Educating Engineers for Sustainable Development : Final Report of a Royal Academy of Engineering sponsored pilot study

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Executive summary

This Report presents the results of a pilot project at the University of Manchester, supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering through its Visiting Professorships scheme, to introduce a course unit on sustainable development available to students from a range of engineering and science disciplines. An interim report was issued in 2008 and this final report unashamedly draws heavily upon the interim one.

The overall approach stemmed from a longer-term interest in social issues of global complexity and the role of the professions in ameliorating the ‘wicked’ problems that the world faces (p 1). The specific application is in an interdisciplinary single semester course unit on Sustainable Development for Engineers and Scientists (p 2).

The Report outlines the novel approach taken to the design of the curriculum, ie structured to foster active, contextual, cumulative, integrated, collaborative and reflective learning, and the exercises that are its key constituent (p 3). Using a number of advisory groups, with members drawn from among the academic staff of the faculty, questions were addressed about the attributes and capabilities that graduates need in order to make a contribution to global issues of environmental literacy and sustainable development and the educational processes to develop those attributes and capabilities.

During the semester the teams of students tackled five complex and diverse issues, set out by academic experts from many fields (p 4). They worked together in interdisciplinary teams of about eight, facilitated by specially trained post-doctoral research associates (p 6). The pilot course involved 48 students from four different disciplines, and a wider range of programmes from within those disciplines, as well as a range of nationalities; the second run of the pilot doubled the intake and also increased the range of disciplines covered (p 8). The third run will feature a similar number of students but from a slightly wider range of disciplines.

The educational approach required an appraisal of the most appropriate forms of assessment for the unit. There was an emphasis on formative assessment, partly to provide practice in the forms of assessment to be used summatively, but largely to provide feedback to the students (p 9). For the second run the forms of assessment were modified in response to feedback on the initial pilot.

The course unit has been monitored and evaluated in a number of ways (p 10). Both students and facilitators found the programme very rewarding and there is evidence of change in student approaches to learning as well as in their attitudes to, and knowledge of, sustainable development (p 11). The second year of operation tested more fully the financial viability of the unit, but the evidence suggests that it could be sustainable (p 12).

The project team has widely disseminated the ideas and results of the pilot project, through conference presentations worldwide as well as book chapters and journal articles (p 13). A Symposium was convened in Manchester in December 2008 to investigate ways of moving the agenda forward more broadly.

The novel approach to the use of the Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professorship scheme was vital to the project but the project has generated a wealth of resources that can be used to foster the a similar scheme in other institutions without the same level of external support(p 15).

The approach has scope for extension in a number of ways: to other universities; to a wider range of disciplines within the university and; to a greater range of levels within engineering and science programmes, both as a short unit at postgraduate level and also as a strand running through undergraduate courses (p 16).

The Report is accompanied by an extensive volume of Appendices, designed to provide sufficient detail about the approach to enable others to produce their own versions of the scheme.

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