The Sustainable Development optional unit is (SDU) part of a suite of interdisciplinary units offered to students across all faculties, It is a 20-credit unit and suitable for students from first and second year, requiring no prior knowledge. Running in the second term each year, it invites 250-300 students onto a blended learning journey through face-to-face interactive discussive live sessions, online video and written resources, and online group-work and discussion forums. Typically, up to nine teaching assistants support two academic members of staff each week.
This unit is part of the Bristol Futures initiative. It, alongside other aspects of Bristol Futures, gives students an experience of teaching and working together which is interdisciplinary, and focused on the challenges that humanity faces. It draws on content from a diverse range of academics at UoB, showing how interdisciplinary research and practice can help:
- understand the challenges and controversies of sustainable development;
- understand the approaches used to explore potential ways forward.
In it, students gain an overview of the history and philosophy behind the idea of Sustainable Development, the particular challenges that are captured in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and critical perspectives on these. These challenges are used as examples to show how different disciplines and interdisciplinary approaches can be used to provide insight and ways forward. These approaches are presented under five broad headings: Science and Understanding; Individual and Organisational Change; Policy, Economy and Law; Politics and Justice; and Technology and Innovation.
Significantly, the unit was developed in collaboration with academics and student teaching assistants, drawing on disciplinary expertise applied in interdisciplinary contexts. Each block of content also presents textual insights and video recordings from researchers across the institution, enabling students to see the breadth of research and the diverse ways that it can be applied to the grand challenge of sustainable development. Examples of research content and provocations shared by UoB researchers include:
- Dr Tigist Grieve, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow in the Department of Education, and her work in participatory development practice in Ethiopia;
- Dr Jo House’s (Reader in Environmental Science and Policy School of Geographical Sciences) international leadership, via the IPCC, on human-environment interactions;
- Dr Laurence Publicover, Senior Lecturer in English, on how literature can give us insight into our cultural relationship with the sea and how it is changing;
- Prof Chris Willmore (Law, Emeritus) on property law (particularly indigenous land rights and rights of way/commons), planning and environmental law, and the law-science relationship;
- Prof Valeska Ting (Reader in Smart Nanomaterials, Mechanical Engineering) speaks about the use of Hydrogen as a fuel – both to store energy produced from intermittent renewable sources such as wind and solar, and to power vehicles. She explains what is possible now, what her research offers in the future, and the challenges faced when moving to hydrogen powered vehicles
- Prof Claire Grierson, Head of the School of Biological Sciences, discusses the opportunities and risks the technology brings for sustainable development and what governance is needed to reduce such risks;
- Prof James Norman (Sustainable Design, Civil Engineering) presents on sustainable building.
The design of the SDU is guided by a wider concept of global citizenship which refers to the “rights and responsibilities … duties and entitlements” (Davies, 2006: 6) we have at a global level. This is expressed through the interdisciplinary design of the SDU, which recognises that SD is multi-faceted, incorporating environmental, social and economic elements. The unit encourages students towards systems thinking, asking how these elements might interact at a global level.
The SDU was designed to foster criticality, encouraging students to take their criticality into their other units and everyday lives. In order to instil criticality, the course utilises the Vygotskyan principle of scaffolding, which refers to “the temporary assistance that teachers provide for their students to assist them to complete a task or develop new understandings, so that they will later be able to complete similar tasks alone” (Hammond and Gibbons, 2005: 9).
Development of the unit required collaboration with teams across and beyond the University (AQPO, DEO, Timetabling, Secretary’s Office, Faculty admin). Community and international collaborations were also integral to creating the broad vision of the unit (incl. city partners, archives, council staff, commercial groups, international partners). Together, over two hundred people were involved in the development of the unit.
In addition, interdisciplinary collaboration within the core teaching team also provided an important element of curriculum design and delivery, with colleagues drawn from the physical sciences (Chemistry), engineering (Computer Science), social sciences (Human Geography) and the humanities (Archaeology).
The student voice was considered particularly important in developing the unit. Between December 2018 and May 2019, as part of the Bristol Futures project, six workshops attended by over 100 students were held. Overviews of the planned units were shared with students across this consultation phase, and their comments and suggestions were adapted within the final design of the units.
Evaluation of the SDU considered the student learner voice, teaching assistants who contributed to delivery on the unit, and internal reviews with the unit directors and support team. Anonymous student feedback was collected for the first two runs of the unit, 114 responses (Table 1).
Table 1 Percentage of student feedback responses as they occurred from the first two runs of the SDU
|Run.||Statement.||Disagree Strongly.||Disagree.||Neither Agree nor Disagree.||Agree.||Agree Strongly.|
|Pilot||Staff have made the subject of this unit interesting.||1%||3%||17%||45%||18%|
|2nd run||Staff have made the subject of this unit interesting.||3%||3%||6%||47%||41%|
|Pilot||I have received sufficient advice and guidance with the work for this unit.||1%||8%||20%||37%||18%|
|2nd run||I have received sufficient advice and guidance with the work for this unit.||0%||13%||6%||47%||34%|
|Pilot||The material covered in this unit is intellectually stimulating.||9%||10%||20%||34%||19%|
|2nd run||The material covered in this unit is intellectually stimulating.||0%||6%||13%||41%||41%|
|Pilot||The unit is well organised.||5%||10%||19%||31%||19%|
|2nd run||The unit is well organised.||6%||3%||6%||63%||22%|
|Pilot||The Online Content Blocks (videos and written content on Blackboard) supported my learning.||0%||10%||16%||46%||25%|
|2nd run||The Online Content Blocks (videos and written content on Blackboard) supported my learning.||0%||6%||16%||38%||41%|
On the second run of the unit, high satisfaction is observed with 76% of students reporting that they were happy or very happy with the unit and 100% noting opportunities to work with other students. Other strong areas of positive responses concerned how staff explain the subject matter (82% positive), opportunities to explore ideas and concepts in depth (81% positive), opportunities to apply learning (91% positive), clarity of marking criteria (75% positive), timetabling efficiency (78% positive), communications (88% positive), and a sense of community (81% positive).
The SDU has proven to be highly successful and continued to be a very popular optional unit for students, reflecting the long-term interest in sustainability and its thematic significance for the institution and the city of Bristol.
A publication on the unit is available here: https://eprints.glos.ac.uk/9136/ (“Development and Delivery of a Sustainable Development Unit in UK Universities: A Higher Education’s Guide for Future Sustainability Leaders”.
From Welcome Week 2022, student assessments on the unit will form part of a showcase festival event with the other Bristol Future optional units.
Dr Aisling Tierney, firstname.lastname@example.org, Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching.