Sustainability in Education: A Need for Change
Temperatures in Abu Dhabi hit 50.7°C this summer. How long before our own cells start to cook in this heat? Given that the planet is already 1.2°C warmer than pre-industrial times, the temperature rise will keep persisting if we continue to excessively emit carbon emissions and destabilise the earth’s climate to a point of no return. Over the years, as people have increasingly grown more concerned about the impact of climate change on the environment, a lot of institutions, companies and brands are slowly implementing sustainable practices in their operations and striving toward delivering a ‘greener’ product. However, studies indicate that the rate of increase in global warming greatly outruns the pace of this transition. The problem lies in the current global awareness of the carbon impact of our actions and the need for radical innovation across all industries. As young professionals - the ‘future of the industry, have we been adequately informed to expedite this transition?
Early this year, I was able to experience an incredible journey at EXPO 2020 - a global catalyst for sustainable development, innovation, and opportunities, hosted in Dubai. As I was pursuing a bachelor's in Architectural Engineering at the time, each visit to these pavilions introduced me to new possibilities of navigating through a high-tech future in harmony with nature and indulging in a practical reflection of my learning experience at university. From admiring artistic engineered facades to being able to extract water vapour from the air using solar energy and use orange peels as flooring, it doesn’t surprise me to say EXPO planted the seed of sustainable principles in the minds of many. For some of my family and friends, this was the first time being enriched with the marvels of what ‘sustainable development really was, simply because it wasn’t addressed in adequate detail throughout their education.
A 2020 global survey organised by Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS) International revealed that from over 100 organisations that participated, 40% of the respondents reported low or no coverage of sustainability in their courses while 92% agreed that educational institutes should actively incorporate education for sustainability development. How do we expect the world to advance if it hasn’t reached the classrooms yet? This highlights an immediate need to introduce sustainability early in the curriculum and activities at school and progressively enforce its application to better equip students when they move into academia or the industry. It doesn’t stop there, how we get students to internalise this sustainable lifestyle out in the real world is the biggest challenge.
I was first introduced to climate change and the environment through environmental studies (EVS) in primary school. As much as I don’t recall ‘sustainability’ to be a buzzword back then, EVS was centred around its three pillars i.e., social equity, economic viability, and environmental protection. It included aspects that set a basis for societal and economic change such as quality of life, education, expenditure, savings, etc. but great attention was paid towards preserving natural resources, being responsible consumers and reducing waste. Do you remember learning to switch off the lights when not in use or to not leave the tap running when brushing your teeth? Students were involved in such scenario-based learning, art and crafts and roleplay but were also encouraged to grow plants at home and participate in ‘save the earth’ drives. Why is it that as soon as students move into single-discipline learning, all these fundamentals and initiatives boil down to a small ‘eco club’ running once-a-year recycling and plantation campaigns?
UNESCO emphasises that “No one discipline can claim education for sustainable development for its own, but all disciplines can contribute”. Sustainability is a dynamic and complex concept that requires an interdisciplinary approach to accommodate its evolving nature. Today, compromises and decisions regarding the environment and society cannot be made solely focused on the interest of one, but rather as a collective whole. Recently, the UAE government has pushed STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) through educational reform to focus on building critical thinking and multi-disciplinary problem-solving skills amongst students. As schools readily integrate STEAM with their existing curriculum, students are encouraged to actively participate in holding debates, and interesting conversations and indulge in project-based learning. As a result, they learn to treat environmental concerns in relation to other disciplines, rather than as a separate entity. A prime example of a STEAM-driven sustainability initiative was the Solar Decathlon Middle East (SDME) Competition 2021, where university students were challenged to design, build, and operate an intelligent solar-powered house under the climatic conditions of the UAE.
