Teaching and learning data

Objective A1

By 2019, ensure undergraduate students from any program of study will have the opportunity to learn about sustainability in their courses

Progress: Completed

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Description: Waterloo has a strong foundation of sustainability courses across campus at the undergraduate level. The Faculty of Environment’s efforts to develop a campus-wide online fundamentals course and create a Sustainability Diploma, as well as integration into PD1 for co-op students, will help build foundational access among undergraduate students.


Courses Focused on/Including Sustainability

The course inventory is based on course descriptions within the undergraduate and graduate calendars, with a specific emphasis on environmental sustainability. As part of the 2016 report, the Sustainability Office also reached out to department chairs for academic units that offered these identified courses, to verify or modify the course inventory. The definitions provided by AASHE STARS criteria were provided to chairs to determine whether the course content met those criteria, and which are provided below for reference. In the current report, the Registrar’s Office provided a full export of all courses within the 2017/18 academic calendar, including descriptions. The Sustainability Office searched through this list and matched all courses that had previously been validated by department chairs, and added or removed courses as necessary based on changes to the academic calendar.

Cross-listed courses were treated as one total course and were weighted equally across the departments (i.e., 0.5 allocated to Geography & Environmental Management and 0.5 allocated to Earth Sciences for a shared course).

Limitations and Exclusions:

  • Course descriptions are not exhaustive, and it is possible that there are many more courses that have units, modules, or case studies related to environmental sustainability that were not included in the description. Further analysis could be conducted by looking at course syllabi.
  • Some department chairs did not respond to requests for validation in 2017, in which case the original inventory was used. Approximately 81% of courses were verified. These have been fairly consistent year-over-year.
  • Special Topics courses were normally excluded from the count, unless the description provided a list of specific topics that could be related to environmental sustainability. Transfer courses, high school courses, Laurier courses, and any courses that appeared in the calendar but were noted not to be offered until future years, were also excluded.
  • The academic calendar lists all courses that are available at the University of Waterloo, but does not indicate whether they were actually scheduled. Further analysis could be done through the Quest system to analyse the number of courses and sections offered.
  • Course numbers and descriptions may change year-over-year, which sometimes impacts the ability to see comparative change over time.


STARS defines courses as follows:

Sustainability-focused courses are courses in which the primary and explicit focus is on sustainability and/or on understanding or solving one or more major sustainability challenge.  This includes:

  • Foundational courses in which the primary and explicit focus is on sustainability as an integrated concept having social, economic, and environmental dimensions. Obvious examples include Introduction to Sustainability, Sustainable Development, and Sustainability Science, however courses may also count if their course descriptions indicate a primary and explicit focus on sustainability.
  • Courses in which the primary and explicit focus is on the application of sustainability within a field. As sustainability is an interdisciplinary topic, such courses generally incorporate insights from multiple disciplines. Obvious examples include Sustainable Agriculture, Architecture for Sustainability, and Sustainable Business, however courses may also count if their course descriptions indicate a primary and explicit focus on sustainability within a field.
  • Courses in which the primary focus is on providing skills and/or knowledge directly connected to understanding or solving one or more major sustainability challenges. A course might provide knowledge and understanding of the problem or tools for solving it, for example Climate Change Science, Renewable Energy Policy, Environmental Justice, or Green Chemistry. Such courses do not necessarily cover “sustainability” as a concept, but should address more than one of the three dimensions of sustainability (i.e. social wellbeing, economic prosperity, and environmental health).

Courses that include sustainability refers to courses that are primarily focused on a topic other than sustainability, but incorporate a unit or module on sustainability or a sustainability challenge, includes one or more sustainability-focused activities, or integrates sustainability issues throughout the course. While a foundational course such as chemistry or sociology might provide knowledge that is useful to practitioners of sustainability, it would not be considered to be inclusive of sustainability unless the concept of sustainability or a sustainability challenge is specifically integrated into the course. Likewise, although specific tools or practices such as GIS (Geographical Information Systems) or engineering can be applied towards sustainability, such courses would not count unless they incorporated a unit on sustainability or a sustainability challenge, included a sustainability-focused activity, or incorporated sustainability issues throughout the course.

