More focus on sustainability in our education, but in small steps

A lot is being done, but actions aren't always visible

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More focus on sustainability in our education, but in small steps

This second part of the long read on sustainability and attention for climate change in TU/e education is about its future. It has become clear from the Bachelor College that a lot is already happening in this area, but that this is not always clearly visible, for example in the course descriptions.

photo Smolaw / Shutterstock

In the first part of the long read, that was published last week on Thursday, Cursor indicated that bachelor's student of Computer Science and Engineering, Ana Celesta Baroja Sierra, was agitated about the, in her opinion, lack of focus on climate change in education at TU/e. With a big proposal that she presented to Cursor, she wants to start the discussion to improve the education. The first part gives you a good insight into the problems and the reactions from within the community.

In this second part, we take a closer look at university's actions, such as the appointment of the sustainability ambassador, the University Rebellion manifesto and the Technology for Global Development action. For Baroja Sierra, sustainability is not enough and climate change must have a place in education. Others within the university believe that sustainability has a broader view in terms of subjects than climate change, as is also discussed further in this second part of the diptych.

Sustainability ambassador

The university recently appointed a Sustainability Ambassador, Anna Wieczorek. How do you feel about that? “I have no opinion on her personally, but what I am concerned of is that this really seems to be a symbolic action. Sustainability is a very cheap alternative for action against climate change. ‘Oh we need to do something about climate change, let’s be more sustainable. We do not only need to be more sustainable, we need to fight climate change actively and we need to help countries that cannot be more sustainable.”

Baroja Sierra: “Climate change is hard to solve. If we don't educate students at a basic level to know that climate change really exists, they won't be ready for the real challenges.” She is surprised to see how we deal with climate change in such a 'relaxed' way here. "On TV we see some floods in Germany and some tornadoes in the US, but here we are chilling. When we have to deal with climate migrants, we have to be much better prepared.”

Shams Hazim, master's student of Industrial Design, also has sustainability in education high on his wish list. “I am very much focused on sustainability, and especially concerning electronic devices, as those are made on a daily basis in our department. And I miss the awareness for this underexposed, yet extremely urgent topic in our program, and probably also in other departments," he says. “I have already discussed this with teachers, students, recycling factories and I am also in contact with TU Delft. I am doing my Final Master Project on integrating sustainability in our assessment (rubrics) and in the curriculum. During my research project I also interviewed students and I learned that this problem is hardly ever a thing and that they know almost nothing about it, nor what they can do about it.” Awareness of this problem is therefore important for Hazim.

Hazim: “In addition, it would be good to teach students practical matters about producing their products. So in short I would like to see more awareness and an improvement of the teaching material on this topic. I am in contact with several teachers about how we can best implement this. Last year a new bachelor's course was introduced: ID Green, which I think is fantastic, but unfortunately there is nothing in there about this subject. I have also been in contact with the lead lecturer about this, and he is very open to this topic. Unfortunately, this is not being addressed anywhere generally at the moment.”

The university also needs to contribute by educating us students about climate change.

Ana Celesta Baroja Sierra
Bachelor student Computer Science and Engineering
Very self-involved

“What I really like about this university, is how able the students are to educate themselves, very self-involved in their education. It was one of the main reasons why I came here. But the university also needs to take their share in educating us students about climate change. It’s a moral responsibility and it needs to go past ‘be more sustainable’. I see projects with Shell about renewed energy. It looks great, but it is more about TU/e’s image it seems to me. I still haven’t seen a response about UR’s demands in Cursor, for example. Where is the real addressing of the problem?”

“Often climate change collaborations are in the research, not much in education. We need to focus more on education”, Baroja Sierra stresses. “I know that the Netherlands has good organizations for water management, for example. Let’s have an urbanism course about that. Deal with building in low-lying areas for climate-change-safe buildings. Our urbanism and architecture students need to learn how to do that and how to do it affordably. It needs to become a mindset for them: how to make sure the buildings I design are from now on able to deal with flooding and heat waves? Very relevant for a long time to come.” 

Climate-proof construction

Program director masters' in Built Environment, Professor Bert Snijder, disproves the fact that Built Environment does not pay attention to climate-proof construction. “We already do a lot about sustainability, circularity and climate change in our research and education,” Snijder stresses. “It may not always be so clear in the course descriptions. A conclusion that we have also drawn with all those involved in renewing the Graduate School: we can always do more about sustainability, but above all we need to tell the story better. Building services and fire safety is an example of a subject in which sustainability and climate change are embedded. This subject primarily concerns installations in a building, for example for cooling and heating. But the energy transition is also discussed, an important topic in the field of climate change. The Resource Efficient Structural Design course also deals with sustainability: how can we use materials and design the construction as intended and as (energy) as possible. Although the topic is not always made explicit, it is definitely part of program.”

