Should TU/e embed climate change in its education?

Sustainability is already a topic, but is it enough?

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Should TU/e embed climate change in its education?

Ana Celesta Baroja Sierra, bachelor’s student of Computer Science and Engineering has written a proposal to change the education for TU/e bachelor’s students. “TU/e has the objective to deliver future-proof engineers but it’s doing the opposite by the way the courses are taught. I have an idea to improve that.”

photo mkfilm / Shutterstock

In the first part of this diptych, we talk about whether or not to include climate change in education, a topic that is dear to bachelor's student Ana Celesta Baroja Sierra and about which she gets agitated because she thinks it is insufficiently addressed in education at the TU/e. She has written a proposal to improve that. Baroja Sierra has just started her second year of the bachelor's Computer Science and Engineering and is a candidate for the department council.

“When I have my bachelor degree, I will only have had one subject, like most students, that was in a way about climate change. That was the first-year basic course Data Analytics for Engineers (DAE). It’s compulsory for all bachelor’s students and focuses on data collection, statistics and programming. In my year, we explored data collected by Dutch weather stations about CO2 and other gasses in the air in relation to road traffic levels. We were asked to analyze one out of fifteen gasses. This is so limited, that it hides the bigger picture of climate change. My analysis of the data showed that there was no correlation between traffic levels and the greenhouse gas I was assigned to analyze. In fact, the correlation was so low, I had an R^2 value of 0.0002, which if I did not know about climate change would lead me to believe gasoline cars are not bad for the environment. Does this do any justice to one of the university’s objectives ‘create future-proof engineers’? I doubt it.” Course organizer of DAE, Natalia Sidorova responds to the criticism of Baroja Sierra:  "Each student was assigned a component of the air and an air measurement station in the Netherlands; the location of the measurement station was known to help them see any external factors that could affect their results."

“In addition to the data analysis, students also made posters on which they discussed the limitations of their analysis and of the data set. Some students have found industrial polluters near their location or possible effects of the temperature and wind. It is important to us that students understand that the world is much more complex than a few numbers. Also, we didn't expect very big analyses from the students as this was their first assignment with data. What Baroja Sierra is certainly right about is that it would have been more interesting if they had looked at several components of the air at multiple locations, but that is almost impossible to do in such an assignment in terms of time. There are group discussions, where students look at each other's results. But then still it can happen that the group looked at similar places with, for example, nearby factories with a lot of emissions, so that traffic seems to have little influence," Sidorova explains.

Critical thinking

"Students have to think for themselves about possible explanations for their results" Sidorova believes. "And in the case of Baroja Sierra, who had to analyze the amount of black carbon in the air: burning biomass, for example, has a very large influence on that case. If in the vicinity of the weather station there is a lot of burning of biomass, you will see less of the effect of traffic. We also have to realize: data is what it is. For example, you should not opt to have only those weather stations that let you draw the desired conclusions and remove the rest from the data. As a scientist, you have to look for an explanation of your results and continue to communicate honestly and openly.”

"This year we want to give the students a different assignment," Sidorova says. "They are going to look at the relation between traffic and the corona measures. Students will use the Oxford index of corona measures. They can try to find answers to different questions. For example, finding a trend in the traffic data to think that measures are decreasing, they should also realize that such an index is just a number and that they have to remain critical.”

Engineering Design

Baroja Sierra suggests that also Engineering Design (ED), which is mandatory for all bachelor’s in the second year could also change in order to better create those future engineers. “In this course students work in multidisciplinary teams to design a product with a theme in mind. I propose this theme should become about climate change permanently, instead of helping the disabled or elderly. Climate change is multifaceted and therefore gives options to focus at a difference facet each year.”

“The criticism I have heard on ED is all about unfairness of weight in the groups: Electrical and Mechanical Engineers pull the rest of a group to get a good grade. This has partly to do with the objective of making and electrical device that has little connection with what is studied in other departments. By opening up the product objective coming from a climate change view, more options arise for alle students to contribute, like by making an app for the municipality to see which streets need more trees for shade.”

Baroja Sierra also doubts that the focus on disabled people in the ED-class makes students think about disabled people in the future. “It makes students think back at the course as ‘oh that was the course in which I designed for disabled people,’ rather than learn what should be the lesson: they should always design with disabled people in mind. In my opinion, if an architect does an ED project about those with reduced mobility, but fails to take them into account when designing their graduation project, they have not learned any lesson. In ED, many students had a lot of assumptions about the disabled and they weren’t challenged on those. They just had to make a product that worked. They should be challenged on their mindset, so their thinking will be more inclusive.” Unfortunately, the course organizer of ED was not available to comment on this topic.

