Sustainable Cities Project AP Environmental Science

Andrea Kornowski is a Personalized and Digital Learning Integrator, Lead Teacher of Personalized Learning, Science Pirate and Google Education Trainer. Read more from Andrea at!


Once in a while we hit one out of the park. The past two weeks was one of those times when Sustainable Cities, Design Thinking, Creativity, and Innovation became the center of our world in our AP Environmental Science “Sustainable City Design Challenge.”

We could have studied Ch. 23 like it had been approached in the past looking at transportation, eco-cities, and urban sprawl, but this year it evolved with a unique twist.

NOTE:  These ideas are NOT my own. Some are mine, but MANY are the contributions that my students offered throughout this process.

Students were charged with the challenge to redesign a city/village/town to be more sustainable based on the concepts that students studied within the AP Environmental Science curriculum.  This included factoring in waste treatment, water resources, pollution, transportation, energy resources, maintaining biodiversity, etc.  It was a great culminating activity for the end of the year as it pulled together everything they had learned, as well as emphasized the Design Thinking Process.

The challenge was kicked off with a message hook that was delivered to a specific student in each class.  I wasn’t thinking this through the night before I launched it in the first class, because I hadn’t realized whatever I created could not be used twice.  Students would talk.  That meant whatever I created, I had to do double the work. This had a BreakoutEDU style approach, without the boxes and the locks. Clues were hidden throughout the room.

This is the letter that they received:

Buenos dias.

You have been afforded the challenge to save the city of  威尔士 in a Sustainability Design Thinking Challenge. Before you begin the design thinking process, you must search for clues to help identify the city, town, or village that you have been tasked by the president of to assist. Clues may be hidden or exist in plain sight. There are 19 clues hidden, beware some may trick you. In case you get stuck, you have been provided (3) hint cards. Time is of the essence … wells are running dry, street trees are being diminished by an invasive species, and biodiversity is at severe risk from development. 22.05 is on the clock.


Believe it or not, the first day within 7 min, students studying Chinese cracked the code in the letter and were able to confirm it against the other clues that were found scattered around the room. These clues involved images, receipts, QR codes, shortened URLs, numbers of objects, all things that helped them identify the city/village/town that they would be designing for.

Establishing the Process

personalized learning environmental scienceOnce students figured out which city they would be redesigning, they assembled into design teams and created design team names. After that we walked through each phase of the design process together as a group:

  1. Empathy
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

This is a process that took days to cover.

For this project, we did not spend a ton of time in the empathy and define stages because most students were familiar with the communities of Wales and Delafield, as most students grew up in those areas. The process of ideation was a lot of fun. Students had stacks of sticky notes in which they brainstormed and contributed their ideas to their design board (white sheet of chart paper).

The Key to Ideation

personalized learning environmental science
The key to ideation was providing each student with a readily-available stack of sticky notes.

Students struggled in Ideation Round 1. They hadn’t identified all that they would need to design a city. That’s when we revisited city planning concepts and did a chalk talk to bring some of those ideas together.

Ideation Round 2 was a lot smoother once students had the city design essentials in mind.  The key to ideation was giving each student a stack of sticky notes to keep in front of them. This allowed for participation from all group members.

Students also had a map of the city or village that they were designing from Google Maps to make sure that they included the unique geographical features of that area.


One of my favorite parts of the project was when creativity and innovation came to life in the prototype stage.

Students were challenged to create a 2-D/3-D model of the city representing the different concepts that made their city sustainable. I did not have to beg students to bring in supplies. They willingly brought in supplies without grumbling. I was amazed!

What also struck me was students asked for more time to bring in other items to add as final touches to their projects. Outside of class during advisory, I even had entire design teams ask to come in to work on their projects.

The Winning Projects

The outcome of the prototype stage was some really creative models. Students designed and voted on the awards that would be given out and the WINNERS are:

Sustainability Concepts

Students were responsible for not only creating their model, but also submitting a written piece identifying the specifics of the sustainability concepts within their design.

Sustainable Design Concepts Checklist

  • Zoning (agriculture, business, residential, forest, protected areas)
  • City is built for the people (ecocity concept see p.566 textbook)
  • Environmentally sustainable w/minimal environmental impact
  • Transportation (smart transportation?)
  • Water source
  • Water treatment (what type?)
  • Waste disposal (what type?)
  • Recycling
  • Protecting biodiversity
  • Business & commerce
  • Housing & housing density
  • Recreational areas & parks
  • Geographical features match current city
  • Pollution prevention (runoff etc, reducing CO2 emissions)
  • 2-D & 3-D components
  • Creativity
  • Map represents the city boundaries you are designing for (shape)

Assessing the Project

During the test phase, students had to present their design to two other groups.
In the future, I would have students go through the test phase and then back to prototype to work out some of the feedback that was given by other groups. For this project, students received the feedback but didn’t have to redesign.
The final part of the project was a reflection (Google Form) on what they learned about the design process. Students also had to link images of their designs, as well as the reflection paper for later reference.
In the future, I would be sure to shorten this process up, as it was quite lengthy and some of the questions were redundant. Students also had the opportunity to self assess and provide feedback as to where they were on the design thinking rubric. Our goal for this round was growth.

In the feedback students spoke very highly of this activity. They mentioned it was fun, it was interdisciplinary, and that it challenged their creativity and thinking.

I could not be more pleased with the result and more importantly the engagement over the course of the past week and a half! I consider this an #eduwin!






0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ruchi Gamta
Ruchi Gamta
5 years ago

I am a first year teacher teaching Environmental Science. I am really fascinated by this project and would like to try this with my students. Can you share some more details of the lesson? What did the hidden clues look like? Any rubrics that were developed in the process?