Serve-Learn-Sustain's Affiliated Courses Program at Georgia Tech

Georgia Institute of Technology

Project Overview

The Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS) Affiliated Courses Program is the centerpiece of sustainability education at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The program launched in Spring 2016 along with the opening of the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain with just 11 courses offered primarily in the College of Liberal Arts, enrolling just under 300 students. As of AY2020, it comprised 160 courses housed across all six colleges - Liberal Arts, Design, Engineering, Computing, Sciences, and Business - taught by 108 faculty and enrolling approximately 7,000 students. The program’s success stems first and foremost from its flexibility - in ideology as well as structure - and the support it offers faculty as they push their course design in new directions in which they often have no or minimal expertise. In terms of flexibility, SLS is a program that helps faculty integrate sustainable communities education into their courses, with an emphasis on experiential learning through community partnerships. Both sustainability and community engagement are defined broadly so that faculty can work with us from where they are - and we can help them grow in broader and deeper directions. For example, some faculty have expertise in areas such as sustainable energy but have little familiarity within energy equity, so we help them incorporate this latter concept into their courses. Similarly, some faculty have incorporated community partnerships into their courses for years but have little or no experience working on sustainability, so we help them frame their community-engaged projects within a sustainability lens. This asset-based approach has led to increased engagement in sustainability from faculty who, before SLS, did not think of themselves as doing sustainability-related work. It has also helped SLS better understand how to tailor our approach to sustainable communities to maximize participation and contributions from engineering and computing faculty and students - who make up the majority of Georgia Tech's population. As one engineering student wrote of his SLS-affiliated course: “This SLS course has given me a new perspective on engineering and the overarching goals on which I should focus. Rather than being separate from the social, political, and economic issues of modern society, engineering coexists with these paradigms and can deeply impact all of them in unexpected ways.”

The success of the Affiliated Courses Program also stems from the creation of an online SLS Teaching Toolkit, developed by SLS staff and student assistants as well as by faculty teaching in the Affiliated Courses Program. The toolkit features more than 40 teaching tools that faculty can use in their courses to introduce topics related to sustainable communities education that they think are important but are beyond their areas of expertise. Tool categories range from “Introduction to Sustainable Communities” to “Equity, Justice, and Sustainability,” and “Sustainability in Atlanta.”

Finally, program success also stems from SLS’s efforts to engage with faculty through Communities of Practice organized according to their sustainable communities interests, including both research and teaching. From the beginning, we have facilitated Fellows Programs around specific topics, such as Food, Energy, Water Systems and the UN SDGs, that bring together faculty from all six colleges to teach and learn from each other and community partners, with minimal deliverables required. Through this program, SLS has gained a reputation as one of the premier intellectual interdisciplinary “gathering spaces” that support the capacity of faculty to experiment, collaborate, and grow. A number of faculty teaching in our Affiliated Courses Program started doing so after participating in a fellows program.

The Affiliated Courses Program has also impacted other sustainability education efforts. Most significantly, it served as a launching pad for working with the School of City and Regional Planning to redesign their Sustainable Cities Minor to be the most diverse degree program on campus. Through affiliating with SLS, the minor now includes courses from all six colleges as well as a strong emphasis on social sustainability and partner engagement. Finally, working with affiliated faculty, SLS is also experimenting with two other programs that advance key sustainability competencies - transdisciplinarity and innovation. Our Linked Courses Program facilitates semester-long course collaborations among courses taught in different disciplines, in collaboration with community partners, under the umbrella of shared conceptual frameworks (e.g., Equitable and Sustainable Developments). Our Innovating for Social Impact Program (I4SI), which includes a summer internship experience with a community partner and a short course on social innovation, helps students learn and practice social innovation for sustainability in community contexts.


Serve-Learn-Sustain, or SLS, was the product of Georgia Tech’s 2015 Quality Enhancement Plan; it opened its doors in 2016 with a mission to equip students to “create sustainable communities” both while at Georgia Tech and in the world beyond campus. SLS works to engage students and faculty in community-based partnerships aimed at advancing sustainability in the Atlanta region and across Georgia. Drawing on the strength of faculty research and teaching, and a groundswell of student interest, SLS developed four priority issue areas around which our programs and events are focused: community health, green infrastructure, climate change and energy, and equitable and sustainable development. These emphases allow SLS and its affiliated faculty to address a broad range of topics in sustainability, expanding past disciplinarily-bound definitions, and bringing the expertise of community partners to bear on courses, programs, and events at the Institute.

