Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Webcast: Creating Knowledge Workers for the Greener Product Marketplace, Part 9: Systems thinking + LCA metrics = sustainable progress

By Sustainable Minds on November 21, 2014

On November 18th, we held the ninth in a series of webcasts featuring educators from leading colleges and universities demonstrating how Sustainable Minds is being used in education. This webcast showcases three educators with diverse backgrounds as they discuss how they are working with students to further systems thinking, understand environmental performance and use Sustainable Minds to measure impacts, interpret results and create actionable recommendations.

Michael Swartwout,
Assistant Professor, Department of Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering, Saint Louis University 

At Saint Louis University, Sustainable Minds is currently being used in three different courses:

Freshmen level (MENG 101 ‘Introduction to Mechanical Engineering’), Toaster teardown project – In this three-week class project, students learn the design process and connect the design of the toaster to its broader impact, assessing its environment impacts and understanding its lifecycle costs.

Sophomore level design course (MENG 200 ‘Introduction to Design & Manufacturing’), Solar oven class project – this is a significant 6-week class project in which students are tasked with approaching a design problem using LCA as one element of the design process. In developing a solar oven, the process that the students follow is to:

  • identify a region in the world and a non-profit organization
  • develop an understanding of the culture
  • design, build, & test the solar cooker
  • evaluate the business model & environmental impact

Sustainable Minds is used to assess the environmental impact in terms of carbon footprint and SM impact factors.

Student reflection: “Our eyes have not only been opened to the many issues in the world that engineers must solve, but also, our team’s thought process has changed to more of a global, innovative, sustainable mindset.”

Senior elective in sustainability (MENG 470/570 ‘Innovation, Creativity, & Sustainability’), Eco-friendly toaster class project, this project builds on students’ experiences in the previous two courses mentioned. Students re-visited the toaster teardown project and used LCA to re-imagine the design of the toaster. In doing so, students were faced with tradeoffs and the realization that improving environmental performance in one area can lead to reduced environmental performance in other areas. It is important to maintain a systems thinking perspective when evaluating the environmental performance of a product.

In discussing key learnings, Michael emphasized that by using Sustainable Minds, students can look at a wide range of design problems and can assess them from a sustainability standpoint. Furthermore, having metrics and a single score are helpful for students in optimizing their designs. Finally, faculty value Sustainable Minds as a tool for analysis and comparison that they can rely on while allowing students to run with their creative ideas.

Michael presented on behalf of Dr. Sri Condoor, chair of the Department of Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering, who he credits with the early work in integrating Sustainable Minds into the curriculum at Saint Louis University.

Jay Beeks,
Adjunct Professor, School of Business, Department of Sustainable Business, Marylhurst University 

Sustainable Minds is introduced in the course SUS 500 ‘Principles of Sustainability’ and is the first course students take as part of the Sustainable MBA program. Marylhurst University offers a Sustainable MBA in an accelerated online format with concentrations in renewable energy, food systems management, green development, and green information technology.

As part of this project, students work in teams to examine four different design concepts for a product. Typical products chosen include: tables, chairs, and floor coverings. After selecting a product, students:

  1. develop a reference concept
  2. establish alternatives
  3. analyze four concepts, and
  4. prepare a LCA report.

One of the challenges Jay mentioned is when there isn’t a clear data choice. Students can contact Sustainable Minds about their data needs and ask for a certain dataset to be incorporated, or they can make estimates, which Jay emphasized as a good development process for students entering the business world.

Jay shared some student reflections, including:

“I learned that there are a lot of steps to making even the simplest items

“I think an awesome way to incorporate tools like LCA into business would be to allow for products to post their LCA rating. This could reflect on a scale of 1 – 10 how impactful the product is, and maybe compare it to other leading brands of the same product”

“With our project we found that making our materials into the final product completely changed our minds about what we thought was sustainable

Some of the key learnings that were discussed were that oftentimes first assumptions are incorrect and that product design & development is more extensive than realized. Educators find that Sustainable Minds engages students and enables them to develop a skillset for green jobs.

David Schneider,
Field Lecturer, Systems Engineering, Cornell University Head Advisor, Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD) 

David provided a background for Cornell University’s Sustainable Design (CUSD) organization. CUSD includes students from every undergraduate college at Cornell, which illustrates how widely sustainability has become a part of student culture.

At Cornell, Sustainable Minds has been used for both design and research and has been integrated into CUSD and two courses: ‘Innovative Product Design via Digital Manufacturing’ and ‘Consumer Products Design.’ The focus of his talk was on the research project ‘Green Building Products Metrics.’ The goal of this project was to conduct an assessment of products in areas such as sustainability, with a focus on customer communication. This work is currently being used for internal decision-making at Cornell in the areas of building materials, utility equipment, and home appliances & furnishings.

David provided a snapshot of the proposed metric with the key categories (Cost & Payback, Sustainability, Installation & Maintenance, and Better Living). Sustainable Minds is used to inform the ‘Sustainability’ category. This metric provides graphical and numerical representations for each category, rather like a ‘weather report’ for products.

David was joined by two of his students – Justin Horst and Michelle Li who shared their work and offered student perspectives in using Sustainable Minds. They felt that Sustainable Minds was a great resource for comparing products in making sustainable decisions. Furthermore, Sustainable Minds was essential in communicating with contractors and suppliers in aiding Cornell to choose more sustainable products.

Sustainable Minds was not only utilized as an effective education tool but a research tool as well. Students expressed the value of incorporating Sustainable Minds directly into research in order to “Drive sustainable behavior by empowering consumers with specific, informative, and accurate data about the products they buy.


Today’s generation makes sustainability a priority and systems thinking as a discipline in sustainability education is critical. Performing life cycle assessments and exploring metrics for sustainability gives students the necessary skillsets and prepares them for jobs in the area of sustainability.

This webcast demonstrates the influence of Sustainable Minds in working with students to further systems thinking, understand environmental performance and use Sustainable Minds to measure impacts, interpret results and create actionable recommendations. Watch for more webcasts in this series, where we showcase more educators learning new things, building on what they know and getting started teaching in new ways.

Sustainable Minds Curriculum Library: Sustainable Minds has example courses and projects from faculty teaching with Sustainable Minds. They are available for your review and use.

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