Mini-series: Student pathways to learning about sustainability

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In this mini-series post, Matthew Lawson from the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University, gives an insight into developing extra-curricular opportunities for students in sustainable development…

Students care about sustainability.

We see this through the many actions of students in their campuses and local communities. In Edinburgh, students have developed a range of social enterprises, cooperatives and student societies to address sustainability issues. An increasing number of students are also participating in academic courses and degree programmes that focus on sustainability topics.

Edinburgh is not alone in experiencing this. Each year the National Union of Students (NUS) have asked students about their views on learning for sustainable development. For eight years in a row, around 80 per cent of students have told NUS that they want their institutions to be doing more on sustainability, and around 60 per cent of students want to learn more about it. Despite significant changes in further and higher education, the demand from students to learn about sustainability has remained consistent.

Skills and Sustainable Development

This high level of interest has led to an increasing number of students and academic teaching staff approach our department asking for experiential learning opportunities for students. One approach we have used to respond to this has been to develop ‘Student Pathways’, an extra-curricular programme of activities that provide students with skills development framed around sustainability issues.

The pathways model aims to promote experiential learning, encourage reflection and highlight the importance of interdisciplinary learning to students when engaging in sustainability issues. In September 2018, we launched two pathways, with one framed around the Sustainable Development Goals, and the other on Climate Change. Each pathway is structured around skills development training and practical activities that provide students with the opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge that they have learnt.

For example, we delivered sustainability auditor training to students in October, with students subsequently applying their skills when carrying out audits of departments in November, as part of the University’s Sustainability Awards programme. In Semester two, students will have the opportunity to develop and apply their communication skills and carbon literacy in practical projects.


Delivering the ‘Student Pathways’ has been both an eye opener and a learning experience for colleagues involved in facilitating this programme.

Over fifty students are currently participating in the pathways, surpassing our expectations and confirming that there is a high level of interest from students in these types of opportunities. The cohort of students is a mixture of both undergraduate and postgraduate, and includes students from a diverse range of academic backgrounds. This diversity has certainly contributed to productive group work and discussions, with students presenting and engaging with a range of different viewpoints.

Through the Edinburgh Award framework, we have also been able to identify the graduate attributes and skills that students are wanting to develop on the pathways. Students have prioritised communication skills, team working, problem solving, creative thinking, ethics and social responsibility. Students have indicated that they see these skills as important for their future employability and want more opportunities to practically apply them.

From a facilitator’s point of view, we have been able to apply and evaluate a range of techniques to deliver complex information, support group work and encourage students to reflect on their learning. We have also recognised the importance of inspiring students and empowering them, especially in terms of creating a positive learning environment for all involved. It has also reinforced our belief that students are looking for diverse ways of learning about sustainability and developing their skills.

Above all, we have been struck by the passion and the high level of importance students attach to sustainability issues. They understand that we are living in a changing world, and that climate change and sustainable development will continue to be important issues no matter what sector they work in.

Matthew Lawson

Matthew Lawson is currently Programme Manager in the University of Edinburgh’s Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability having previously worked at Transition Edinburgh University. After completing his undergraduate degree in International Relations, Matthew got involved in a variety of community and environmental groups while studying for a Masters in Multi-level and Regional Politics. His research focused on climate change policy in Scotland. His current role includes responsibility for social responsibility and sustainability reporting, benchmarking, developing sector-wide and external partnerships, liaising with academic degree programmes and courses, as well as having oversight of the department’s outreach and student engagement activities. Matthew has worked for the University since 2011.

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