The Affiliated Courses Program enabled SLS to create a cross-campus network of faculty invested in SLS’s mission who were interested in more opportunities to collaborate with other faculty and invigorate their teaching with new tools, partnerships, and events. The Affiliated Courses Program offers faculty a first step in working with SLS; it is an ideal gateway because it meets faculty where they are and does not require a baseline level of partner engagement or adherence to a particular pedagogy of sustainability. Each semester there are between 60 and 80 affiliated courses. The faculty champions produced through affiliation wanted to inaugurate new ways of teaching and collaborating under the auspices of the sustainable communities mission, and they worked together, in concert with SLS leadership and staff, to build the programs described below.

Re-designing the Sustainable Cities Minor to deeply embed SLS’s mission and engage more affiliated faculty and courses required the investment of faculty stakeholders produced through the course affiliation program. The minor now incorporates 68 courses across 12 departments, distributed across all six colleges, all of which are affiliated with Serve-Learn-Sustain. The minor emphasizes sustainability, community engagement, and social justice. Students take two required courses: Sustainable Urban Development and the Sustainable Cities Studio, choose an additional City and Regional Planning elective, and choose two additional electives from a wide range of options in disciplines including International Affairs, Public Policy, and Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. The diversity of affiliated course electives provides students with a deep learning experience in creating sustainable communities that integrates classroom learning and real-world, community-based projects, with a focus on the built urban environment.

The Linked Courses Program emerged from a collaboration among affiliated faculty teaching courses related to Community Health, one of SLS’s priority issues. Building especially on the work of that cohort of Community Health faculty- housed in Economics, Industrial Design, English, Public Policy, and Sociology- SLS and affiliated faculty in other areas developed Linked Courses in Equitable and Sustainable Development and Linked Courses in Green Infrastructure. A transdisciplinary learning experience, the program brings together classes from multiple GT colleges and schools with community partners, under broad sustainable communities themes. Through a series of joint workshops and activities, students, faculty, and partners together explore problems and solutions from different academic and practitioner perspectives, seeking to produce new ways of thinking and creating together, outside the silos that traditionally delimit their work.

The Innovating for Social Impact Program (I4SI) arose through the work of affiliated faculty in the College of Business and SLS partners at the Center for Civic Innovation, with the intention of extending collaboration undertaken through an SLS “Buzz Course” (an ungraded short course) in Social Innovation. I4SI is an experiential program, offered in partnership with The Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship in the Scheller College of Business, that introduces students to social innovation as a tool for social impact. Mirroring the “big tent” ethos that brought so many faculty to the Affiliated Courses Program, I4SI is unique at Georgia Tech in its flexibility: it is open to undergraduate and graduate students in any major, has no prerequisites, and allows students to combine courses and co-curricular experiences. Its three components require students to intern with a community partner organization, delve into a research project for or with a partner, and take one course, of several offered by affiliated faculty members, focused on social entrepreneurship and systems thinking. Students who have participated in the Social Innovation Buzz Course have reflected that the courses helped them develop “invaluable skills” such as “leveraging STEM education [and] experiences . . . towards sustainability initiatives” and “engaging with community partners in nonprofit and for-profit contexts”; one student concluded: “[the courses] literally changed my outlook on life.”

The SLS Teaching Toolkit is composed of teaching resources contributed by SLS staff, SLS student assistants, and faculty who teach in the Affiliated Courses Program. It is entirely open-access and intended to support faculty seeking to integrate sustainability themes, community engagement, and service learning into their courses, and to aid faculty in venturing outside the comfort zones of their disciplinary expertise. Tools contributed by affiliated faculty make specific topics – such as income inequality or the urban heat island effect- accessible to non-experts; the toolkit also provides faculty who are new to community engagement with specific templates, examples, and relationship-building guidance for undertaking project work with community partners in the context of their affiliated courses.


The Affiliated Courses Program was designed to advance SLS’s mission - equipping students to create sustainable communities - by creating a network of impassioned, engaged faculty members. These affiliated faculty would re-design courses to incorporate sustainability concepts and community engagement, and would help build new programs to address curricular gaps and facilitate collaboration across all six colleges at Georgia Tech. Each program that arose as a result seeks to 1) prepare students to work with community partners and use their disciplinary skills to create a more sustainable, just society; 2) support faculty who reach across campus and beyond it to execute projects and courses that are fundamentally transdisciplinary; 3) create structures through which students can work with partners and faculty on projects that support both the partner's mission and the students’ intellectual journeys.


