Lesson Plan: Thinking Like the Vanderbilts: Students Explore Sustainable Community Development

After considering the work of Biltmore Farms, a sustainable development company rooted in the heritage of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, students will develop their own sustainable community.

Grade Level Content   Author
5Science & Social StudiesAndrea Walter



NGSS Science:

5-ESS3-1. Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment.

 3-5-ETS1-2. Generate and compare multiple possible engineering solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

NC Essential Standards, Social Studies: 

5.G.1 Understand how human activity has and continues to shape the United States.

5.C&G.2.4 Explain why civic participation is important in the United States.


Time Required

Preparation and set up: 60 minutes

Teaching: 12 lessons, 30-60 minutes each

Wrap-up: 45 minutes

Making Connections

In this project and design-based lesson, fifth grade students apply what they know about the Earth (the biosphere, atmosphere, geosphere and hydrosphere) to make choices about building materials, sites, and design that respect the Earth. 

Students apply their knowledge of US history from Pre-colonial times through Reconstruction to design a community that learns lessons from the past to make decisions for community development today.


George W. Vanderbilt (1862-1914) envisioned and constructed what remains the largest private home in America, the Biltmore Estate, in Asheville, NC. His daughter Cornelia and her husband, John Cecil, had two sons. William Cecil inherited and preserved the Biltmore House. George Cecil inherited the majority of the estate’s land and the Biltmore Farms Dairy company, which is now Biltmore Farms LLC, a development company. 

The lesson begins with an introduction to Biltmore Estate, then narrows its focus to the development company, Biltmore Farms. Students learn about the five Biltmore Farms tenets, which are based on the historic vision of George W. Vanderbilt. Students explore these five tenets in the context of the history and current operations of Biltmore Farms, LLC. 

Finally, students use the Architecture: It’s Elementary! Fifth Grade curriculum (available online at Fifth Grade). This curriculum, designed by the Michigan Architectural Foundation, leads students through 10 lessons in learning about city planning, infrastructure, and preservation. There are opportunities (not required) in the curriculum to bring in guest speakers to discuss the planning process, for example a city planner, engineer, or representative of the local historical society. In the final lessons, the class designs a community in 6 blocks, then small groups draw the plan and construct models of the buildings. 



  • “Coffee Table” books about the Biltmore Estate (available through public library interlibrary loan) 
  • Devices with internet for groups 
  • Student handouts 
  • Pencils, erasers, tape/glue and rulers
  • Markers and chart paper
  • Architecture: It’s Elementary! Fifth Grade curriculum and student handouts (available at Fifth Grade)
  • Six poster boards (18” x 24”) 


Part 1: Biltmore Farms Values

  1. Materials to prepare
    1. Class Set copies of Student Page: I Notice, I Wonder Note Catcher
    2. One-two copies Teacher pages: Tenets, cut and taped/glued to chart paper (each group of 3-5 students needs one chart with a tenet)
    3. “Coffee table” books about the Biltmore Estate (interlibrary loan), one per group if possible
  2. Teacher-Guided Lesson: Students complete the I Notice, I Wonder Note Catcher sheet while participating in the lesson
    1. Teacher-guided exploration and discussion of the Biltmore Farms website, focusing especially on 
      1. The history/legacy page (Our Legacy of Stewardship – Biltmore Farms, LLC Asheville NC)
  1. The video about the history of Biltmore Farms at the bottom of this page (Community Development – Biltmore Farms, LLC Asheville NC
  2. An exploration of the structure of Biltmore Farms, LLC, starting at the home page (Biltmore Farms, LLC – Commercial, Communities, Homes, Hotels, Careers). Students will explore the links across the top of the pages in the next activity, so show them how to use the tabs to find information about Biltmore Farms’ commercial ventures, community development, etc. 
  1. Tenets, past and present, Concept Map Posters
    1. Teacher introduces the 6 Biltmore Farms Tenets (Core Values) (https://www.biltmorefarms.com/community-development/)
    2. Divide students into groups of 3-5 
    3. Give each group a piece of chart paper with one of the Tenets (Core Values) taped/glued to the center. Students look at the Biltmore Estate “coffee table” books and the Biltmore Farms website (Biltmore Farms, LLC – Commercial, Communities, Homes, Hotels, Careers) to research how their assigned Tenet manifests in the history and present work of Biltmore Farms. They then use markers to create a Concept Web of the ways the value manifests. Some values are difficult to find: guide students to realize that the value of healthcare, for example, might be in the fresh foods, the walking trails, the employee health plans, etc. 

