. Identify tangible actions they can implement in their own lives
  2. Evaluate a diversity of ways to make a broader impact through the work they might pursue
  3. Generate a personal definition of sustainability, while being cognizant of other definitions

Major Assignments

In addition to participating in class and completing readings, the following are the two main assignments for the course.

Design Project

Students are put into design teams made of 2-3 people based on their interests. The design team can either work on a single goal collectively or individual goals that share a similar interest/prototype.

Teams are encouraged to coordinate asynchronously; however, there will be 10-15 minutes allotted during each class of the second week for team members to check in with one another. During the last class session, each group will have up to 5 minutes to present their prototype and results.

Activity Log

Students will keep a log of the work they have done in the course, as well as a short final reflection. Ongoing work in this course includes in-class and out-of-class activities and reading reflections. Students may choose any format for the log (e.g., pptx, pdf, docx, video, etc; however, a template will be updated as the class progresses and will list all the required components.

Day-by-Day Breakdown

This section provides a day-by-day breakdown of what occured in each class session.

Day 1: Introductions (Accept Phase)

Sustainability View

The first session of the course kicked off with a quick warm-up activity that I called the ‘Sustainability View’. In Burnett & Evans (2016), they outline a Workview and Lifeview. My colleagues and I have created additional views for our students (e.g., sportsview, graduate school view, etc.).

The ‘Sustainability View’ asks the following:

  • What words or images come to mind when you hear the word sustainability?
  • What makes something sustainable?
  • What role does sustainability currently play in your life?

I wanted students to jot down their current views on sustainability and a sustainable life WITHOUT being anchored by other classmates or myself. I’m looking forward to see how this view might change or develop by the end of the course.

Defamiliarize Sustainability

I borrowed this defamiliarization activity from my colleague Michael Gonzales, which he introduced during the 2020 Life Design Summer Institute.

Students collectively filled a Zoom Whiteboard of descriptions of sustainability. Then they were asked to generate a new individual description WITHOUT using any of the words on the Whiteboard. They shared their defamiliarized definition via Zoom chat and as part of their personal introductions to one another.

Defamiliarization gave us the opportunity to evaluate existing our views on sustainability. Throughout this course students will be challenged to develop, or even reimagine, the possibilities surrounding their sustainable life in meaningful and intentional ways.


After that, I dove into introducing myself, going over the syllabus, and providing a brief overview of life design.

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory Activity

We closed the class with an activity based on Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory. For more details, check out the following post:

Day 2: Expert Perspective (Empathize Phase)

Empathize Phase

We kicked off the session with a video from the design world on the empathize phase of design thinking. Life design activities often as people to empathize with themselves, while other design disciplines ask people to empathize with their users. In today’s session, students were given the opportunity to do both.

5 Whys

Students then went into breakout rooms with one other student where they did 2 things:

  1. Shared a 2-minute summary of their social ecosystem map
  2. Ask their partner a question based on the map and follow up with up to 5 ‘Whys’

The goal of the exercise was to get them both talking and actively listening. To learn more about the 5 Whys activity, check out the following post:

Expert Guest

Many students joined my course because they wanted to have an intentional space to think through sustainable behaviors that have a positive, broader impact. One question that pops up is, ‘Is my action actually good/right?

I brought in Jessica Bast – Outreach Coordinator for JHU’s Office of Sustainability – to share current campus initiatives, as well as her expert knowledge on the impacts of certain behaviors and choices. Jessica gave a great and engaging presentation and will return to the next session to field questions from students.

In order to both note observations and reflections based on the presentation, students were asked to fill out an adapted feedback grid.

Day 3: Team Challenges (Define Phase)

Team Formation

Prior to the session, I asked students to email me their preferred group style and three topical areas that they would be interested in.

In terms of teams, students were put into design teams made of 2-3 people based on their interests. The design team can either work on a single goal collectively or individual goals that share a similar interest.

Point of View Statements

To help teams get to know one another and to make sure each voice was heard, students quietly brainstormed up to 3 point of view statements based on their areas of interest. These statements were then discussed with their team in breakout rooms. Teams needed to decide on a focus area.

How Might We/I Statements

Students were then asked to individually brainstorm a ‘How Might We’ or ‘How Might I‘ around their group’s focus area. This exercise can be quite challenging. In addition to providing a prompt, students e-mailed me their statements for feedback.