Courses with SDG Connections:

In 2021, University of Waterloo also ran an assessment of courses connected to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. The same boundaries and limitations noted above also apply to the SDG inventory. To complete this, the Sustainability Office used the following methodology:

  1. Keyword Scan: A list of keywords were drawn from SDSN Global, which included common topics and themes that are associated with each SDG. These were cross-referenced for each course description from the academic calendar, with each keyword recorded as a unique hit.
  2. Manual Review: Becuase of the breadth of the keywords and their meanings, as well as the limited information within course descriptions, the Sustainability Office complemented this with a manual review of all courses in the same way that courses were searched above. For each course, all 17 SDGs were evaluated based on reviewer knowledge the major targets (169) and indicators (>240) captured within the broad themes of each SDG. For example, SDG 3 has a very broad theme of "Health", but within the targets and indicators there are a more specific set of health-related topics that provide further focus.
  3. Coding: Where there was a keyword hit and the reviewer saw a clear match with the topics under a particular SDG, it was recorded as a "Likely" SDG connection. Where there was a keyword hit but the course description was less clear on the connection to a particular SDG and needed some additional validation, this was flagged as a "potential" SDG connection. Where there was no keyword hit but the course description seemed to indicate a possible SDG connection, this was also included as a "potential" SDG connection. Courses where there were keyword hits but manual review could not determine at least a potential SDG connections were considered false positives and not included.
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An accessible version of the data can be downloaded here: SDG Related Courses 2023 (Excel)

Actions and accomplishments


  • Waterloo launched the new degree program, Bachelor of Science in Climate and Environmental Change, combining knowledge from biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, and human geography
  • The Water Institute and Water Climate Institute engaged dozens of graduate students in a three-week virtual water security summer school


  • Waterloo launched the new degree program, Sustainability and Financial Management, a collaborative and interdisciplinary program between the School of Accounting and Finance and the School of Environment, Enterprise, and Development
  • Waterloo began conducting a mapping and analysis of the UN Sustainable Development Goals across the academic calendar

Historic actions and accomplishments


  • Co-operative Education integrated content on the UN Sustainable Development Goals into the Professional Development 1 course, providing a relevant learning opportunity for all co-op students on campus


  • The Sustainability Diploma and fundamentals online course were approved and piloted, giving a mechanism for all undergraduates to learn about sustainability


  • The Faculty of Environment began development of a Sustainability Fundamentals online course, which is available for any student on campus to provide an introduction to sustainability theory and challenges
  • The Faculty of Environment began development of a Sustainability Diploma as an additional designation that any student could complete on top of their major area

Objective A2

By 2025, identify and implement flexible strategies for 5 programs of study to more deeply integrate sustainability within the curriculum

Progress: Somewhat completed

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Description: Some efforts have been initiated to link sustainability concepts and issues to specific disciplinary competencies in parts of the campus. This has built some initial momentum and can generate knowledge and experience for other academic departments, however further effort will be needed to accelerate progress. 

Actions and accomplishments

Historic actions and accomplishments


  • The Sustainability Office completed research on characteristics of curriculum integration, and gathered examples from other institutions on sustainability competencies across disciplines.
  • The School of Public Health and Health Systems began preliminary discussions on curriculum integrations and mapping possible opportunities and linkages with sustainability.
  • The Faculty of Engineering launched the Architectural Engineering program, as a collaboration between Civil Engineering and the School of Architecture, which includes a major focus on energy efficient and low-carbon buildings

Objective A3

By 2025, every startup emerging from supporting programs at Waterloo will have access to tools and training to embed sustainability into their emerging business plans and models

Progress: Started

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Description: The launch of new programs and expansion of existing programs to connect students with resources indicates promising initial progress. Further effort can be made to define, develop, and advertise tools and resources for participants within existing entrepreneurship programs.

Actions and accomplishments

Historic actions and accomplishments


  • Entrepreneurship @ Environment launched, in order to catalyze and support sustainability and environmental innovation. featuring information and guidance, practical knowledge, dedicated workspaces, and mentorship and coaching


  • Velocity and Waterloo International supported the World’s Challenge Challenge, where student teams picked one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and pitched their idea to a global problem
  • Waterloo partnered on the launch of the evolvGreen collaborative workspace for clean economy entrepreneurs in the new evolv1 building, in cooperation with Sustainable Waterloo Region, the Accelerator Centre, the City of Waterloo, and Wilfrid Laurier


  • The GreenHouse social innovation incubator opened its new space in the building addition at United College (formerly St. Paul's)
  • Velocity expanded its entrepreneurship support by launching Velocity Start @ Environment, a space for students from any program to connect with startup coaches and workshops to grow their business ideas

Related links

Explore more of Waterloo's progress: