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Purpose ‐ Academic sustainability programs aim to develop key competencies in sustainability, including problem-solving skills and the ability to collaborate successfully with experts and stakeholders. These key competencies may be most fully developed in new teaching and learning situations. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the kind of, and extent to which, these key competencies can be acquired in real-world learning opportunities. Design/methodology/approach ‐ The paper summarizes key competencies in sustainability, identifies criteria for real-world learning opportunities in sustainability programs, and draws on dominant real-world learning models including project- and problem-based learning, service learning, and internships in communities, businesses, and governments. These components are integrated into a framework to design real-world learning opportunities. Findings ‐ A "functional and progressive" model of real-world learning opportunities seems most conducive to introduce students (as well as faculty and community partners) to collaborative research between academic researchers and practitioners. The stepwise process combined with additional principles allows building competencies such as problem solving, linking knowledge to action, and collaborative work, while applying concepts and methods from the field of sustainability. Practical implications ‐ The paper offers examples of real-world learning opportunities at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, discusses general challenges of implementation and organizational learning, and draws attention to critical success factors such as collaborative design, coordination, and integration in general introductory courses for undergraduate students. Originality/value ‐ The paper contributes to sustainability education by clarifying how real-world learning opportunities contribute to the acquisition of key competencies in sustainability. It proposes a functional and progressive model to be integrated into the (undergraduate) curriculum and suggests strategies for its implementation.