For more define phase activities, check out the following post:

Expert Guest

Jessica Bast – Outreach Coordinator for JHU’s Office of Sustainability to continue sharing the impacts of certain behaviors and choices, as well as broader environmental justice issues.

Day 4: Brainstorming (Ideate Phase)

Group Check-Ins

We started the class with an overview of the session ahead of us and time for groups to solidify their working ‘How Might We’ or ‘How Might I‘. In addition, brainstorming principles were presented, based on those outlined by IDEO, and a Google Slide co-creation template was reviewed for the Class to review.

Low Tech

Many of my students face unstable internet connections so I want to keep co-creation simple. We used Google Slides and for certain activities, I offered to transcribe ideas that students spoke out loud or put in the chat (didn’t happen this session).

Ideation Techniques

My goal was two-fold. One, I wanted my students to generate a lot of ideas. Two, I wanted to show them various ideation options. The activity itself was not as important as the goal. We covered the following:

  • Ideating Warm-Up Activities
  • Individual/Quiet Brainstorming
  • Guided Brainstorms
  • Small-Group Ideating
  • Large Group Ideating

We didn’t have time to execute an exercise to intentionally build off of ideas, but I quickly explained the possibilities.

Day 5: Getting Ready to Try (Prototype Phase)

Affinity Mapping

Students started this session by immediately going into their design teams to affinity map the ideas that were generated in yesterday’s session. Students decided how they would group the ideas. This helped them review all ideas and pick up on any key themes.

Picture of Affinity Mapping Example for Students

Four Categories Method

Before students returned to their teams to choose an idea to prototype, I used the four categories method and quiet brainstorming to help kickstart choosing an idea. Each student selected one idea that was:

  • the most rational
  • the most delightful
  • their darling
  • the long shot

If students were working towards a group goal, then each group member shared their selection for at least two of the above categories before the group decided on one or a combination of ideas.

If students were working towards an individual goal, then they discussed their selections with the teammate before selecting an idea or a combination of ideas.


As students were in their teams and deciding on an idea to try out for 5 days, I asked them to fill out a SMART goal template based on their selected idea. SMART goals were popularized by Charles Duhigg and his book Smarter, Faster, Better. The goal of using SMART goals as a framing device was to help students make sure they framed their idea in a way that could be tested out in 5 days.

Picture of SMART goal template for students

Prototyping with Storyboards

After giving an overview of the prototype phase and the range of prototypes possible, I introduced students to the prototype that they would be creating in class – storyboards.

Students were asked to use pictures, words, sketches, etc. to map out their vision for testing out their idea for five days. They had time to build their storyboards in their groups. Then, teams merged with other teams to present and get feedback on their prototypes.

Picture of Storyboard template for students

Test Phase

As students embarked on testing out their idea, based on their storyboard prototype, I asked them to keep a daily record (3-5 sentences) on how their test was going. In addition, they will be given about 10 minutes a day during the second week of the course to check in with their groups in preparation for the final presentation on the last day of class.

Picture of Daily Log Template for Test Phase

Day 6: Effective Altruism

Equity-Centered Design

As part of the entire course, I make a point to incorporate interdisciplinary perspectives and various approaches to design. We started the class with a quick overview of the’s Equity-Centered Design Framework, specifically focusing on the role of the Notice and Reflect stages.

Effective Altruism for Career Choice Overview

Students were assigned to watch a talk by William MacAskill – author of Doing Good Better and prominent thought leader in the effective altruism movement. Since there wasn’t time in our course to assign his chapter on choosing a career, I provided a brief overview in class.

Effective Altruism Discussion

The majority of our class time was spent discussing effective altruism and how it pertains to career choice. Students first went into small breakout rooms to start discussions and then we had a larger class discussion.

To help anchor discussions, students populated 3 Google Slides – each with a different discussion prompt:

  1. What ideas did you find the most interesting and why?
  2. What areas were overlooked/distorted?
  3. Questions that I have
Discussion Slides

Day 7: Introspection (Empathize and Ideate Phases)

Workview and Worldview

Borrowing heavily from the Designing Your Life framework, students were asked to articulate their workview and worldview (also known as lifeview). I led a guided writing session with 5 prompts for each view (about 1 minute per prompt). We spent about 8 minutes on each view.

Workview Prompts
Worldview Prompts

Sustainability View Mid-Point Check-In

Since we were around the mid-point of the course, students reviewed their sustainability view and made any updates they saw fit.

