New climate course for second-year bachelor's students

A new elective on climate change will be introduced at TU/e this coming academic year, available to all bachelor's students whatever their degree program. As of November, the first group of no more than sixty second-year students will learn about the multiple and complex climate problems we face and how, as a specialist in a particular field, they can help develop solutions. Professor Heleen de Coninck, one of the lecturers who will teach the course, tells Cursor about the structure of the new climate course and its importance.

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“Almost every other university already has a climate course, and with good reason. So it was high time that one was offered here too,” tells Heleen de Coninck, professor of Socio-Technical Innovation and Climate Change at the department IE&IS. Together with Bart Wesselink and Pieter Pauw she designed the course, which they will be delivering to the first group of students as of November 2023. It will be offered to second-year bachelor's students of all programs as an elective worth five ECTS.

“When it comes to tackling climate change, you're talking either mitigation or adaptation. By mitigation we mean improving the situation by lowering emissions,” explains De Coninck. “That's all about energy, a subject TU/e has all kinds of courses on. But we didn't yet have a course that brings everything together. In the new climate course students will learn about climate change, about what's causing it and what issues are thrown up when you try to solve it.” Second-year students have been deliberately chosen as the target audience for the course so that everyone has a certain basic level of math and physics.

Conflict of interests

“We did our best to create an introductory course that would be geared to the students' interests,” she continues. First of all, in order to establish the best choice of course content, the lecturers spoke with representatives of all the various programs and sent out student surveys.

Everyone has a role in climate change, but a lot of people don't know how they can give shape to that in their career

Heleen de Coninck
Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation and Climate Change

Clear wishes emerged, including that the course have practical relevance and that it include something quantitative, because students are keen to do the climate math. “Students are mainly interested in working on technologies and solutions, but it's also important to understand that there's a major conflict of interests surrounding climate change. This is something our students are going to encounter in their working lives and that's why we want to address the subject not only on a technological level but also on a system level.”

The surveys also revealed that students are well aware of the severity of the climate problem and the need to do something about it, but that they aren't necessarily able to identify a role for themselves in that effort. “Everyone has a role in climate change, but a lot of people don't know how they can give shape to that in their career. We're going to help bring that into focus on the course,” says De Coninck.

A nice mix

The course is being offered as an elective, but shouldn't it be compulsory for all TU/e bachelor's students? While she's in no doubt about the subject's importance, De Coninck doesn't think this is a good idea. “When education is compulsory, it's very difficult to appeal to students studying different specialties,” she reasons. “What's more, I don't think it would be effective. Among students who see it as a chore, you might even create some pushback. We want to guard against students having negative feelings about a course on climate change, so we don't want to force them. There could be a place for compulsory education about sustainability within a degree program.”

Bearing all this in mind, the lecturers have done their best to publicize the course. “We've asked the academic advisors to share the announcements with their students in order to bring this new elective to their attention, we've asked study associations to mention it…” De Coninck lists their approaches. “Using all kinds of channels, we are trying to reach as many students as possible, not just the usual suspects, like students of Sustainable Innovation. Preferably we want a nice mix of different specialties, like Data Science, Applied Physics and Chemical Engineering. These are all important to climate change, they all play a role in both the problem and the solution.”

Interfaculty cooperation is very important, she believes, because it increases the students' understanding of other disciplines and helps them realize that other people are also needed. “As a chemistry student I used to think that all the solutions were only to be found in chemistry. But I was sadly disappointed. I see now that we need every discipline.” But there is a downside to bringing these all various backgrounds together: exploring things in depth becomes more difficult. “We're aiming to make it an introductory course that while being challenging - but not too difficult - has something new for everyone.”

Time will tell whether they have succeeded in their aim. “This coming academic year the course will be a try-out and it can be chosen by a maximum of sixty students. Based on their experiences, the course will be adapted where needed, and will become part of the elective program so that everyone can take it,” De Coninck explains.

