Sustainability Architect update: Clare

It’s not exactly an easy task, ensuring that every student at a university has the opportunity to access learning for sustainability. Especially at an institution as large and diverse in focus as the University of Leeds. Even more so when you have just 6 hours a week to commit to it…

Yet, when you take a closer look, it’s perhaps a little less enormous than originally anticipated. The information-gathering I did in my first few weeks as an Architect revealed that sustainability already appears quite frequently in certain areas, and through particular mechanisms, of the university curriculum. There are entire programmes with sustainability at their core, including BSc Sustainability and Environmental Management at the School of Earth and Environment and MSc Sustainability in Transport at the Institute for Transport Studies. Some programmes include sustainability modules, and for those students who can chose electives, Discovery module themes include Creating Sustainable Futures. For programmes that don’t include electives, some have had specific modules crafted by the Sustainability Service, like Sustainability in Healthcare for the School of Medicine. Students wanting to focus their dissertation research on a sustainability issue can explore opportunities with the Living Lab.

So it wasn’t going to be a case of starting from scratch, but more accurately, one of highlighting existing initiatives, joining up some dots, developing things further, and perhaps introducing new initiatives where gaps are revealed. All of which necessitates a more detailed picture of what’s already happening. One aspect of creating this picture has involved an audit of modules that include aspects of sustainability. None of my searches for a standardised approach to this sort of audit came up trumps, so I developed my own rule of thumb: if a module covers challenges within at least one of the three pillars of sustainability – economic viability, environmental protection, social equity – or explores how to tackle some of these challenges, it was added to my list. Applying these criteria as I worked through the module catalogues resulted in a list of 192 undergraduate modules and 133 postgraduate modules. Which are not insignificant numbers, but tell us relatively little on their own. To be really useful, we need to know how many students are enrolled on each of these modules, which of them is a compulsory part of a course, and a whole lot of other things. The search for these details is one of the things I’m currently working on, but at an institution as large as this it’s tricky to work out where those numbers can be found, or even if they’re kept in any one central place.

Alongside the module audit, I assisted with the design and running of the second Student Sustainability Conference that took place in February. Hosting 190 attendees, it featured over 30 student presentations, covering everything from sustainable drainage to microplastics, from vegetarianism of the Romantic poets to creative social activism. It’s a particularly important event, as it offers an opportunity to bring these pockets of changemakers together, to share their research, provide support or provide some challenge. Exposure to, and collaboration with, different disciplines is a core aspect of sustainability thinking.

Over the next few months I’ll be thinking more about how to gather insight into the levels of sustainability understanding that students have both at the beginning and at the end of their time at the university. That will give us a better sense of the degree to which the initiatives in place are adding up to a more sustainability-savvy student body. My guess would be that some good progress is being made at the current level of activity, but there’s much more that can be done to ensure that every student graduating from the university is a sustainability champion.

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