Learning through doing: The role of academia in driving sustainability

Academia is increasingly placing sustainability at the heart of the modern curriculum, with students keen to learn about the discipline in a hands-on practical way, says Isabella Mascarenhas, Vice President, Grass Roots Education & Social Impact at RS Group.

Learning through doing: The role of academia in driving sustainability

Climate change is the most pressing challenge of our time, and it is taking place at a faster rate than many scientists initially feared.

According to the United Nations, greenhouse gas concentrations are at their highest levels in two million years and continue to rise. As a result, the earth is about 1.1C warmer than it was in the 1800s – with the last decade being the warmest on record.

Against this alarming backdrop, many companies worldwide are taking urgent action to reduce their environmental impact by putting sustainability at the heart of their endeavors. These forward-looking organisations want to dramatically reduce emissions and resource consumption by radically rethinking products and processes.

These sustainability ambitions have led to concepts such as the circular economy, where raw materials are designed to be kept longer in production cycles and repeatedly used through remanufacturing and reusability, generating much less waste. Indeed, the circular economy provides a reminder that product design can move beyond the linear process of ‘take, make and dispose’ – representing an alternative approach that can deliver better results.

The role of academia

But for sustainability efforts to succeed over the long term, organisations in sectors such as electronic engineering need a pipeline of technical talent who can think and act differently and help accelerate change. That requirement puts the onus on academia to successfully embed sustainability in the modern curriculum – ensuring students embrace crucial topics such as eco-design in exciting and creative ways.

Historically, disciplines such as sustainability have been taught from textbooks in a theory-based manner. But times are changing. Universities and colleges are increasingly collaborating closely with other stakeholders, such as professional engineering institutions and charities, to develop more first-hand practical learning. This approach engages students more effectively and provides them with a deeper understanding of a subject that will be critical in the world of work.

Collaborative activities

So, what does this new approach to sustainability teaching look like in reality? One of the most successful initiatives has been the Engineering for People Design Challenge – organised by the charity Engineers Without Borders UK – which is embedded in the engineering curriculum of more than 11,000 first- and second-year students, making it a mandatory part of the degree course. The initiative allows students to investigate and respond to real-world problems early in their education without real-world pressures and risks. This approach gives them the skills, knowledge, and experience to address global and local issues.

Crucially, the Engineering for People Design Challenge takes a project-learning approach to sustainability, encouraging students to collaborate on a community partner’s real-world design brief. Each participating university’s highest-scoring student team enters the nationwide Grand Finals. During the event, industry and community judges score the students on their consideration of the social, ethical, environmental, and economic impacts of their design for prizes.

The initiative has been running for several years now and has led to some ingenious thinking. At the 2022 finals, first prize went to University College Dublin, who impressed the judges with their concept, Tapatapment; a water filtration unit designed for water taps, created from bamboo shoots. The project aimed to provide people who live in remote communities to get their water through collected rainwater, quickly and efficiently cleaning and filtering it, supporting better water management.

Meanwhile, the second prize was awarded to the University of Strathclyde for their design, Rammed Earth Housing, which is designed to be constructed with a reusable and prefabricated kit that can be transported easily. The project showed how structurally-sound housing could be built in areas that lacked infrastructure, increasing health and well-being by reducing overcrowding and supporting privacy within the community.

Re-imagining repairability

If the Engineering for People Design Challenge has done a great job getting undergraduates to work collaboratively and think about sustainability globally, another project in London has been highly successful in more local settings. Here, students from The Engineering & Design Institute London (TEDI-London), a new higher education provider specialising in engineering, learn through a project-based curriculum where sustainability and ethical values are embedded into every module.

The institute also regularly offers short residential courses open to students from other universities, with the most recent residential students running a popular repair initiative for the local community. The initiative saw the students, their teaching technicians, and tech-savvy volunteers working with the local people to fix their damaged or slow-running electrical devices and appliances. This encouraged guests to restore their electronics wherever possible and minimise the amount of e-waste they produce, as well as providing an opportunity for them to gain experience and new skills and develop the confidence to undertake other repair tasks in the future.

As part of similar projects, full-time TEDI-London students learn about the importance of circular design principles and economy, as well as understanding the financial and logistical implications of how to implement their own ideas.

Innovators Championship

These two initiatives provide excellent examples of how students have the power to make real, positive change through sustainable thinking – paving the way for conscientious, ethical engineers of the future. But these sorts of activities cannot take place in isolation. They require the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders – including commercial organisations.

At RS, the Innovators Championship is a global competition for teams of young innovators (18-30 years) to design sustainable solutions to five RS group challenges that could transform how the industry operates for a better world. The competition, which comes with a total of £18,000 in prizes, is designed to allow young people to showcase their skills whilst developing critical thinking skills by considering the impact of their actions on the product or project lifecycle. Again, it is about helping students to test their technical skills by turning theory into application in fun and absorbing ways.

Workforce of the future

Each of these initiatives shows how academia can collaborate with partner organisations to build stimulating sustainability-related activities into their curriculums, resulting in more enjoyable and relevant learning for their students. In turn, the skillsets acquired by participating in such events stand the students in good stead regarding their future employability in a workplace where many organisations place sustainability at the heart of their operations.

At RS, for instance, the launch of the Better World product range illustrates this shift in focus. If a product displays the Better World Products logo, it means manufacturers have improved sustainability in at least one stage of its lifecycle, and this improvement has been verified by an internationally recognised sustainability certification or energy efficiency standard.

Both industry research and conversations with customers show that businesses are committed to making more sustainable purchasing decisions but find this challenging. With Better World Products, RS aims to make it easier by providing access to products that meet sustainability standards. We want to make it as straightforward as possible for customers to make more sustainable choices – and to have confidence when doing so.

Ultimately, to continue that commitment, RS – like many other organisations – needs a pipeline of technical talent to keep innovating and changing and pushing forward our knowledge around sustainability. And that is why collaboration between academia and industry will remain critically important, both now and in the future.

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