At the outset, the Affiliated Courses Program relied on intentional relationship-building by SLS leadership and staff with department chairs and faculty, and one-on-one meetings with faculty members who saw a connection between their teaching and SLS and wanted additional support engaging SLS’s mission of creating sustainable communities in their teaching.

To affiliate, faculty members complete an online form requesting information about their course, the Student Learning Outcome that it engages, and whether they would like assistance with community partnerships. As new programs evolved out of the Affiliated Courses Program, the form did too; its current iteration asks faculty if they would like to engage their course in the Sustainable Cities Minor or the Innovating for Social Impact Program. Importantly, affiliation does not require faculty to negotiate institutional “red tape”--no new labels or listings were required; they merely enjoyed the advertising that SLS provided for the course by including it on our searchable website. In terms of funding that comes with affiliation, SLS invites all affiliating faculty to apply for mini-grants, urging them to use the money to provide honoraria to partners they engage, if applicable, or for materials or professional development related to sustainability. We also attract faculty to the program by offering some larger course development grants each year to incentivize faculty to deepen their engagement with sustainability themes and topics or expand their work with community partners - or both! Their teaching becomes part of SLS’s educational ecosystem, using affiliation as a starting point to take advantage of SLS’s curricular resources, partner relationships and course development funds.

In the case of the Sustainable Cities Minor, SLS leadership worked closely with the School of City and Regional Planning, and built on existing relationships outside that school, to induce faculty members to submit their affiliated courses for inclusion in the newly redesigned minor. The School Chair continues to consider additional electives for inclusion and recently added a course in Sustainable Food Systems to the Minor.

The Linked Courses Program requires collaborating faculty to agree to contribute to an intellectual framework and be present for a series of workshops that all students in participating courses attend. The intellectual and logistical work necessitates substantial buy-in, meaning that faculty who work on the program are invested in its success as a transdisciplinary learning experience for students and the success of projects undertaken for partners. During Fall and Spring semesters, the program typically engages just one partner in work with three to four faculty members from different disciplines. This team approach draws together faculty who have never worked together before, and often influences how they understand “sustainable communities” as they, too, learn from the mentoring and experience of community partners the program engages. Although the program launched in Spring 2018, a more expansive version unfolded in Fall of 2018, focused on Community Health, with partners at the City of Atlanta and at a nonprofit focused on small farms and food equity. The program was comprised of five affiliated courses in four disciplines: Economics, Industrial Design, English, and Health Sciences. Students were offered a menu of food-and-farming- focused service opportunities, and were gathered together three times throughout the semester for workshops on Community Health, based on a collaboratively produced framework.

The Innovating for Social Impact Program is the product of an intensive collaboration with the Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship in the College of Business. A more individualized academic experience, this program draws on the expertise of affiliated faculty as they mentor students doing project work for partners, or engaging in research for them. Each student uses SLS’s connections to affiliated faculty and external partners to shape their journey in the program; a business administration student who recently completed the program did so by studying abroad in an SLS-affiliated program, taking an affiliated course on social impact while there, and interning at a local nonprofit, where she deepened her understanding of grassroots innovation in international contexts. SLS staff coordinates with partners and affiliated faculty - like the professor who teaches the social impact course and runs the study abroad program - to support the student’s fulfillment of the program’s requirements.

The Teaching Toolkit is supported by SLS’s graduate research assistants who work with faculty on the writing and revision of tools and provide reviewers (either partners or other faculty) for tools-in-progress that may draw on several disciplines. The toolkit is maintained by SLS staff, and SLS offers “toolkit grants” to faculty wishing to use tools in their courses, incentivizing them with small grants to fill out a “use report” after teaching the tool, so as to help SLS improve the tools and expand the toolkit.


As the number of affiliated courses climbed from 11 courses in 2016-2017 to 160 in 2019-2020, the other programs that it seeded took root and flourished.

Spring 2016: SLS launched its course affiliation program.

Fall 2016: The SLS Teaching Toolkit and its first tools were accessible via the SLS website; a handful of tools created and shared out by affiliated faculty and SLS staff in 2016 grew to more than 40 tools by Fall of 2019.