Amongst the 8 finalist universities, I had the opportunity to take part in this initiative as an active member of Team ESTEEM from Heriot-Watt University, a group of multidisciplinary students from 5 academic schools collaborating with industry and academia to drive sustainability and innovation in the competition. In line with the world’s carbon agenda, we were able to construct one of the world’s first houses, fully constructed from Scottish-grown cross-laminated timber (CLT), which according to B&K Structures, has a negative net carbon footprint, more than two times lesser than traditional concrete. Is this a reason to celebrate? Absolutely. But what’s even more commendable is watching students like myself fine-tune our understanding of sustainability and extend these sustainable principles to all aspects of the competition. From being able to engage architecture students in the design for occupant health and wellbeing, and engineers in advocating for high-tech energy-saving solutions to business students in creating circular economy models and IT students in introducing the world to AR/VR design visualisation, it has paved a way for upcoming graduates to be able to direct their respective industries towards sustainable development. We learned to become advocates for organisations that were actively progressing towards a greener future’ and influence those who haven’t on-boarded this journey yet.
To indulge in such initiatives is highly rewarding to the student body but one cannot rely on it to drive sustainability in the education sector. We need to focus on integrating its principles within the single-discipline curriculum through the introduction of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Set up by the United Nations General Assembly (UN-GA), SDGs are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all". The alignment of UAE’s vision for the educational sector with the UN’s 2030 Agenda provides teachers with the perfect opportunity to explore these goals and create diverse opportunities for real-life learning in all subject areas.
Apart from using art and recycling drives as means to express environmental concerns, students could be asked to delve into research and write newspaper articles based on concrete case studies to address sustainability issues, for example in food systems. They should be encouraged to use computational thinking to analyse the climatic data trends and suggest recommendations for climate adaptability. Use statistics to express concerns over local access to clean water, electricity and education and might even consider using probability to predict the extent of this issue 10 years down the line. An economics student could be taught externalities with respect to the environment and understand the consequences of industrialisation and technological changes. Do you remember learning about photovoltaics to generate solar energy and the science behind its operation? Students should also be enlightened about why PV panels are in demand and how they contribute to carbon offsetting – how exactly would something you learn about directly affect the carbon impact of your day-to-day actions? They could even perform an audit around the school to identify non-renewable sources of energy and suggest how the same PV panels could possibly generate renewable energy on-site. It's interesting to see that one could probably draw inspiration from music bands such as Coldplay which have pledged to not tour the world again until their concerts are climate-friendly or Mr Klaje which uses instruments made from recycled materials and products. Who would have thought that music could go green?
This education model should be extended to accommodate university degree programmes through academia and industry involvement. A shining example of this is the ‘Trashion’ workshops running across various universities in the UAE – Fashion from Trash. This theme uses fashion design as means to educate an audience regarding the global problem of waste and how recycling, upcycling, and reusing materials could possibly relieve waste from reaching the landfill. The same could be applied to architecture and interior design where a sense of balance between philosophy and sustainable design should be maintained. While a lot of progress has been achieved in energy efficiency and operation carbon by engineers for decades now, students should now be made aware of the embodied carbon in their design and encouraged to conduct optimisation exercises to reduce the amount of material used and switch to natural alternatives. This carbon accounting exercise should be embedded in all disciplines such that we are made aware of our own carbon footprint and the scale of these emissions, which at times is difficult to comprehend.
An interesting example that caught global attention was a computer-generated time-lapse by Real World Visuals that was used to communicate the scale of carbon emission in New York City. Visualisations such as these could perhaps enhance individual awareness for example on the number of plastic cups and tissues used and question if there is a way to reduce material consumption within the campus. Are we encouraged to set the lecture hall's temperature to 24°C as opposed to 21°C to save energy or that we should carpool when we come to university? These are aspects of sustainability that every student should be aware of regardless of their field of study. An influential approach towards facilitating such knowledge sharing can be through liaising with professionals in the industry. Sustainability consultants and subject experts that are active in the industry are aware of our current standing on sustainable practices and can direct our focus toward aspects that need immediate attention. Ultimately, we all want to become responsible consumers but when do we start if not in our own homes, schools, and universities?