Helping Teachers and Their Students Think About the "Stuff" They Use

by Shara Drew   |   September 19, 2017


Susan Salterberg, from the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education, teaches professional development courses for K-12 educators, helping them create lessons for their students around consumption, well-being, and sustainability.

We were thrilled to have the chance to interview Susan and learn more about her great work.

By helping schoolchildren "protect the environment and live well," what change do you hope to see in the world?

Immediately, I hope that children and their families become increasingly attentive to what matters most to them. I also want them to learn the backstory of the “stuff” we buy and use. With new knowledge, I want them to make their communities healthier, better places to live.

More long term, I envision these children helping to lead change in their own pockets of the world. Most of all, I’d like them to focus on relationships and on experiences. With continued reinforcement to protect the environment and live well, I hope they buy more local products, buy fewer products overall, and become more resourceful.

My vision is that, because the children are thriving, others will take notice and we will see a cascade of people “protecting the environment and living well.” 

Tell us about the “The Way We Live” program and your course, "The Secret Lives of Stuff."

“The Way We Live” began in 2001 as a program of the University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy & Environmental Education. Our two main initiatives are Reclaim Your Holidays and the Secret Lives of “Stuff.”

Reclaim Your Holidays helps Iowans create holidays that are more meaningful. It’s similar to New Dream’s Simplify the Holidays campaign, but targets Iowans.

Secret Lives of “Stuff” is a graduate credit course for K-12 teachers. In the course, teachers explore the “stuff” that Americans use daily and discover why it is a primary contributor to environmental problems. Then, educators return to their own classrooms and help their students learn about these issues. Finally, the students identify and implement a community action project to address the problems locally.

Through the University of Northern Iowa, I offer 100% online courses as well as face-to-face courses.

How did you become interested in teaching a course for K-12 educators on this topic?

Most teachers are committed to the well-being and growth of their students. The Secret Lives of “Stuff” is about both of those things, so it’s a natural fit.

My own background was also an influence. I grew up on a farm in Iowa in the 1960s. In the summer, my siblings and I played kick-the-can and hid behind tall and lacy asparagus. We picked buckets of strawberries, made lots of homemade ice cream, and indulged in watermelon. We spent many nights under the stars. I learned that I didn’t need many material goods to be happy.

Society doesn’t reinforce that fact. It offers us plenty of opportunities to get new stuff—which can be hard to resist, even for me. So I’m teaching others the things that I most want to learn and re-learn myself. Relationships matter, and once we have enough stuff, “stuff” doesn’t matter as much.

Finally, everyone knows the importance of recycling, which is extremely important but only fixes an existing environmental problem. I’m all about preventing environmental problems in the first place.

What do teachers say are the biggest take-aways from your classes? What effects do they see in their students in learning about product life-cycles, consumption, and the environment?

The biggest take-away has to do with reduction. I hear story after story about teachers wanting to curb habits such as “online ordering addictions.” As one teacher said: “It’s crazy to sit back and look at all our stuff. We are told to recycle everything, but, in reality, we should reduce what we use so we don’t have to recycle in the first place.”

A couple other common take-aways are: “Have enough, yet not too much.” “If I have less stuff to take care of, I will have more time for relationships, and this will be better for our environment.”

Teachers report that their students learn that reduction—not recycling or reuse—is one of the more important actions they can take. Students—even kindergarteners—learn the life-cycles of products. It’s amazing what kindergarteners can learn when a teacher changes the words of the song "The Farmer in the Dell" to explain the life of a newspaper!

Teachers also say they see changes in behavior: students encouraging each other to waste less, students recycling more, and students getting their families to make changes at home. I often hear of young students convincing their parents not to use paper plates at dinner. Step by step.

You provide a list of free and inexpensive educator resources on your website. Tell us about some of your favorites.

There are so many! Here are a few:

Pick 5 Survey —  This is a favorite resource for teachers and our Reclaim Your Holidays audience. The surveys, targeted at various age groups, ask participants to choose which options are the most essential for a good quality of life. 

Happiness Store – This is great for all ages. The two-minute PBS online video gets kids and adults to think about happiness as it relates to stuff. The moral of the video: "One small thing you love can make you happier than a ton of stuff." 

Everything Comes From Something — With this resource, teachers can create their own kit to help students learn that the products we use all come from the earth. The lesson plan and read-aloud for the book Agatha’s Feather Bed, in which Agatha explains that “everything comes from something” (wool from sheep, linen from flax, cotton from cotton balls) is another great resource.

Extraordinary Life of Strawberries — This well-made, two-minute video shows students the complete life-cycle of strawberries, from extraction to disposal. 

Life of a T-shirt — This series of five short (1-6 minute) videos from NPR's Planet Money shows what's behind a simple t-shirt. The videos help students to understand the present-day life-cycle of a shirt and to brainstorm possible interventions to reduce environmental impact.

Susan Salterberg lives and works from her home in Iowa City. She loves biking to the farmer's market and taking a big watermelon home in her bike bag. She is involved in a community singing group and enjoys bringing voices together for the joy of singing. Susan teaches professional development courses for K-12 teachers and says that the most fulfilling aspect of her work at the University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy & Environmental Education is seeing them make connections and be excited about the secret lives of "stuff". She can be reached at