Part 2: Stakeholders in a Community

  1. Materials to copy: 
    1. One copy Teacher page: Student roles, cut into strips and placed in a container for random distribution
  1. Class set plus teacher copy of Student Page: Community Connections Roles
  1. Model how to complete the Student Page: Community Connections Roles sheet using the teacher role. 
  2. Randomly assign students to a role from the container. Have students tape/glue the role to the center of Student Page: Community Connections Roles
  3. Individual or partner: Students pretend to be the person described on their slip and connect their life to the core values (tenets), to see how a community is interconnected. 
  4. Class discussion: students report how they are connected to one or more of the values. 

Part 3: Developing a Community

  1. Preparation
    1. Make student copies for each unit you plan to teach in Architecture: It’s Elementary! Fifth Grade Curriculum Guide (Fifth Grade
    2. Invite community experts into classroom as desired
  2. Use the Architecture: It’s Elementary! Fifth Grade Curriculum Guide (Fifth Grade) to actively involve students in developing a piece of land. This is a 10-lesson curriculum including the following content:  
    1. History of Cities
    2. Politics and Economics of a City
    3. City Planning
    4. Infrastructures
    5. Preservation
    6. Building Materials
    7. Understanding and Protecting our Environment
    8. Designing a City (3 parts)

Part 4: Reflection and Assessment

  1. Materials to Copy” 
    1. Class set: Student Sheet: Biltmore Farms Summative Assessment
  2. Procedure
    1. Discuss the essential questions (see appendix for Teacher Sheet: Biltmore Farms Summative Assessment)
    2. Assign students to complete Student Sheet: Biltmore Farms Summative Assessment


Wrap Up and Action

  1. The Architecture: It’s Elementary! Fifth Grade Curriculum Guide (Fifth Grade) has Teacher Evaluation questions at the end of each lesson. 
  2. For a culminating project-based assessment, have students present their part of the city design to the class, and possibly to outside experts, justifying their decisions about the location of various structures/infrastructure. 
  3. Assess student understanding of the essential questions through the final reflective writing assignment: Student Sheet: Biltmore Farms Summative Assessment


  1. Design a plan for an actual piece of land in the community or on the school grounds (for example, design a playground). Consider presenting the plan to local officials.
  2. Research careers in city planning, architecture, community development, construction or environmental issues.

Teacher Tips

Students benefit from explicit connections to the local ecosystems and development projects within their community. For the teacher’s background knowledge, it is fascinating to read Denise Kieran’s, The Last Castle, a history of George and Edith Vanderbilt and the construction of the Biltmore Estate.


About the Author

Andrea Walter is a 2020-21 Kenan Fellow. She teaches fifth-grade science and Social Studies at Polk Central Elementary School, and is a National Board Certified teacher and a NC Environmental Educator. She cultivates places of wild-hearted, powerful peace by teaching empathy, justice and project-based learning.

About the Fellowship

Andrea was fortunate to be mentored by Carol Steen, Vice President of Talent and Human Resources at Biltmore Farms. Ms. Steen introduced Andrea to this historic company and its present mission of cultivating sustainable communities in the form of thriving businesses and an inspiring sense of place. Andrea interviewed staff and toured the full range of activities of Biltmore Farms, experiencing such diverse sights as the old dairy operation in the basement of the Doubletree Hotel and the solar array on the rooftop of the Hilton Hotel; the variety of ponds, pools and pipes that manage stormwater in the gated Ramble Biltmore Forest community; delicious restaurants and tempting shops at Biltmore Park Town Square, and the 2020 Southern Living Idea House. 

This lesson was inspired by the enthusiasm and tenacity with which Mr. Jack Cecil, Biltmore Farms President and great grandson of George W. Vanderbilt, guides his staff to uphold the five tenets of Biltmore Farms: education, healthcare, arts and culture, economic development, environment and quality of life.


Digital versions of all student handouts can be found here: Biltmore Farms Student Pages