Mini-series: Embedding sustainability in the curriculum

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In this post, Kerry Cheek, gives insight into how her module in Case Studies in Sustainable Development helped improve student employability…

‘Sustainable development’ is a broad term, especially to an Environmental Sustainability Masters student. Therefore, it wasn’t immediately clear what the Case Studies in Sustainable Development course would entail when I enrolled last year. It turned out to be a whistle-stop tour through many areas of sustainability, including district heating, behaviour change, community land ownership, and more. The course also involved a semester-long project with the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability (SRS) to address current issues at the University. In the end, I found it to be one of the best courses throughout my programme, and particularly useful in my subsequent job search.

Case Studies in Sustainable Development (CSSD) was structured around developing skills to increase student employability, such as writing persuasive briefs, issue briefs, and sustainability-related problem solving. The lecture material served as a ‘tasting menu’ of subjects for assignments, allowing students to choose topics which were particularly interesting for further research. In my case, I focused on behaviour change and examined the potential for policymakers to utilise personal values for encouraging environmental behaviour. My assignment led to a related topic for my dissertation, and a better understanding of the career that I would like to have within the broad field of sustainability.

This alone would have made CSSD worthwhile, but the project-based component of the course was also valuable. We worked with SRS to assess and solve pertinent problems at the University, many of which directly related to student experience. My group was tasked with examining single-use plastic in research laboratories, and our work led to improved communication between SRS and University labs. The project offered a succinct example of problem solving and research to discuss during interviews – a valuable asset to recent grads on the job search!

These practical skills were combined with valuable contacts established throughout the course. Many of my classmates met dissertation supervisors through CSSD or made contacts to discuss career plans with. For me, the work with SRS led to a contact to interview for my dissertation, and eventually inspired me to apply for an internship within the Department.

My only critique of the course is similar to my critique of the MSc programme: that not enough students were able to enrol in desired courses. CSSD was a requirement for my degree so I was guaranteed a place. While the course was theoretically open to students from other backgrounds, with less than 10 spare seats the competition was high and enrolment seemed limited to students from the School of Geosciences. There was a lot of variation in the quality of courses offered to MSc students in my year, which made the limited space in this course all the more regrettable.

Sustainable development is a continuously growing field, and it can be difficult for new entrants to know what particular area they would want to work in. This course helped me to pinpoint subjects that I was interested in, and many of the topics covered related to areas with increasing employment opportunities. While this is crucial for sustainability students, it would also benefit students from other schools who are looking to incorporate sustainability in their degree.

The field of sustainability itself is incredibly interdisciplinary, so it follows that sustainability could (and should!) be a part of any well-rounded degree program. By expanding the availability of this course, or increasing similar options which offer practical sustainability experience, especially to students studying other subjects, the University could deepen its commitment to embedding sustainability in the curriculum.

Kerry Cheek

Kerry Cheek is a recent graduate of the MSc Environmental Sustainability programme, and currently working for the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh. Her interests within the field are particularly related to pro-environmental behaviour change and the circular economy.

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