Sowing the seed

She is convinced that the course will have much to offer students. “There'll be many students who build to some extent on what the course has taught them as they move through their degree and continue to specialize in their own discipline. You'll also have students who may even take a master's related to climate and energy and who'll become professionals in this field of work. But I'm convinced that all students during their career will come across climate change in one way or another. And that knowing what it's all about is going to be vital preparation they've picked up along the way.”

Many first-year students enjoy a field of study without having any idea of how they may use it later on, she thinks. “I was a student like that. I studied chemistry in Nijmegen and only after two years did I decide to take environmental sciences as well, partly because I found it interesting but also because I was starting to find its impact on society increasingly important.”

She herself is a good example of how a course can spark a person's interest. “For me, it was a course on atmospheric chemistry and climate change. Very few students were combining chemistry and environmental sciences, so I was the only student in my year taking that course and I had private lessons with the lecturer.” Smiling, she adds: “It was a very uncomfortable experience for both of us.” Despite that, the course awakened her interest in climate change. “The seed was sown.”

Doing the sums for climate-neutral Netherlands

During the first two weeks, the course participants will be taught the background to climate change. “Questions like: how do we know the climate is changing and that it's due to people? And what does this mean for the Netherlands and for other places? And what can you do about it? In other words, a thorough grounding,” De Coninck explains. A multiple choice exam rounds off the first block.

After that, they'll spend two weeks working on the energy transition model, an online model used to explore possible future energy systems for a country, region or municipality. The students are tasked with designing a climate-neutral energy system for the Netherlands. “Preferably in small multidisciplinary groups,” says De Coninck. “By doing the math, they find out for themselves what possibilities and impossibilities are involved in making our energy system climate-neutral – in technical terms, at any rate.”

During the third block the emphasis is on system aspects. “What there is in the way of international policy, what we have agreed here in the Netherlands,” she mentions as examples. This part too concludes with a test.

The last block consists of a practical assignment provided by a client like the city council, the province or a company. The idea is to have the students work in small groups on a real issue. De Coninck: “Each group of students finishes off their work by producing a poster that they use to visualize their project and give a plenary presentation. Then we invite the clients to come and see the results and give feedback.”

The Shell Case

During the course the students also watch a Dutch play entitled De zaak Shell (The Shell Case), in which five characters reflect on the way Shell has acted. These characters represent the full spectrum of voices in the climate debate. “The Shell Case is both razor sharp and confusing,” to quote the reviews. What De Coninck likes about this play is that it doesn't adopt a position about what is right or wrong. Consequently, it jolts the audience into thinking about responsibilities. “We hope it will trigger a good discussion with the students.”

According to her, it is precisely these conflicting interests that make the situation so complicated. “We're all doing our best in our various roles, but the outcome is that our emissions are not being reduced and we're not getting off our fossil fuels and unsustainable food systems.” A play can sometimes have a bigger impact than a lecture you deliver to students, she thinks. “Sometimes, to get students to feel 'this is the situation we're in', you have to use art or let someone else tell a story. After that, you can look at ways you can work together to get out of it.”

De Coninck's inauguration speech was entitled System change, not climate change. Evidence from all kinds of research suggests that if we are to solve the climate crisis, we can't put all our eggs in the basket labeled 'innovations', we also have to look closely at what exactly is going on in our society and at how we can change existing systems.


The question is this: will you be part of the problem or part of the solution?

Heleen de Coninck
Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation and Climate Change

Finally, what would the professor like to say to bachelor's students to encourage them to take the course? “That's a difficult question for a middle-aged woman,” she says, laughing. Then seriously: “But I would say, take your future into your own hands. It doesn't matter whether you become an academic or make your career in trade and industry, we need people everywhere who know what they're doing. The question is this: will you be part of the problem or part of the solution? This course will help you make better decisions impacting on that.”

You can sign up via Osiris. The course can be found under the name ‘Climate change: understanding the causes and solutions’ and the code 0SK40.

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