Fall 2017: SLS launched its first “buzz course,” or short course, in Universal Design, at the impetus of an affiliated faculty member seeking more ways to engage partners and faculty outside his discipline. The Buzz Course in Universal Design laid the foundations for the Linked Courses Program, which had its inaugural semester the next year.

Spring 2018: Linked Courses in Green Infrastructure and Citizen Science (later amended to focus on only green infrastructure with an emphasis on equity) were offered through the collaboration of three faculty members and two key external partners.

Fall 2018: Another buzz course, focused on Social Innovation, and undertaken in partnership with affiliated faculty in the College of Business, sowed the seeds for the Innovating for Social Impact Program. The program gathered momentum through a second Social Innovation Buzz Course the following Fall, pairing four Social Innovation Fellows through the Center for Civic Innovation with undergraduate, graduate, and community participants.

Spring 2019: SLS leadership finalized the course list for the newly redesigned Sustainable Cities Minor, and students see the minor as a way to “minor in SLS” through the slate of diverse affiliated courses available to them to fulfill its requirements.

Fall 2019: Two faculty members brand new to SLS affiliated their courses for the first fully-fledged Linked Courses Program in Green Infrastructure, which engaged Computer Science, English, Biology and Architecture faculty in project work for a community based partner focused on green infrastructure and community revitalization.

Spring 2020: COVID-19 alters the terrain of community engagement and reframes sustainability and equity for all of us. Affiliated faculty in the Linked Courses in Equitable and Sustainable Development Program work with SLS staff and their course partners to plan virtual content that supports partner work and student learning. Affiliated faculty in the Sustainable Cities Minor explore ways to collaborate with colleagues in Savannah and elsewhere to connect their summer courses to remote work on sustainable communities projects relating to climate resilience and equity.


All program costs were paid out of SLS’s budget, guaranteed for five years by the Institute’s Quality Enhancement Plan. Over the past four years, we have offered toolkit grants and course development grants in varying amounts to affiliated faculty, but the only program cost that we see as crucial to executing the model with a true sustainable communities ethos is a small budget with which faculty can pay partners. In AY 2019-2020 SLS disbursed to its affiliated faculty mini-grants in the amount of $9,950, mostly in increments of $250 and $500. Although faculty appreciate mini-grants, many have indicated that they would work with SLS anyway - without the monetary incentive - because the intellectual community and relationships are so valuable to them. The reason that we continue to offer mini-grants to faculty, even those who are already deeply SLS-invested, is to encourage them to understand partners as co-educators who deserve compensation for time-intensive mentoring and collaboration.

The programs described here that grew out of the Affiliated Courses Program also rely primarily on relationships and collaboratively produced resources to spur and sustain faculty engagement, not on large budgets. For example, as part of the I4SI Program, SLS contributes $3,000 each year to Georgia Tech’s Ideas to Serve Competition, which is hosted by a close partner in the College of Business, and which I4SI students are encouraged to enter. The I4SI Program, however, would run successfully without a partnership with the competition; financially contributing to partnerships on campus simply makes more tangible SLS’s support of colleagues and events that enrich social innovation education at Georgia Tech.


Faculty Impact: In seeding the development of three other programs and an extensive suite of resources, the “payout” of the Affiliated Courses Program has been significant and exciting. Some examples of individual faculty members are illustrative. An affiliated faculty member in Industrial Design helped to plan and launch the first “buzz course” - the Buzz Course in Universal Design - and the first Linked Courses Program in Community Health. He then built upon those campus and community partner relationships to secure a $30,000 grant from health insurance provider Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield to continue to pursue projects focused on farmers markets and food equity with undergraduate and graduate students in his SLS-affiliated studio courses. An affiliated faculty member in the School of History and Sociology engaged his students in an oral history project with a local SLS partner, a community based organization in a historic neighborhood near campus. He then became involved in the Linked Courses Program’s summer iteration which focuses on Equitable and Sustainable Development. Students who took his courses nominated him for an institute-wide teaching prize, which he won. They cited his community-based projects and his ability to invest students in that work as key to his selection. More broadly, of 17 institute teaching awards in 2019-2020, seven awards recognized SLS-affiliated faculty members who work closely with SLS to include community partner engagement and sustainability-focused, project-based learning in their courses. As pre-tenure faculty seek ways to show on their vitae that community engagement contributes to a robust portfolio of scholarly and pedagogical projects, institute-wide teaching awards help them make that case.

