Qualitative Methods for Actionable Sustainability Science Lesson: Appreciative Inquiries and Learning Journeys



Students involved in an outdoor cleanup and planting activity

Actionable science seeks to identify solutions to problems, but it can also seek to find solutions for enacting change. Two approaches for identifying solutions for enacting change are the qualitative methods of appreciative inquiry and learning journeys. These methods involve learning  from conversations about individuals’ observations, sustainability aspirations, and considerations of what is vs. what is possible. Using these methods, participants listen to others’ thoughts and views without judgment and search together for sustainability solutions that challenge old assumptions. These interactions can lead to positive new ways of thinking that can ultimately inspire change. In this lesson, participants use appreciative inquiry and a learning journey to document positive actions on their campus and in their community. This exercise will culminate in sharing a “good seed”—an idea or plan to move forward sustainability initiatives.

Assumed Prior Knowledge
Appropriate for undergraduates and well beyond. It will help for the instructor to have knowledge of the previous lessons: “Introduction to Qualitative Methods for Sustainability.”
Learning Objectives
  • Understand and apply the qualitative methods of appreciative inquiry and a learning journey to an interesting space on your campus.
  • Engage in field-based learning by visiting a campus sustainability initiative, discussing  observations and how the initiative might contribute to a more positive future through story or plans. 
  • Based on field work, create a presentation or written description that considers the distinct kinds of information that come from qualitative and quantitative data. 
  • Undertake an optional exercise to engage in actionable science by linking a campus initiative with a global web resource.
Key Terms/Concepts
good seeds; appreciative inquiry; learning journeys; actionable science
The “Hook” (suggestions for quickly engaging students)


A painted postcard from 1900. of Cornell University Campus' quadrangle
South on the Quadrangle, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Postcard c. 1900.
Public Domain image via Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons

Improving the Campus Quadrangle
Behold, the classic campus quad. Participants should view this century-old image and consider the layout, infrastructure, and people represented. In a 5-minute discussion, ask them: What can be appreciated about the social and environmental features of this space? Is anything outdated, unequal, or unsustainable? Have participants combine their appreciation for its assets with a critique of its limitations in a quickly written reflection. If they were a facilities manager, how would they adapt the space for the 21st century?

Teaching Assignments

This is designed for two, 75-minute sessions. The first session involves time in class followed by students moving in groups to campus locations where they participate in an interactive activity. The second session involves students reflecting on their experiences in the previous session by writing a narrative or creating a presentation on how to enhance sustainability. A third, optional session involves students writing proposals for a new seed from their campus to submit to the Seeds of the Good Anthropocene site.

  1.  Class Session 1: Understanding and Applying the Methods on Campus

    • Begin the class by introducing the concepts of good seeds as well as the methods of appreciative inquiry and learning journeys. The following PowerPoint slides may facilitate this; the instructor should elicit comments throughout so that the slides become tools for discussion and reflection.

    • Give participants 10 minutes individually to research sustainability initiatives on campus—both the social and environmental aspects—and especially campus-community collaborations. These initiatives may include gardens for pollinators and food, preserved or rehabilitated forests, zero-carbon commitments, sustainable transportation, applied community projects, LEED-certified structures, waste reductions, composting programs, and efforts to support the community’s physical and mental health with access to green space and reflective programs. The instructor might do a search in advance to have an idea of the options before class to use time most efficiently; the instructor might also pre-arrange an ideal field trip.

    • Have the group (or subgroups) do a brainstorming session, discussing what they found and listing at least three good seed initiatives. They should gather as many details as possible, especially location and public access information. Each group should choose a target initiative based on the concept of a good seed—the goal being that the initiative is ahead of mainstream culture. Depending on the leadership and finances on your campus, you may have many or few options that meet this standard.

    • The group (or subgroups) should choose one good seed to visit today. Have them walk to this location and make sure participants have their senses attuned and are able to take notes. For example, they might visit a newly restored public square with shade trees, flowers, and green space for study and communing. Or they might visit a diner that has recently committed to local food sourcing, zero waste, or an alternative economic arrangement with a food-for-work co-op design. They should take notes, perhaps draw sketches, and consider what they smell or hear.

    • Each group (or subgroup) should combine their qualitative field note observations into one column and in a column next to that, any quantitative information they can find on their site (e.g., funding, measurable impacts).


  2. Class Session 2: Extending the Learning Journey to Envision How to Expand Sustainability 

    • Have the group (subgroups) discuss their notes from the learning journey and write a description (story or other form) or develop a slide presentation on how they could envision improvement in the initiative site they visited (i.e., sketch out a ‘good seed’ idea). Their reflection should include how this site might be integral to building and fostering a better future i.e., a Good Anthropocene.

    • If there are subgroups, have them share their description, story, or presentation.

    • Give each participant 5 minutes to write notes on how they used the qualitative and quantitative information to develop their good seed idea (i.e., the story or presentation from the prior bullet.)  Then, discuss as a group asking which data type they viewed as more valuable. Which is more likely to lead to change?

    • Consider compiling the presentations and sharing them with facilities managers and administrators as positive examples of students engaging with sustainability initiatives on their campus.

  3. Class Session 3 (Optional extension): Plant the Seed

    • In this optional session, organize groups based on their choice of appreciated space. Have them go to the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes (SGA) site and read up on how to develop a proposal for a new seed from your campus. In class, you may want to have them review and discuss several posted seeds on the website.

    • Participants will note that existing seeds are often extensive community-based projects that involve multiple stakeholders and achieve several desired outcomes. Take the well-known seed the High Line Park in New York City as an example. Though the number of people involved is enormous, the desired outcomes are straightforward: support urban biodiversity and provide green space for New York City residents and tourists. The High Line also achieves desirable economic and artistic goals.

    • Note that very few of the currently posted seeds grow on college campuses. Most are international, and many are seeded in vulnerable environmental justice communities. Decide which campus-community seed among the ones you explored is most suited to pitching to SGA. List ways that a college campus community is a unique nexus of knowledge, innovation, learning, and local enrichment, and make that description part of the pitch for your seed. 

    • Each team should collaboratively complete the proposal for their seed offline. If there are multiple seeds proposed, exchange them in a workshop to review and edit between groups. Each proposal should have a vision for how the seed can grow and benefit culture in the future. After editing proposals, conduct a final review and post them to the SGA proposal portal.

    • In future sessions, update the class about the progress of their seeds with SGA and invite participants to continue their inquiries and qualitative appreciation of their seed by volunteering, monitoring, or boosting the online presence of this initiative.

Background Information for the Instructor
    • This lesson is useful as background because it describes what is a more traditional view of actionable research. It does not describe research in which researchers actively participate in moving the work into implementation i.e., enact research for change.

    • Boyd, James. (2022, February 28). Actionable Research. SESYNC.

    • This is a very useful article that describes appreciative inquiry, its history, and its purpose. It provides theory, background, and examples. It should help learners understand why use of this method is tied to  actionable scholarship for sustainability of socio-environmental systems.

    • Organizing Engagement. (n.d.). Appreciative Inquiry.

    • This Case Western Research School of Management site provides a step-by-step introduction to how to apply the method of Appreciative Inquiry. It includes in-depth definitions, principles, and presents a short video on how AI could be used for organizational change.

    • AI Commons. (n.d.). Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry.