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Sustainability and Community-Engaged Learning

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Sustainable Curriculum
decorative image of people planting a green living wall

Photo by Daniel Funes Fuentes on Unsplash 

Community-Engaged Learning and sustainability are both key themes in transforming university tuition. They are pathways that connect students with local communities and encourage them to go beyond the skills developed in the classroom.  

The University of Leeds’ Sustainable Curriculum team and the Community-Engagement Network in Research, Education, and Civic Engagement (CENTRE) wanted to explore these themes. Their aim was to investigate how students with a passion for sustainability see the potential that Community-Engaged Learning has in making courses more oriented towards sustainability. This led to a group discussion with six of our students who work part time for the Sustainability Service (Student Sustainability Architects). 

We would like to share the rich insights and reflections that emerged from this discussion that took place during the 2023 Autumn semester. 

What have students’ experiences been like? 

Although the Student Sustainability Architects participating were aware of the range of modules available across the University, they identified a gap around community engagement in the curriculum. Most had gained community engagement experiences through volunteering, and consequently voiced a desire for local issues and social responsibility to be more present in modules. 

What are the potential benefits of Community-Engaged Learning? 

Students recognised the value of community engagement as part of the “University experience.” They highlighted enhanced employability of graduates as a major benefit, since gaining hands-on experience in real-world scenarios boosts students’ enterprise skills and confidence, whilst also offering opportunities to get to know the realities of various industries with sustainability implications.  

Personal experience of an internship with the United Nations’ Fashion Impact Fund sparked a discussion on reasons behind the lack of sustainability being put into action through the lens of fashion and shopping. Students organically arrived at a powerful realisation: a sustainability mindset is now a requirement in any workplace, and it’s important to develop this mindset while at university. Community-Engaged Learning could serve as a practical implementation of this by enabling students to work towards local sustainability priorities in collaboration with communities. 

What makes Community-Engaged Learning attractive from a student perspective? 

Being able to shape Community-Engaged Learning initiatives and work on projects of personal interest are key motivators. However, crucial motivators also include the need for action that come from community partners and the feeling of responsibility students have. These elements introduce the students’ unique perspective: personal interactions and the vision of achieving tangible impact are crucial to them. 

How can students be engaged? 

Participants expressed that sustainability and Community-Engaged Learning activities need to be both innovative and relevant to the students’ learning, with clear explanations provided on what students can gain from getting involved.  

The students also recommended University incentives for doing Community-Engaged Projects, such as course credits with a manageable workload. They also pinpointed a lack of relevance to coursework as an important barrier. Finally, they communicated awareness that their feedback could mean that the University would need to change on a course or institution-based level. However, they nonetheless highlighted that raising awareness and having the student voice in ongoing discussions are essential.  

What are the next steps forward? 

Students shared ideas that brought layered insights into how they might want to be involved in Community-Engaged Learning going forward. This discussion gives a direction to further explore the student voice in Community-Engaged Learning initiatives and to identify recommendations for the future of Community-Engaged Learning at the University of Leeds.  

Getting involved 

We invite you to share any thoughts or suggestions about Community-Engaged Learning by contacting Find out more about what it means to be a Student Sustainability Architect, and how the University is embedding sustainability into courses and student opportunities through the Sustainable Curriculum principle of the University’s Climate Plan! 

Funding and thanks 

This project was all made possible by a Yorkshire Universities pilot project funded by the UPP Foundation (a registered charity that provides grants to higher education bodies). This project is contributing to a 'service learning' best practice guide compiled by Yorkshire Universities illustrating the positive work across our region.