Sustainability in Teaching
Sustainable development means human-led change towards a world, where humankind can survive and thrive within the ecological limits of our finite planet. Human well-being - now and in the future - depends on Earth's critical life-supporting systems, such as a stable climate, fertile soils and biodiversity. A sustainable future means sustaining a habitable planet while at the same time securing that humans meet their basic needs and have equal opportunities for a good life, e.g. through education, employment, equity and justice.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), as agreed jointly by the world's governments in 2015, are one manifestation of the global pursuit towards sustainability and a compilation of targets directing our actions towards achieving sustainability.
Competencies and teaching methods for sustainability
Sustainability can be approached in teaching in many ways. A popular approach is to support students' competencies in problem-solving. In the case of sustainability challenges this requires abilities like understanding complex systems and system transitions, anticipation, values thinking, strategic thinking and interpersonal skills (e.g. Wiek et al 2011).
Students' active role, especially experiential learning where students learn by doing and reflecting, supports the learning of these competencies.
Research on competencies for sustainability
- Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., Redman, C.L. (2011) Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science 6(2):203–218. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0132-6
- Brundiers, K., Barth, M., Cebrián, G. et al. Key competencies in sustainability in higher education—toward an agreed-upon reference framework. Sustain Sci 16, 13–29 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00838-2
Research on pedagogies related to teaching sustainability
Lozano, R., Merrill, M., Sammalisto, K., Ceulemans, K., & Lozano, F. (2017). Connecting Competences and Pedagogical Approaches for Sustainable Development in Higher Education: A Literature Review and Framework Proposal. Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), 9(10), 1889–. https://doi.org/10.3390/su9101889
- Tejedor, G. et al. (2019). Didactic Strategies to Promote Competencies in Sustainability. Sustainability. 11(7), 2086. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11072086
Identifying meaningful ways to integrate sustainability into your teaching
As a teacher, you have varying starting points for integrating sustainability in teaching depending among others on your subject field, the course and its objectives, and your possibilities to develop the course. These range e.g. from setting sustainability as a context of an individual exercise to redesigning an entire course. All of these are valuable and add on students' knowledge and competencies on sustainability:
- Encountering sustainability: How to set sustainability as a context of an assignment, a task or a course?
- Building meaningful connections: How to find the field or course specific perspective to sustainability?
- Enabling systemic understanding of sustainability: How to help students to learn systems level thinking?
Below you can find one example of sustainability integration as meaningful connection building and possible methods that you could use. More cases and methods will be published during Spring 2022.
Case: Building meaningful connections to sustainability in Land management
Kirsikka Riekkinen works as assistant professor in Land Management, in School of Engineering.
“I have used this assignment in advanced master’s level course in Land management. The course consists of 6 teaching sessions. After each session, the students complete a writing task answering predefined open-ended questions. After the first teaching session and introducing the topics of the course, one of the questions relates to land management and sustainable development goals (SDGs) and SDG targets. The idea of the writing task is to find at least three goals to which land management tools can affect. The students do not need to be precise in the causalities or mechanisms but find overall connections.
I think that this is a very rewarding and eye-opening task to do, since all the SDGs can be linked to course topics to some extent. Some of the students really study the goals and targets and find interesting connections. Such an easy ‘warm-up’ task is also good for the students, since it may foster their self-efficacy as a student and may help them to see the relevance and meaningfulness of what they are studying. The task is graded, because our students typically wish that what they do influences their course grade. The grading requirements are communicated to the students beforehand.“
Teaching resources for integrating sustainability
Sustainability board games introduce students to a variety of sustainability related topics. The games are all in English:
- The DILEMMA board game challenges students to go outside their comfort zone, to discuss and debate on sustainability-related dilemmas, think critically, as well as explain key sustainability concepts to each other. Aalto has 5 Dilemma board games, optimum number of students / game = 6 (3 pairs).
- IN THE LOOP ® presents today’s resource-related challenges in a fun and engaging way and triggers players to find solutions. The students “excavate” minerals, produce products out of them and face sudden global events that force them to change their production strategies. They learn about critical minerals and challenges related to resources. Aalto has 5 games, optimum number of students / game = 8 (4 pairs).