Snijder has plenty of examples of sustainability in education. “For example, the master's Architecture, Building and Planning (ABP) has a certificate for circular construction. With this we show how you can reduce the CO2 footprint. Our research also pays attention to sustainability, whereby we focus on materials with a lower CO2 footprint, for example by using biobased materials. On the roof of Vertigo (the department building, ed.) there is an installation for testing PV panels. That research permeates our education. Recently we had an international workshop called 'climate extremes and resilient heritage'. Together with students from foreign universities, we brainstormed about extremes such as floods, heat waves and other extremes related to climate change. The sustainability topic is alive," Snijder says. "And you can see that the world is alarmed: the IPCC report, the climate conference in Glasglow, recent floods. Everyone sees that things are happening on a huge scale. That we should do something about it and also want to, is clear, also in our education.”

Real change

Baroja Sierra hasn’t had contact with the Executive Board about her proposal yet. “Reading how they have reacted in the past, I’m not sure how effective it would be. There is this TU/e organization called Technology for Global Development (TGD), I was talking to someone there. They had a proposal to improve the basic course Engineering Design as well and had meetings with the Executive Board, but it went nowhere.”

Ward Cottaar, Professor of Instrumentation Design and chair of TGD, filed that proposal to change ED. “It was based on a course that is offered in England, the U.S. and South Africa: ‘Engineers without borders’ (EWB). EWB chooses a regio and a challenge that is always climate oriented. Like for example clean water in Peru. I tried to get that into ED but that stranded, also because the Bachelor College is changing. Then my colleagues and I came up with an elective course, but unfortunately the people I worked with weren’t available anymore. Historically, as TGD we have budget of around 10.000 euros. We spoke with the Executive Board about that. And we all agreed: we either invest more and take it seriously or we stop. We as a university are behind on this topic. TU Delft is way further, for example. They invested in ‘Global Initiative’. There are also funds out there for this, so there are options. And we as a university have to do more, both big things and small things.” He looks and points outside: “Why do we always have those lights on in the walkways? Two-third of those could be removed to begin with, the rest can be off most of the time. Many people think ‘oh what I do myself doesn’t matter enough’. Yes, that is true, but if we all think like that, nothing will change. Personal choices all together do make a difference.”

University Rebellion

Baroja Sierra also points to University Rebellion (UR) as an example that doesn’t give her trust something will change soon: “Take the manifest of UR, the chair of the Executive Board, Robert-Jan Smits, said there would be a conversation about that, but I have not heard since - November 2020.” However, Baroja Sierra is not a member of UR: “I know about UR, but I don’t think being part of organization is necessary to help beat climate change.”

Cursor asked University Rebellion for their reaction on the matter, and they say that they had a meeting with the Executive Board soon after the manifesto demonstration last year. “As you can imagine, there was little overlap between the chairmen’s attitudes, expectations and proposed policies/measures and ours”, Samuel Singer, bachelor student Sustainable Innovation, from UR says. “Nevertheless, and despite a very short meeting, we touched upon some important topics. A follow-up meeting was promised, and vice-chair Nicole Ummelen reached out a few weeks later, informing us that sustainability is now part of her portfolio and that she would like to discuss the matter with us soon after. Ever since, we haven’t received any information about their agenda, let alone an invitation. We are somewhat positively surprised about the appointment of Anna Wieczorek to the sustainability ambassador but we are not expecting any concrete action from the university anytime soon.”

Threatening email

UR recently sent a threatening email to the Executive Board, Cursor and Sustainability Ambassador Anna Wieczorek about the lack of action by the university and the failure to declare a climate emergency. Is that the best way to make this happen? Wieczorek: "In my opinion, such an email is not the best way to address this problem. But I understand that these organizations (such as UR, ed.) have a function, they have to rebel. And yes, we have to take action, but because we are already very committed to greater integration of sustainability in TU/e's profiel, it's hard to get a message like that. It's full of anger and negative energy. Based on conversations with UR last year (December 2020), a change in the institutional plan was made in January 2021, so what UR wrote in the threat email to Cursor and the Executive Board (that there was no follow-up to the last meeting) is not true. A specification of sustainability challenge as a threat to humanity has been made on page 13 of the institutional plan as a result of the meeting that UR had with the Executive Board. It took a while before this position of Sustainability Ambassador was launched. If you realize that I only started in this position in September 2021, we have already achieved a lot."

