Loyola University Chicago

School of Environmental Sustainability

Solutions To Environmental Problems


This class definitely changed the way I think and act towards environmental topics. It has opened my eyes to the interconnectedness of topics and how things relate to humans and the environment. – Student in STEP Water

Solutions to Environmental Problems (STEP) courses bring together students, faculty, staff and community partners in discussion and action to advance sustainability. STEP courses educate students about environmental problems through an interdisciplinary approach and foster leadership values, skills and abilities by engaging students in collective, solution-oriented projects.

STEP began in 2007 with a course on Biodiesel. Student projects in STEP: Biodiesel over several semesters led to today’s Searle Biodiesel Lab. STEP courses currently rotate between three topics: Food Systems, Water and Climate Action.

STEP Courses are Unique in Design

Five premises inform STEP course design:

  1. Environmental problems are complex and multidisciplinary.
  2. Solution-oriented actions occur on multiple social scales.
  3. Solving environmental problems requires understanding and skills
          development in multiple learning dimensions.
  4. Students have differing strengths, weaknesses, interests and
          learning styles.
  5. Learning occurs through experience.

To address these considerations, STEP courses use interdisciplinary and experiential pedagogy.

Interdisciplinary: Students explore the ecological, historical, social, political and economic contexts of environmental problems on a global scale.

  • Students receive lectures from faculty in multiple disciplines and hear from local innovators. 
  • Readings provide additional context to the issues they are exploring.
  • Discussions are allow students to ask questions, collectively explore ideas, hear from their peers, and elevate their understanding of an issue.
  • Reflective writing assignments help students synthesize their experiences and understanding.

Experiential: In this hands-on course, students develop their capabilities in environmental problem-solving.

  • Students participate in lab activities to develop practical skills.
  • Field trips enable students to observe and communicate with practitioners.
  • Students engage in semester-long research-action projects conducted in small groups with the guidance of faculty, staff or community mentors that advance solutions at a local scale. Students then present their project results at a public forum.

Student Projects Lead to Sustainable Outcomes

In small groups with guidance from a mentor, students develop local solutions through projects, such as:

  • pollinator-friendly garden design,
  • indoor microgreens and sprouts production,
  • healthy eating after school program,
  • water audit, and
  • stormwater management.

Some STEP projects catalyze longer-term sustainability action and become institutionalized over time. Take a look at these STEP projects our students have undertaken and SES has adopted.

Biodiesel: STEP students explored producing biodiesel from waste vegetable oil through projects related to chemistry, business planning, educational outreach and proposal writing. Today the Searle Biodiesel Lab produces 10,000 gallons of biodiesel and 1,500 gallons of BioSoap by collecting used cooking oil from more than a dozen institutional partners around the City of Chicago.

UnCap LoyolaThis 2-year campaign led by the Student Environmental Alliance began with STEP students’ concerns about water privatization and resulted in a campus ban on the sale of bottled water and installation of 50 water refill stations.

Farmers Market: Conceptualized and planned by students, the Loyola Farmers Market increases access to fresh, affordable, locally produced foods in the Rogers Park neighborhood while supporting small producers who use sustainable practices.

STEP Results in Transformative Learning

In addition to content understanding demonstrated in assignments, students report developing or strengthening skills important to careers in the sustainability field. These include:

  • adapting to unexpected changes,
  • communication (presenting, writing, networking),
  • collaboration / teamwork,
  • inquiry / research / synthesizing information, and
  • project management.