- Fishbanks gives participants a demonstration of the concept of the tragedy of the commons, an introduction to systems thinking, and trains strategic decision making. Students own fishing companies, purchase fishing boats, face overfishing, negotiations with other companies on fishing quotas and finally, may end up in an ecosystem collapse. The game includes online files as a part of the facilitator's package. Aalto has 1 game, optimum number of students / game = 30-50 (in small groups).
- Clime Out is a board game about Earth’s climate system and climate change. Teams compete and challenge each other in three different types of duels. (Descriptions are applied from here.) Aalto has 6 games, optimum number of students / game = 6 (3 pairs).
The board games are purchased from Snowflake Education and are available for Aalto’s teachers free of charge. Complementary online material is available for each game, including ready-made game-specific PowerPoint -slides, videos and tasks for students to prepare and orient to the game (pre-assignments) and to apply the game’s topic to own field after playing (post-assignment). All material is editable. Teachers may purchase a licence to this material from Snowflake education (charge based on number of students playing, approximately 15€/student).The material is provided through Snowflake learning platform (tasks, submission, assessment), which can be embedded to MyCourses easily.
Possible learning outcomes: Depending on the game, they support learning on knowledge of sustainability, knowledge of climate change, polarised thinking, argumentation skills, systems thinking, strategic thinking, interpersonal competency, values thinking and critical thinking.
Possible assessment methods: Students can be assessed based on their pre- and post-assignments. In addition or as an option, students can be asked to reflect on their experience and learnings after the game (learning diary).
Type: Games are planned to be played offline (traditional board games), but online versions and set-ups exist for ClimeOut and Dilemma.
Ideal number of students: Games can be played with 30-40 students at the time.
Duration: Recommended time for actually playing a game is 90 minutes. However, the set-up provided by Snowflake education (Snowflake method) is based on a three-stepped flipped classroom: pre-assignments, game seminar (including short introduction, playing and debriefing) and a post-assignment. Running the whole set-up takes approximately 13-14 hours of study time, including 3-4 hours of contact teaching.
Aalto contact person: Meeri Karvinen ([email protected])
Sustainability Literacy Test (SuLiTest) is an international multiple-choice questionnaire designed to measure and improve the learner’s awareness of sustainability-related knowledge, skills and mindset. The test includes an international module of 30 questions on sustainability challenges covering the whole scope of sustainability, and a voluntary additional module of 10-20 questions (local questions, SDG-related questions). Teacher may choose, if a background survey is included (to be filled in after the test). The background survey provides an opportunity to explore which factors affect students’ results. Moreover, after getting students' results, the teacher gets the global and local averages as a comparison and can cluster the results according to a few ready-made categories (e.g. the SDGs). The results can be downloaded as Excel files, e.g.for research purposes.
Possible learning outcomes: Wide-ranged knowledge on sustainability
Possible assessment methods: The student gets scores from taking the test and also receives the right answers with links to relevant references. Thus, The Sulitest is mainly meant as a tool for teaching about “world’s current situation” and not as a graded assignment. A learning diary -type of reflection task can be combined with the Sulitest to improve students’ deep learning and self-awareness competency.
Ideal number of students: Suitable for both small and large groups of students
Duration: <1 h
More information about the test: Sulitest homepage.
Aalto contact person: Meeri Karvinen ([email protected])
Climate University provides free online courses covering themes from e.g. sustainable development, climate change, circular economy and systems thinking. The material is created in joint effort by eleven Finnish higher education institutions (HEIs). The material ranges from high school level to Bachelor's level and Master's level.
All the material is freely available on the DigiCampus platform and it can be used as a whole or only for selected parts.
The teaching material also includes a set of videos related to sustainability and climate change. Videos are available in Climate University YouTube Channel.
More information about the various courses and content: Climate University
Aalto Sustainability Talks series provides research-based contributions to sustainability challenges and their solutions, thematically structured around the Sustainable Development Goals. Each session recording consists of three concise presentations by experts from Aalto University, addressing different view points on the respective sustainability goal.
Support for integrating sustainability
This page is a work in progress, developed in cooperation with Aalto teachers, especially with Sustainability in Teaching Aalto pedagogical course participants.
Pedagogical training: Sustainability in Teaching 3 cr, elective course, spring 2023
Are you interested in developing sustainability in your own teaching and discuss the themes with your colleagues?