Wieczorek says that she is almost done with setting the organizational structure around sustainability. "A report has been commissioned to assess how our TU/e research aligns with the SDGs of the UN. I've had a number of meetings about the integration of sustainability in education in our Bachelor College and our Graduate School. The sustainability website is being improved and we have a dedicated mail address. Via Technology for Global Development a sustainability manager in education was hired. These actions help to make sustainability better embedded in our university. Sending an angry e-mail to the Executive Board will not change the policy. It will create awareness, but not policy change. I'm in the process of creating channels to change policies. First I want to set up the basics to do that.” Wieczorek is still open to talk to UR even after this email. “We remain open to anyone who wants to get involved. But I don't want to spend too much time talking, I'd rather spend more time doing," she concludes devotedly.

Future UR manifest

Three organizers of University Rebellion are happy to elaborate on the aftermath of their manifest. Bachelor’s student of Mathematics Leo Franz, bachelor’s student of Computer Science Thea Bradley and Samuel Singer, don’t call themselves members, for a reason. “UR is an organization without hierarchy. We are all equal and switch roles,” Singer says. UR confirms there has been no contact with the TU/e Executive Board the end of 2020. Bradley: “We met with them last year, after we handed over the manifest. They seemed a bit interested and said ‘let’s meet again’. We sent emails to remind them, but there hasn’t been anything coming back at all.” Singer: “Now with the appointment of Sustainability Ambassador Anna Wieczorek, it feels like the responsibility is taken away from vice-chair Nicole Ummelen. Who has it now, we wonder.” Wieczorek reacts clearly to this: "At this moment I have advisory power. I’m an expert on sustainability and I have impact on what activities are happening regarding this theme at the university. I can explain to the Executive Board if something on this topic should be done or should not be done, but I'm not someone who can implement policies. This is not my task."

Franz: “It feels shitty we got no response anymore for a follow-up meeting with the EB. We try to change something for the better but get ignored. It’s like: do what you want, we won’t hear you unless it fits our agenda.” Singer: “There is this framing problem. Things are called ‘challenges’, downplaying them. Look at Strategy 2030, cryptically some is mentioned that a few things are not going as they should, but also always in a positive manner. We get where they come from, but it doesn’t work.” Bradley: “That also goes for this techno optimism; everything can be solved with technology.” Franz: “It’s always about us designing something in the future that will help. We need to do something now, otherwise there is no future anymore.” Singer agrees: “We need a paradigm change, not optimize what we already have. Education can help there.”

Not heard

“I don’t know how many people would agree with my particular proposal," Baroja Sierra says, “but a lot of students are unsatisfied by the two basic courses I mentioned. I know this from classmates and through my Cosmos board year in which I had a lot of contact with students. But it seems hard for the university to get that understanding of how the students feel about their education. This is not fully their fault, but it could help if students would get in-person meetings with the dean and course organizers to evaluate the courses, like a town hall meeting.

Not responding to ideas and complaints makes students want to leave and they do. I have seen many students leave after their bachelor’s. A lot of students feel like the university does not care. I don't think my proposal will change that but I hope that it serves as a wakeup call to the university that by being more up-front and personal and public with how they deal with issues students find, that students will feel more compelled to stay. I will apply to TU/e and other university for my master’s. If I get accepted in another university, I will for sure choose that.”

Bradley agrees with what Baroja Sierra states: “It is good to put climate change in education. We are all in own bubbles, it needs to be there as a base. Like me, I’m in Computer Science. If I don’t actively choose a course of other departments, I won’t learn anything on the topic.” Singer: “There should also come a main obligatory course on climate change for all bachelors.”

Broader perspective

Cottaar: “This year we filed a proposal at the national Education Board for educational innovation to better embed the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations in our curriculum. Because yes, it is about climate change, but it is also about the other sixteen global challenges. It’s important that this happens. A physics student has to know their physics, but they should also learn how to see their field in a broader perspective. The proposal was adopted by the Education Board and granted 70.000 euros. We will get a project leader for this very soon.”

“The first step will be measuring how sustainable our education is: we need a framework for that and there are a few options. Then we measure and we decide where we want to be in X time from now. After that we need to get support in the organization: you need that to reach your goal. Finally, we need to decide what needs to be done to get there. Should we integrate the topics in current courses? Or should we start a new course compulsory for all students? There is still a lot to be decided and this will take time”, Cottaar admits.

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