Sidorova, the course organizer of DAE, indicates that sustainability is already a recurring theme in education. “As far as I know, TU/e ​​already has a number of courses where sustainability is a focus point. And if a compulsory course such as DAE in the context gives rise to a discussion of sustainability, we will not avoid it, even though the course is not about sustainability. Last year, for example, we thought that the comparison of traffic and air quality during the corona lockdown compared to the years before would be interesting for students. They've learned quite a lot about environmental issues and the climate in high school and we expect them to be able to put their analysis results, whatever they are, into perspective. The assignment also linked them to an article in Nature about sustainability, analyzing lockdown effects on urban air pollution in China that takes into account various factors, such as weather. We don't test whether students finish the course with enough knowledge about sustainability, but whether they can analyze data. After all, the latter is the objective of the course.”

“In the assignment, students analyzed correlations between traffic intensity and air quality, looked at links between air quality and weather, and tried to mine a model of air quality. Each student did the analysis for a certain gas/substance in the air with the data from one of the weather stations in the Netherlands. Of course there are many factors outside of this study that can also influence air quality. For example, a large gas plant next to the analyzed location, or the wind that brings polluted or clean air. Students learn to look critically at their results and to understand that not every correlation has a causal relationship and that the results obtained on a small dataset should not be generalized easily. A classic example used by statisticians is the pseudo-proof of the relationship between math grades and shoe size. If you have all primary school children take the same math test and measure their shoe size, you will find a strong positive correlation between the test results and shoe size. Children with larger shoe sizes will generally score higher than children with smaller sizes, because older children generally have larger feet and their math knowledge also grows with the years of school they have already had. So yes, you will find a correlation in such a dataset between shoe size and the result on the math test, but you should not conclude that people with larger feet are better at math. The world is complex, there are often many factors that can have an influence, including in the context of air quality, and our students have to learn to deal with that complexity.”

New refugees

There are so many layers and perspectives to how climate change is caused and how its solved. As a Mexican, I have seen how bad hot weather can be. You can easily die, especially when you’re old. But it’s not a Mexican problem, here in the Netherlands it’s also getting hotter and it will have consequences. We need to teach the students that it is also happening in the country they live in. If the class has a local-case focus, students will feel more directly connected to the crisis and personally involved. People become refugees because of climate change. Refugees are not limited to war victims. Climate change will actually create the worst refugees. It will desertify lands to live on and will create so many migrants. You don’t realize that until you are taught about it or you research it.”

But focusing locally does not only mean on local problems, there are also local companies that can give guest lectures on their success story. “IKEA for example. That company is doing a fantastic job to make their logistics systems sustainable and they could talk about that in a lecture. Those type of lectures work really well to bring the point home. Climate change is not just in the news, but also companies and municipalities deal with it.” Bringing this knowledge to the university also happens via USE courses, whereby Studium Generale (SG) regularly invites someone to give a lecture, for example. "We have to give room to all major societal topics," says Lucas Asselbergs, head of SG. I think climate change is well represented. For example, we had an interview with Kadir van Lohuizen (Wednesday, November 17 in the Blauwe Zaal, ed). Climate change is discussed every quartile and throughout the year: sometimes on its own, sometimes in other events. It is also a major theme in the World Press Photo exhibition, for example. At SG we zoom in on everything that is socially relevant, but I can imagine that it does not play a major role in the department curricula itself, so students have to deliberately choose it and we must tempt them to do so. The visitor figures for events with climate topics are very comparable to those of other societal topics. We get criticized for being too much on the 'left side', but not that there should be more climate in our program.” What is a right theme then, Cursor wonders: "For example, the economy, investing, security, mass immigration. In any case, it is difficult to get right-wing politicians or climate skeptics on stage. We are always looking for people who bring as much scientific proof as possible to support what they say and are reflective rather than activistic.”

Take a stand

Most of all, Baroja Sierra thinks that the university needs to take a stand on whether or not to teach more on climate change. “I find it morally reprehensible if the university chooses to leave the current program as it is, without extra focus on climate change. If my proposal is accepted, that would be a big step with big consequences. But more important, finally our students will be involved in the biggest crisis of this millennium in a meaningful way.” GEWIS, the study association of the department of Computer Science and Engineering, does not conclude that students know too little about climate change. Chairman Sanne de Wit: “We are not under the impression that students in our program know little about climate change. At GEWIS, for example, we are regularly working on making our members' area more sustainable, something that is well understood. We find it very difficult to estimate whether students need more focus on this subject in their studies, and even more difficult to estimate whether it is necessary. Our own education committee is currently not working on this. We also believe that this subject would develop better if it were tackled university-wide. Our education committee deals specifically with mathematics and computer science education. This subject is relevant for all TU/e ​​students and could therefore perhaps be better included in the courses that all students take if there is a need for it.”

