Promoting education for sustainable development through SDG impact assessment

For Anders Ahlbäck, universities must embrace inter- and transdisciplinary education to equip students with the skills to tackle sustainability challenges. Here, he presents an approach to achieving this through assessing how projects, research, campus operations, teaching, and innovations impact the SDGs.

Why should universities assess SDG impact?

In today's complex and interconnected world, the urgency of sustainable development calls for new and innovative approaches in higher education. Universities, as key drivers of knowledge and learning, have a crucial role to play in equipping students with the skills and perspectives necessary to tackle sustainability challenges.

As we strive to achieve the United Nations' Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), higher education institutions need to embrace inter- and transdisciplinary education for sustainable development. By evaluating the impact of projects, research, campus operations, teaching, and innovations on the SDGs, higher education institutions can foster collaboration and introduce researchers, teachers, and students to a simple way of pinpointing needs for knowledge and action to effectively address sustainability challenges.

For these reasons, my organisation has developed the SDG Impact Assessment Tool, which promotes a holistic and curiosity-driven approach to learning for the SDGs.

What does the SDG Impact Assessment Tool do?

The SDG Impact Assessment Tool is a free, online learning tool that visualises the results from a self-assessment of how an activity, organisation or innovation affects the SDGs. The tool guides users to cultivate a sustainable mindset through a curiosity-driven approach to sustainability, in contrast to bureaucracy and organisational-level management systems.

Introduced in 2019, the tool has gained significant traction, with over 18,000 users globally, particularly among universities. The tool is simple to use and easy to embed into existing curricula – there are several published resources to introduce, guide and inspire its usage in teaching and other fields.

Leveraging SDG impact assessment in the classroom and beyond

Assessing SDG impact has a purposeful applicability in education as an element in university curricula. Education programmes need to provide a progression that addresses relevant sustainability topics across courses. By emphasising the concept of "relevance", the tool's comprehensive overview of the SDGs and their corresponding targets can guide the planning of curricula to incorporate sustainable development, the SDGs, and their role in shaping a sustainable future.

Furthermore, the tool serves as a valuable resource in workshops and project-based learning, enabling students to assess the impact of specific topics or cases. Through this process, students gain insights into the complexity of sustainability, while developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. By engaging with the tool, students not only learn about the SDGs themselves but also gain insight into sustainability challenges and their potential solutions. They learn to navigate complexity, identify synergies, and address trade-offs in pursuit of the SDGs.

Furthermore, we have found that using this approach in specific case studies allows teachers to apply the pedagogy of Problem-Based Learning (PBL), an effective approach to teach sustainable development. Students can evaluate how objects relevant to the course topic (companies, innovations, policies etc.) impact the SDGs by seeking knowledge, interacting with stakeholders, and collecting data to conduct in-depth assessments to identify crucial sustainability perspectives for a given context.

One of many examples is from the course on “Towards Sustainable Shipping” delivered at Chalmers University of Technology, where students evaluate SDG impacts from companies within shipping and marine logistics. The students work together with companies that have signed up for a full-term collaboration project. As an output, students provide companies with transparent SDG impact assessments, contributing to their business development and sustainability strategies.

Achieving the SDGs also requires collaboration beyond academia. The SDG Impact Assessment Tool may facilitate transdisciplinary education by emphasising needs for new partnerships between universities, industries, government agencies, and civil society organisations. A collaborative approach enables students to engage with real-world challenges, develop solutions that transcend disciplinary boundaries, and equip them with the skills and mindsets needed to become change agents in society.

In conclusion, inter- and transdisciplinary education plays a pivotal role in higher education for sustainable development. By encouraging academic staff to use the SDG Impact Assessment Tool, universities can cultivate collaboration, integrate diverse perspectives, and equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills to address complex sustainability challenges. Inter- and transdisciplinary education not only fosters a comprehensive understanding of sustainability issues but also empowers students to become change agents who can drive transformative action towards a more sustainable and resilient world.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Anders Ahlbäck

Anders Ahlbäck is Project Manager in Sustainability at the Gothenburg Centre for Sustainable Development, at Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg.


Comfortable read mode Normal mode X