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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Randolph Brazier

How education can be used to improve sustainability knowledge and thinking among teenagers

Climate change and improving sustainability are arguably some of the biggest issues facing the planet. While many endeavours have been undertaken to combat these issues, unless the momentum is maintained with the next generation, much of this effort will be in vain. Significant progress has been made with respect to Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in tertiary education institutions, particularly universities. There are also examples of ways in which sustainability has been incorporated into secondary schools and curricula, but with varying levels of success. In the UK, while some aspects of sustainability have been introduced into the secondary school curriculum, they are often merged into other subjects and do not attract as much attention as traditional subjects. Furthermore, sustainability emphasis varies between exam boards, as well as teachers, leading to differing levels of understanding among teenagers. As a result, it could be argued that some young people fail to engage with global issues, which could be contributing towards the lower rates of young people voting in the UK. Promoting sustainable development and how engineering can contribute towards it could also potentially help reverse the decline in engineering student entries at universities, by attracting more interest to the engineering field. Thus the question is raised as to how sustainability knowledge can be improved among teenagers?
The research involved a survey being conducted with 475 UK secondary school students aged 12-18 years. The survey was conducted to determine the current level of sustainability understanding of the students, where they learned about it, their preferences relating to issues facing the Earth and how they think sustainability teaching could be improved. Results of the surveys varied across age group, school, overall attainment levels of students and exam boards. In general, the results showed that while students are interested in current issues, their level of understanding of sustainability is poor to moderate, and they want it to be taught in more subjects.
A gap analysis was conducted using a curriculum review, survey results and interviews with various teachers. The aim of the analysis was to determine what the difference was between a desirable level of knowledge and teaching of sustainability, and current practice. Among other things, the analysis indicated that interactive learning would be likely to be beneficial, and thus a role play, set in Cambridge and covering environmental, social and economic aspects, was designed and run at two schools in Cambridge. An element of competition was included, as well as a relatively open set of rules, to invoke creative solutions. Observation during the game indicated engaged students. Feedback from students indicated that the game was a fun and useful learning tool. Feedback from teachers was also positive, indicating that interactive teaching tools, like a role play, can be very valuable towards teaching students about the complexities of sustainability.
Finally, drawing on the research undertaken, a proposal was developed which suggests changes to the current UK National Curriculum and makes suggestions for schools and teachers to adopt. The proposal includes a recommendation to include aspects of sustainability in all subjects, which will lead on from a ‘Sustainability Week’ or short course in the earlier stages of secondary school. The proposal also includes recommended teaching tools and methods to effectively teach sustainability to teenagers. These tools, which include role plays and debates, will assist students in feeling more engaged with sustainability issues