Embedding Sustainability Seminar – Bristol

Yesterday we held the first of six seminars on embedding sustainability in the undergraduate civil engineering curriculum. The session at Bristol University, was attended by staff from the University of Wales, Newport, University of Portsmouth, University of West of England and University of Bristol.

We started the session with an airing of the challenges of teaching sustainability. The biggest challenge emerging from this session was demonstrating to the Joint Board of Moderators (JBM) how a subject such as sustainability, which is often introduced in an implicit way, is present in the course at all.

After a quick review of the nine principles for embedding sustainability in the undergraduate curriculum set out in our report, the group chose three principles to focus on for the remainder of the session.

Principle Three: See the Whole Picture (Systems Thinking)
This principle is based on the idea that the way to bring rigour to sustainability is to adopt a systems approach. We heard how systems can thinking can be easily introduced early on in the course, for example by asking students to think about inputs and outputs to major civil engineering systems.

The participants agreed that talking about failure is a good way to introduce the idea of systems – and not necessarily structural failure, although to paraphrase “hard failure is embedded in soft failure”. I can clearly see how talking about ‘soft failures’ is an excellent way of getting students to think about a wide range of stakeholders and how they interrelate.

We heard about a number of successful modules taught by staff at the University of Bristol for third and fourth year students on applying systems thinking sustainable design. I hope to provide more details about these projects on this blog in future.

Teaching methods of system modelling seems to be the biggest challenge here: the material tends to be dry, and if not put into the right context, can put students off. There does appear to be a need for exercises which can introduce students to simple systems modelling in an exciting way at an early stage in the course.

Principle Seven: Apply Judgement to Real Problems
This principle emphasises that sustainable design problems require students to apply judgement in contexts where there is no one right answer.

Students on the course at Bristol University are put through a dam design project, which requires them to go and visit a site in Wales where an imaginary dam is going to be built. The impact of going to see the site really brings home to students the impact of their judgement as civil engineers. Again, I hope to provide more information about this example in due course.

One idea we explored was using probability and risk as a way for students to exercise their judgement. This idea is works well when asking students to consider the risk of using ‘new’ ‘green’ materials – an activity which tackles both sustainable materials and judgement. Similarly, students could be asked to apply their judgement to ethics of serviceability criteria, as postulated in his Enough is Enough talk at the Institution of Structural Engineers.

A suggestion in our Embedding Sustainability report is to ask students to apply their judgement to scenarios related to real local construction projects. Interestingly, while many of the participants had taken students to see local construction sites, engagement is typically limited to observation of activity on site. There is perhaps a need therefore for examples of how to turn a local construction project into a problem-solving exercise for students where they must apply their own judgement.

We heard that an easily deployed exercise for getting students to demonstrate judgement is the ICE Scotland’s Disaster Relief activity. It was suggested that building design problems lend are much easier for students to grapple with than civil engineering infrastructure questions. Here again there is perhaps a need for well defined problem scenarios related to civil engineering infrastructure that students can work with.

Principle Nine: Take Learners Outside Their Comfort Zone
This principle is based on the idea that posing disorientating dilemmas is a crucial step in the development of new perspectives because these dilemmas require students to profoundly re-evaluate their own attitudes and beliefs.

Several of the particiapants already ask their students to carry out personal carbon footprint assessments as a way to get students to consider the impact of their personal decisions. Coincidentally students at UWE have recently been asked to take part in an assessment of water use habits in their halls of residence. This sort of activity is a good example of tying students’ learning to their learning environment, although that link has not yet been made explicitly.

One participant described how he challenges students to justify to their piers who they want to work with them in group work, an activity which requires students to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, and to be constructive when dealing with others.

The consensus was that taking students out of their comfort zone is a worthwhile activity, but that it needs to be done carefully so as not to embed negative feelings enroute – this is an area where more guidance would be useful.

General remarks
The group acknowledged the very positive role that Engineers Without Borders plays in promoting interdisciplinary and inter-institutional working in higher education.

Next steps
Over the course of the six workshops that we will be running, I will be gathering examples of good practice and the themes of discussion as we go. It is my expectation that many questions thrown up in earlier sessions may be answered in later sessions. By following this blog, attendees of all workshops can follow the conversation. Overtime, as well as disseminating the principles of the Embedding Sustainability report, we will have put together a snap shot of how sustainability is being taught, as well as a collection of useful resources of for teaching staff.

The next workshop is in Edinburgh tomorrow. For details, see our Eventbrite page.