Why should students learn about sustainability? It is not only because “our house is on fire” [1]

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The 20th century had its challenges: nuclear weapons, world wars… And the 21st century has a clear one: Sustainable Development, even if there is no clear agreement on what that means yet. Educating students in the issue would have enormous social benefits, as they often go on to powerful positions, but what benefits are there for students themselves?

Sustainable Development (SD) is broadly defined as the development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [2]. The earth is the space where humans live and perform their social and economic activities. It is key to consider how individuals influence her and her inhabitants. University is the best space for students to do so, as it is a potential living lab [3] where all disciplines meet and where students are provided with the tools and opportunities to be critical, which could be used to analyse how they shape and influence the world through their disciplines. 

There is interest: more than 90% of students think sustainability is an important topic [4]. It is clear from movements like Fridays for Future, that students from all fields are concerned about SD and are not satisfied with the path society is following, which will lead the world to surpass the 1.5°C warming agreed at the Paris climate conference (COP21) [5] among other issues. That is why it is important for them to learn how to make an impact within their discipline, or with the tools that they acquire throughout their education.  

In addition to that, SD is an intrinsically interdisciplinary issue, and embedding it into students’ learning implies the analysis of complex and constantly changing situations which encourages critical thinking to come up with creative solutions [6]. Those are all valuable skills for the contemporary world. The jobs of the future will require adaptation to change, understanding of interdisciplinary problems and dealing with uncertainty [7], therefore, those who have learnt about sustainability will have a comparative advantage. 

What are barriers to change then? Campuses are changing with organisational initiatives such as improving energy efficiency and developing a recycling program. As a consequence, students are often asked to engage in green behaviours, but there is a big knowledge gap, as they have no formal education in the field and are mainly informed through mainstream media. That is why sustainability should not only be included in the physical learning spaces but also in the learning process itself. 

Among the challenges Adam Henry, from Harvard University [8] identifies to including sustainability in higher education, there is the complexity of the issue and the trade-off between sustainable education and critical thinking; he argues SD education will diminish the power of critical thinking in university, because it imposes predetermined ideas. In reality there is no such thing as an apolitical approach to issues and disciplines need professionals that consider the contemporary major challenges, including climate change/justice… Moreover, SD is a great framework that allows a questioning of the status quo, an exercise of critical thinking that makes disciplines move forward. 

Even if some departments or academics are not willing to adapt [9], there are already examples of good practice. Students and staff from Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) Veterinary School collaborated to include sustainability in the curriculum [10], with students contributing with creative methods and applications. The role of students is crucial in demanding change and helping shape a new way of learning, finding new solutions for old problems. But all fields have potential: data scientists could use climate datasets to learn programming, while engineers could consider sustainable materials and methods in their projects. 

Besides direct curriculum creation participation, getting involved in projects such as Edinburgh’s Sustainability Champions or thinking about SD as a viewpoint for assignments is also a strong contribution to making university live up to the urgency of healing the planet.  

But, why bother? First, “our house is on fire” [1]It is not the only reason, but it is an important one. Second: sustainability is a good lens for critical analysis and lastly, in understanding complex SD issues such as climate change or social justice, students develop skills such as creative and system thinking, interdisciplinary analysis… which will prove useful in the future. 


Reference List

[1] Workman, J. (2019) ‘“Our house is on fire.” 16-year-old Great Thunberg wants action.’ World Economic Forum. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/our-house-is-on-fire-16-year-old-greta-thunberg-speaks-truth-to-power/ [Accessed on 8th July, 2020] 

[2] World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) ‘Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future.’ Available at: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5987our-common-future.pdf [Accessed on 8th July, 2020] 

[3] Favaloro, T., Ball, T. and Lipschutz, R. (2019) ‘Mind the Gap! Developing the Campus as a Living Lab for Student Experiential Learning in Sustainability.’ In: Filho, W. and Bardi, U. [eds.] Sustainability on University Campuses: Learning, Skills Building and Best Practices. Cham: Springer International PublishingISBN: 9783030158637. 

[4] Agombar, J. (2015) ‘Students, skills and sustainability.’ Plymouth University. Available at: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/students-and-family/sustainability/sustainability-education/esdconf2015 [Accessed on 8th July, 2020] 

[5] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2019) ‘Global Warming of 1.5°C.’ Available at: https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf [Accessed on 8th July, 2020] 

[6] Christie, B. and Higgins, P. (2020) ‘The Impact of Learning for Sustainability on Educational Outcomes: A Summary of Findings.’ Scottish Government. Available at: https://www.gov.scot/publications/impact-learning-sustainability-educational-outcomes-summary-findings/pages/7/ [Accessed on 8th July, 2020] 

[7] Valentine, R. (2020) ‘Future of Work.’ The University of Edinburgh Careers Service. Available at: https://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/careers_service_briefing_-_future_of_work.pdf [Accessed on 8th July, 2020] 

[8] Henry, A. (2009) ‘The challenge of learning for sustainability: A prolegomenon to theory.’ Human Ecology Review 16(2): 131-140. ISSN: 1074-4827. 

[9] Lampkin, S. (2015) ‘The challenges of introducing sustainable development in the curriculum at a UK university.’ Local Economy 30(3): 352-360. DOI: 10.1177/0269094215579408 

[10] Boyd, S., Batiste, S., Duthie, N., Kinch, N., Lawson, M., Tomlin N. and Rhind, S. (2020) ‘E2: Embedding sustainability in the curriculum using student-led co-creation.’ The University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference. Available at: https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/ueoltconference/sign-up-for-sessions/embedding-sustainability-in-the-curriculum-using-student-led-co-creation/ [Accessed on 8th July, 2020]