What tools do students need to understand sustainable development and its importance for the future of engineering?

Tatiana Vakhitova

Tatiana Vakhitova

Development Manager and Sustainability Consultant
Tatiana Vakhitova

At Granta, we recently ran a survey to explore the challenges of teaching sustainable development. Key findings, from 200 plus responses, indicated that academics would welcome more case studies with real data, and a global perspective on interlinked environmental and social impacts. The feedback was consistent with my own experience, as a PhD at the Centre for Sustainable Development where I did research in social and environmental impact assessment tools. I was also closely involved in teaching, and subsequently co-developed a start-up company focusing on software and learning. From these experiences, it was clear that software can have a large impact on teaching and outreach. I’m now working as Development Manager and Sustainability Consultant in the Education Team at Granta, collaborating with the academic community and Professor Mike Ashby to develop teaching resources that support the sustainable development subject-area.

Our survey asked how educators teach this complex subject. Who should be teaching economic and environmental impact, linked to the choice of materials? The answers varied by country, university, and teacher. In Sweden, for example, it is imperative to have sustainability embedded in teaching for the whole curricula. Moreover, in this country, individuals with titles such as ‘vice-rector for Sustainable Development’ are responsible for sustainability initiatives at the University. Most of the European Universities have some form of introduction to the topics of Sustainable Development at the start of the courses, linking key global problems to the specific knowledge area covered by the course. In other places, sustainability is covered in more specialised courses (e.g., the Engineering for Sustainable Development Masters degree at the University of Cambridge). In general, while the topics of health and the environment have been present for many years in scientific and technology-focused teaching, it seems that linking these with wider social and economic impacts and adding a global perspective is new to our time.

Tatiana running a workshop in Sustainable Development at the Junior Euromat Lausanne, July 2016

Based on these discoveries, we have started to work on case studies and fine-tuning the 5-step methodology (Ashby et al 2015), allowing for a simpler view on the complex subject of sustainable development. This methodology was validated in several workshops in Europe and the USA and is described in detail in the textbook ‘Materials and Sustainable Development’ (Ibid.). By collecting feedback from these workshops and tutorials during the last couple of years, we have gathered vast experiences and developed a package of teaching resources called the Active-learning ToolKit – Sustainable Development. This is a set of templates, handouts, and exercises with worked solutions to support the teaching of this complex subject. It is suitable for use in courses at bachelor or masters level, in particular with interdisciplinary groups. The exercises can be easily integrated within a course and the case studies provide detailed and clear guidelines on how to apply this methodology to a variety of sustainability topics (e.g., bio-polymers, electric vehicles, wind farms, low carbon concrete).

Granta has joined a European educational project on critical sustainable materials (SusCritMat), a collaboration of industrial and academic partners supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. SusCritMat aims to contribute to a more sustainable and secure supply of critical materials, providing learning and networking opportunities for students and professionals. Topics covered by the project include: relevant legislation and regulations, materials-related risks, environmental and social impact, and circular economy ideas. The continued advance of this topic, and the additional knowledge that students gain as a result of SusCritMat, gives a solid foundation when faced with tough choices in the real world industrial framework. Collaboration between industry and academia is paramount to sustainable engineering practices, including smarter materials choices, sensitive to social and environmental impacts.

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