Climate researcher and TU/e ​​professor Heleen de Coninck recognizes the importance of sustainability in education: “I think this is a responsibility of the TU/e. Of course I think it's an important theme, I'm working on it. Before I came to TU/e, I worked at Radboud University (RU) and I still do so one day per week. At the RU, we have looked at sustainability in education and research with a special project group. There (at the RU, ed.) the Executive Board was convinced that the university has to educate a generation that can deal with this theme. They must have knowledge about climate change, but also about sustainability, equality, biodiversity, etc.” Sustainability ambassador Wieczorek also sees a responsibility for the university in this regard: “Sustainability, but also ethics and entrepreneurship must be embedded in all our education. Technology alone does nothing, people make the difference. But whether such topics should be in every course, is up to the discussion with the TU/e community. We also want to present and discuss best practices from other universities, such as Radboud University. The news that sustainability is becoming a real focus of education there signals a major commitment.”

Also the dean of the Bachelor College, Ines Lopez Arteaga indicates that attention is already being paid to sustainability in education: "We already offer various courses in which sustainability is reflected. For example, the USE course Responsible innovation for the world by Johanna Höfkens. And there are full courses, such as the bachelor's program Sustainable Innovation and the master's program Sustainable Energy Technology. In addition, the topic is also reflected in various USE lines. Of course, you can always do more and sustainability is an important subject. We do a lot of things, but we notice that we don't promote it enough. It is not clearly visible. There lies an opportunity."

Students therefore already come into contact with the subject through their electives. "The question then becomes: do you want to leave it to the free choice of the student, or should it be built into compulsory courses?" Lopez Arteaga says. "It is already part of the curriculum for a number of courses. Sustainable Innovation and Architecture, for example. But ultimately it must be up to the teachers to give substance to their education. We can inspire them about sustainability. Climate change falls under sustainability, but the latter term is much broader, which also includes the sustainable cultivation of food, the energy transition and mobility, for example."

Multistage rocket

Climate researcher and TU/e ​​professor Heleen De Coninck: “There is no general subject on climate, and as far as I know no TU/e ​​vision on sustainability education. In some programs it is part of the curriculum, for example in the case of the master Sustainable Energy Technology and the bachelor Sustainable Innovation. But I haven't done or seen a general inventory. In any case, I would also like to see sustainability integrated more broadly, including the other UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as gender equality and biodiversity. Because biodiversity will also become a major crisis. Although I can imagine that for TU as a technical university, there is more to do with climate change than with biodiversity. In any case, I think it's good that students ask for things like this. Then it becomes and will remain on the agenda of the Executive Board, that is how it went at the RU."

"The RU has now launched a kind of multistage rocket regarding sustainability in their education. This concerns a theme such as sustainability in relation to one's own field, so not a general subject for everyone. Making a subject compulsory does not always work well, it quickly becomes a 'shotgun wedding'. There is therefore freedom per department and study program. If students want more, they can choose a minor in the field of sustainability, that is, for every program that is. And if you want even more depth, you can do a master's degree on this theme. Anyway, I think it makes a lot of sense. The university has a responsibility to educate a generation that has to make a difference. And the students who are now graduating will encounter a generation in the workplace that often did not have this (sustainability, climate change, etc.) in their education. Our students can also take them along in this mindset.”

When asked whether the new Bachelor College will pay more attention to climate change and/or sustainability, Lopez Arteaga is clear: "We will continue what we have already been doing. More attention can be paid to it if students keep asking for it. Because of that pressure we will have more and more sustainability issues in our curriculum but in small steps, and due to the increase in Challenge Based Learning in education, more socially relevant themes such as sustainability will be addressed anyway." However, making such topics mandatory is not something the dean considers smart: "Obliging courses independent of the direction a student has chosen does not work too well. We have seen this before with the Engineering Basics courses and the USE subjects. The added value is not clear for everyone. We have learned here that it is very important to place education in the context of one's own chosen field. So for a chemist for example, education about sustainability should be as much as possible in his or her own field. Making everything mandatory is counterproductive. In addition, there is also the autonomy of the programs: the program director and teachers must have sufficient freedom to organize the curriculum."

Next week we will publish part two of this diptych, in which we will discuss, among other things, the appointment of a sustainability ambassador at the university, the manifesto of University Rebellion and the activities of Technology for Global Development that focus more at integrating the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations in education.

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