How can we make our courses more sustainable?

(12-04-2022) How often is sustainability already discussed in training today? To examine this in more detail, a university-wide survey among Ghent University students and alumni was launched last year.

The survey was created and followed up by the Ghent Green Office, the Center for Sustainable Development (CDO), the Department of Educational Affairs and the Ghent Student Council (GSR). The response led to four recommendations to embed sustainability more firmly in our education. Four UGent'ers testify how they approach it.

Read the extensive report (in Dutch) with all the results of the sustainability survey.

1. Structural embedding of sustainability within the study programs

The survey shows that students - with the exception of students from the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering - do not feel prepared to tackle sustainability issues in the workplace later on. They therefore want sustainability to be addressed more thoroughly in their training. The University-wide Policy Choice (UBK) Sustainability responds to this structural anchoring. Six faculties formulated ambitious objectives within this framework and fifteen study programs have already shown a strong commitment in recent years.

Erik ParedisProfessor Erik Paredis is the initiator of the UBK trajectory within the Political Science program. “We have had a course on sustainability in our training for about ten years now. When our faculty took up the UBK sustainability in 2018, it marked the start of our trajectory to embed sustainability more strongly in the three bachelor years of political science. After the bachelors in political science, sociology and communication sciences follow.”

In 2018, he started a working group with a mix of profiles: professors, students, a PhD student, colleagues from education, etc. “First we agreed on what we meant by sustainability and looked at what was already happening in the courses. Within the CDO, we developed a standard procedure for such an audit, which has been very helpful to us.”

After this analysis, the working group started developing a number of learning pathways to achieve the four goals after four years of training: increasing knowledge, applying political theory to the issue of sustainability, learning to reflect critically on sustainability and more interdisciplinary knowledge. bring into training.

“We identified a number of building blocks throughout the bachelor years with which we want to achieve those goals. Next academic year they will be integrated into the political sciences program for the first time. We have made sure that the adjustments do not make the workload too large. In some courses, for example, a sustainability module is added, delivered via a general lecture on sustainability. Students who want to delve into it can opt for that extra module. An extra lecture will be added. By making my own subject, political issues related to sustainability, a central elective in the second bachelor, I expect the number of students to double. In the second bachelor there will also be an extra elective course on sustainable cities, in the third bachelor we offer a wider range of themes for a sustainable research paper to make it easier to access, interested lecturers who want to give more attention to sustainability in their subject we support with the working group,…”

Even if the UBK ends, these objectives will not disappear from the curriculum. “On the contrary, it will only become more relevant in the coming years,” he emphasizes.

2. Promote maximum interdisciplinary sustainable higher educationKobe Tilley

Kobe Tilley, Urbanism and Spatial Planning student, was the driving force behind the second edition of the Climate Summer School. “An event brought me to the Green Office about three years ago and I have become completely passionate about everything that has to do with sustainability.” During the Climate Summer School - which takes place at the end of September - students are immersed for a whole week in all kinds of research domains and topics related to climate. In total there are about sixty speakers (professions and outsiders) who will come to convey their expertise.

The content of the lectures, the thematic workshop trajectories and interactive speed date sessions is interdisciplinary, and Kobe thinks that is only logical. “Climate change is an outstanding issue that affects all aspects of our society. The interdisciplinary nature is apparent from the wide range of subjects in the lectures, but certainly in the interpretation of the speed dates and the thematic workshops, where different perspectives are discussed within each theme.”

Another important facet that typifies the interdisciplinary character of the Summer School are the students themselves, says Kobe. “Students from more than 20 specializations took part. That is a very broad group that otherwise would never meet. This leads to interesting discussion moments. Students learn from and through each other. The student evaluation shows that they experience the exchange of ideas with students from very different backgrounds as very valuable.”

This year, Jet, another student within the Green Office, will take over the organizing role. Together with volunteers, she will even manage two Summer Schools: one on climate and one on how to live socially justly within planetary boundaries.

3. Offer all students opportunities to actively work on sustainability issues

Femke LootensAccording to the survey, students are eager to get to work on concrete sustainability issues. A very good example where students are given the opportunity to collaborate interdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary on concrete issues are the master's thesis workshops of the City Academy. Femke Lootens is Green Office coordinator and initiator of Living Lab Campus Sterre, a project of the City Academy. “The City Academy is a so-called 'collaboratory' that facilitates interdisciplinary research on sustainability issues at Ghent University and the City of Ghent. An important part of the functioning of the City Academy are the master's thesis workshops. In a master's thesis studio, students from different study programs write their own bachelor's or master's thesis within an interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary context.”