Complements and Clashes

Students then compiled their workview, worldview, and sustainability view on one page. They were asked to note at least two areas where at least two views complement each other and at least two areas where at least two views clashed with each other. Students worked on filling out their complements and clashes in small breakout groups, where they presented their views to their classmates.

Complements and Clashes Worksheet

Sustainable Lives Brainstorm

In thinking about designing a sustainable life, I wanted students not just to consider careers, but also the impact they want to have and key parts of who they are in this moment.

I led students through a guided brainstorm in which they populated the following sheet:

Sustainable Lives Brainstorm sheet

Day 8: Sketching Sustainable Lives (Prototype Phase)

Affinity Mapping Sustainable Lives

I started this session by asking students to take a few minutes to repeat the affinity mapping activity from the previous week. The goal was to group ideas about their sustainable lives into key themes that they defined.

Sketching Out Possible Lives

Borrowing directly from’s Odyssey Planning activity, students were asked to rapidly prototype by sketching out two lives in class. In addition to the model, students could hand sketch their lives, and/or use the following template:

My Odyssey Plan Template

The template above allows students to define time blocks in ways that make sense for them and their goals. Students had the option of sketching out a third life on their own time.

Expert Guest

Anna Fitzgibbon – Founder/Owner of Outgrowth and Adjunt Professor at JHU Carey Business School – joined out class for an open Q&A session. She touched on many topics including immersive experiences, entrepreneurship, her journey, and much more. It was great to have her come in as students began to sketch out their sustainable lives and think of next steps.

Day 9: Actionable Next Steps (Ideate Phase)

Stakeholder Mapping

There were two key actionable next steps that I wanted students to start ideating around. The first was to identify people they could talk to in order to get more information about the life (or lives) they were thinking about.

After coming up with a ‘How Might I’ statement, we did stakeholder mapping. For more information on the activity, check out the following post:

Informational Interviews

In terms of what to do with their statkeholder maps, I recommended setting up informational interviews. I gave students a quick background on informational interviews, which is summarized in the following post:

Exploration Time Ideation

The second key actionable step I wanted my class to consider was to figure out actions they could take to explore various aspects of their sustainable lives.

First, they needed to come up with another ‘How Might I’ statement. Then, I asked students to ideate actions based on three different time scales:

  • 15min/day: incremental steps
  • 1 day/week: a bit of deeper work
  • 3 months: a fully immersive experience
Example of Exploring Time Ideation

Day 10: Final Presentations

Prototype Presentations

Students reported back to the class on their 5-day test of their protoype. Presentations consisted of

  • providing an overview of the prototype (and any relevant background information)
  • detailing the test process
  • offering any insights, reflections, and/or next steps

I was super proud of what my students were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time and under challenging circumstances (e.g., COVID-19, students moving, etc.). Their work ranged from exploring dietary habits to sustainable fashion to advocacy. It was truly inspiring.

This was the final project of Castalia Vidaurri who focused on discovering and disseminating information about plants to grow in Baltimore. (Used with permission)

Sharing Your Work

I closed class with some quick suggestions and tips about sharing their work. Many of the activities we did can easily translate as foundational pieces for materials like cover letters, applications, as well as help answer common interview questions. In addition, I mentioned the power of sharing their prototypes and offered some quick ideas.

How activities in this class can help answer common interview questions

Closing Thoughts

Teaching this course was both the most intense and most gratifying experience of my tenure as a Life Design Educator, thus far.

Teaching every weekday for two weeks made lesson planning challenging. I felt I was always finishing lesson right before the course started; however, I also felt that I didn’t have enough time. The daily load also required readjusting expectations for what students had time to do outside class time. In short, this type of intersession course requires a thoughtful approach to course design.

I was immensely proud of what my students were able to accomplish in a short amount of time. Their final reflections generally trended towards two key areas:

  1. How to go about making incremental changes in one’s life
  2. Broadly considering the experiences one can pursue in life

In addition to their hard work, I appreciated their constructive feedback on the course. If I teach this again, I will definitely implement their suggestions. For example, students found the following components helpful:

  1. Guest speakers who provided expert knowledge
  2. Ideating as a group throughout the course
  3. Taking time to explore and articulate their multiple sustainable lives

On the other hand, students suggested adjusting the following components:

  1. Mapping Your Social Ecosystem activity
  2. Effective Altruism

Finally, this course was a personal joy to design and teach because I could focus on the elements that mattered the most to me – equipping students with a conceptual toolkit that they could use beyond the course.

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