Loyola University Chicago

Institute of Environmental Sustainability

Solutions To Environmental Problems


Solutions to Environmental Problems (STEP) courses bring together students, faculty, staff and community partners in interdisciplinary 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 two topics: Food Systems and Water.

STEP courses are unique in their interdisciplinary, experiential 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. much learning occurs through experience 

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

Interdisciplinary: Students explore ecological, historical, social, political and economic contexts of environmental problems at a global scale through:

  • lectures from faculty in multiple disciplines as well as local innovators
  • supporting readings that provide further context
  • discussions that allow students to ask questions, collectively explore ideas, hear from their peers, and elevate their understanding
  • reflective writing assignments that help students synthesize their experiences and understanding

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

  • lab activities to develop practical and technical skills
  • field trips to observe and communicate with practitioners in the field,
  • semester-long action research projects conducted in small groups with the guidance of faculty, staff or community mentors that advance solutions at a local scale
  • presenting project results at a public forum

Students’ STEP projects lead to sustainability 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
  • stormwater management

Some STEP projects catalyze longer-term sustainability action and become institutionalized over time. For example:


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 over 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 Loyola

This 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. In 2014, 12 vendors served an average of 200 customers per market on 18 market days.

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
  • project management