She explains exactly how that works on the basis of the trajectory around circular construction on Campus Sterre, which has been covered by a master's thesis studio for two years now. “We are investigating in various case studies how we can make the use of materials for buildings at Ghent University as circular as possible. If the first year mainly attracted engineering and architecture students, economics and political science students will also participate this year. They work together with the Buildings and Facilities Management Department of Ghent University. We also see this broadening in the other trajectories. Students and supervisors already involved are often very enthusiastic. We are still looking for ways to make this way of working workable; after all, every study program has different conditions and starting times for bachelor's and master's theses. UGents who want to have their students work more on sustainability issues can always submit their question to the City Academy.”

The students make a separate bachelor's or master's thesis, but they also work on a collective assignment. “We encourage that interdisciplinary exchange as much as possible. This is possible thanks to the supervision of their own supervisor and the leaders of the master's thesis studio. My job within Living Lab is to coordinate that complex puzzle.”

What is the added value for the students in her opinion, because such a master's thesis workshop does require a lot of commitment. “It's nice for students that their bachelor's or master's thesis will do more than gather dust in a slide (laughs). They get to work on real issues, and their insights are certainly useful for our stakeholders, such as the Buildings and Facilities Management directorate. The management would like to take steps towards the use of circular materials itself, but has less time to delve deeply into circular construction. The work of the students from different disciplines is therefore really an added value. And it is interesting for the students to exchange knowledge with other students and to develop a network through other actors such as the City of Ghent that can be useful to them later on.”

4. Make use of the expertise already accumulated by lecturers, study programs and faculties and at scale

As early as the 2015-2016 academic year, the Commercial Sciences program (Faculty of Economics and Business) started a trajectory to make sustainability a coherent storyBrent Bleys across the program. After the bachelor's degree, it is now the turn of the five specializations.

That exercise is still ongoing. Meanwhile, tractor Professor Brent Bleys is already looking ahead from the very beginning. “Since 2018, with the support of the Center for Sustainable Development, we have been looking at how we can scale up the practice of commercial sciences faculty-wide in the four other basic courses. What we have done in commercial sciences, we now also implement in other study programmes. With a leader and working group for each course to go through a similar process. Conveniently, they can already learn from our experiences in commercial sciences. An example: to get an idea of ​​what is covered in a subject, it is better to ask the lecturers directly than to rely on the study sheets. By seeing what is already being discussed about sustainability, we discover how we can harmonize it better and what is still missing.”

In order to maintain the commitment of the leaders and the working groups, they receive extra support at faculty level. “The Education Quality Unit provides extra follow-up by, for example, regularly putting the theme on the agenda of the education committees. We now notice that it is feasible to scale up, without forcing anyone to include this theme in their profession. Because by starting such an exercise, a dynamic is created that ultimately convinces more and more teachers. It is a process that is constantly evolving. Some teachers sometimes find it more difficult to find a link within their discipline, so the learning network within Ghent University can help to gain inspiration.”

In order to scale up, it is necessary that the dean and the director of education are also convinced. “The support from the faculty is very important to make it a success story. The continuity of this exercise also seems assured, now that the faculty - after opting for the UBK sustainability - has also endorsed the UN charter on the 'Principles of Responsible Management Education'. For example, we will continue to put the theme on the agenda, supplemented with a bottom-up approach from the teachers who work and teach on sustainability topics. The dynamic has started and will not stop suddenly. Many of our teachers are aware that today they are training employees for the next 40 years. They will be fully involved in the transition to carbon neutrality and it is up to us to prepare them for it.”

Getting started with sustainability yourself?

The UBK Sustainability recently published an overview publication 'Recruiting yards & recyclable results' with numerous tips and example practices. For more information, please contact the assignment holder of this UBK, Professor Thomas Block, and Ellen Vandenplas.

In addition, there are also many educational tips about sustainability for individual teachers and for courses as a whole. DOWA also developed an online learning path (in Dutch) and a training offer on UTOP (search term sustainability). The training for courses is tailor-made, the training for individual teachers will take place this year on 4 July and 5 September. Do you want to request a tailor-made training or are you looking for more information? Contact Leen Van Gijsel of DOWA.