The broad-ranging, easy-to-tailor tools in the SLS Teaching Toolkit have facilitated the incorporation of sustainability concepts into courses across virtually all departments over the past three years. One SLS-affiliated faculty member adapted SLS’s “Technology in Social Context” tool for use in a freshmen computer-assisted design course required of every mechanical engineering student at Tech. This partnership alone has resulted in hundreds of engineering students incorporating sustainability into their designs and considering social context when evaluating technology. Of ten use reports by affiliated faculty in the most recent cycle of grants awarded to spur even wider adoption of SLS tools, all ten averred that the tool was useful in their teaching; one faculty member added “the tool was a perfect fit for my class!” These small toolkit grants, combined with one-on-one meetings between the faculty grantee and SLS staff about the affiliated courses, have made the toolkit more exciting and accessible to GT faculty seeking to incorporate sustainability topics and community engagement into their teaching.

To date, SLS has offered Linked Courses four times, covering themes of Community Health, Equitable and Sustainable Development, and Green Infrastructure, during both the academic year and the summer. Affiliated instructors felt overall that the Linked Courses Program benefited their teaching, by providing an overarching course theme and framework to connect to; introducing students to the framework through the joint activities; and coordinating real-world field trips. Some commented that these program components provided students with baseline understandings of sustainability upon which they could build, allowing them to go more deeply into their own course content. Additionally, a number of instructors told us that their own participation in the program has led them to new ideas for their research. All 12 of the instructors involved in SLS’s assessment of the Linked Courses Program in Equitable and Sustainable Development said they would participate in the program again.

Student Impact: Students taking SLS-affiliated courses in the Linked Courses Program shared the way that its community visits, field trips, and project-based assignments influenced their perceptions and path at Tech. One student wrote: “As a Georgia Tech student, I entered the summer semester with the very narrow perception of engineers as only needing to focus on math and science. However, because of the [Linked Courses] workshops, tours, and in-class discussions about the [Atlanta] BeltLine, I now see that not only should we young engineers pursue sustainable practices in our respective fields, but that communication on all levels of engineering is key in any successful project . . . . I now want to pursue any opportunity here at Ga Tech which will . . . allow me to work closely with people from other disciplines.” Another student commented, “After I had learned the [Linked Courses] framework of sustainability, I realized that sustainable didn’t simply mean eco-friendly. A sustainable project should also bring economic and social profits. As an environmental engineer, I believe this experience helps me better understand my future career.”

The Innovating for Social Impact Program has also helped students shape their career trajectories toward creating sustainable communities. A masters student in supply chain engineering who completed the I4SI Program last year offered the following lesson from his experience: “maximize every day and opportunity you have to work with the community – listen and learn from them, while also thinking of ways, no matter how small, of how you could contribute and help them in their goals.”

Lessons Learned

1. Build community. Faculty have shared that the value of affiliating courses with SLS was in the intellectual community and cross-disciplinary collaborations that SLS afforded. It was time invested in relationships, more than dollars, that made the difference in the successes of the Course Affiliation Program.

  1. Create a big tent and welcome everyone. Meeting faculty - and students - where they are meant that the affiliation program became home to a truly diverse community of faculty members. SLS-affiliated faculty include those who “traditionally” teach sustainability (College of Sciences) or community engagement (College of Liberal Arts), as well as faculty who did not initially see connections to SLS’s sustainable communities mission, but became interested in the community partnership and course development opportunities afforded by affiliation. Faculty in interactive computing, music technology, and mechanical engineering have not typically been deeply engaged in sustainability or community partnerships at GT, but these are now all areas in which SLS has at least one faculty champion who continues to invest in SLS events and programs.

3. Innovate! Not only does Georgia Tech have a culture of innovation into which Serve-Learn-Sustain taps, but SLS’s willingness to experiment and innovate in its programming paid off. Drawing on the energy and creativity of affiliated faculty to pilot programs - such as the Innovating for Social Impact Program and the Social Innovation Buzz Course - that engaged staff, partners, additional faculty, and students created new, exciting environments for collaboration that weren’t found elsewhere on campus.

  1. Everyone has expertise. Our affiliation program is fueled by recognizing the diversity of expertise in and outside the institution: we encouraged faculty to bring their scholarly expertise to the table, as well as be ready to learn from the expertise of partners. Making clear that being an “expert” in sustainability or community engagement was not a prerequisite to affiliation with SLS and making the expertise of a variety of energetic community partners a benefit of affiliation drew in many stakeholders who might not have otherwise felt that SLS was “for them.”