Authors: Maryam Lamere, Marianthi Leon, Wendy Fowles-Sweet, Lucy Yeomans,  Laura Fogg-Rogers (University of the West of England, UWE Bristol). 

Topic: Opportunities and challenges for integrating ESD into engineering programmes via PBL. 

Tool type: Guidance. 

Relevant disciplines: Any.  

Keywords: Education for sustainable development; Project-based learning; Problem-based learning; Engineering design; Sustainability; AHEP; UK-SPEC; Pedagogy; Higher education; Curriculum. 
 
Sustainability competency: Critical thinking; Integrated problem-solving, Collaboration.

AHEP mapping: This resource addresses two of the themes from the UK’s Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes fourth edition (AHEP4): The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this resource to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.  

Related SDGs: SDG 4 (Quality education); SDG 13 (Climate action). 
 
Reimagined Degree Map Intervention: More real-world complexity; Active pedagogies and mindset development.

Who is this article for? This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who are seeking an overall perspective on using PBL for integrating sustainability in engineering education. Engaging with this topic will also help to prepare students with the soft skill sets that employers are looking for. 

 

Premise: 

Engineering graduates are increasingly required to implement sustainability-focussed initiatives within industry, alongside enhanced expectations from professional bodies and the UK specification (UK-SPEC) for engineers (Engineering Council, 2024). However, a recent study of UK Higher Education institutions highlighted that only a handful have implemented Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) into their curricula in a systemic manner (Fiselier et al., 2018), which suggests many engineering institutions still need support in this area. This article aims to explain opportunities and challenges for integrating ESD into engineering programmes via project-based learning. 

 

 1. An overview of problem-based learning as a tool for teaching sustainability within engineering:

To develop sustainability-literate graduates, the Higher Education Academy (AdvanceHE) and the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) emphasise that students need to:  

  1. understand what the concept of environmental stewardship means for their discipline and their professional and personal lives; 
  2. think about issues of social justice, ethics, and wellbeing, and how these relate to ecological and economic factors; and 
  3. develop a future-facing outlook by learning to think about the consequences of actions, and how systems and societies can be adapted to ensure sustainable futures (QAA & HEA, 2014).  

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) provides a suitable teaching method for addressing these educational objectives. It is an influential approach in engineering education that emphasises real-world problem-solving and student-centred investigation. PBL deeply engages engineering students, prompting them to develop higher-level thinking skills while they personally confront and navigate economic, social, and environmental issues. This method fosters holistic systems thinking, interdisciplinary insights, ethical considerations, and an emphasis on the long-term viability of technical solutions (Cavadas and Linhares, 2023), while also inspiring and motivating learners (Loyens, 2015). 

While PBL can be delivered through theoretical case study examples, the term is used interchangeably with Project-Based Learning within engineering education. Both problem-based learning and project-based learning share characteristics such as collaboration and group work, the integration of knowledge and practice, and foregrounding problem analysis as the basis of the learning process (De Graaff and Kolmos, 2003). One of the main differences is where the parameters lie: with problem-based learning the parameters are defined at the beginning and students are able to find a range of solutions; with project-based learning the parameters lie at the end and students are expected to reach a specific end solution (Savery, 2006). There is also a difference in the role of the tutor and the information they provide: in problem-based learning the tutor facilitates but gives little information, while in project-based learning they are both a facilitator and a source of knowledge (Savery, 2006). Project based learning may be more accepted within engineering education since it is considered to more closely resemble the reality of the profession (Perrenet, Bouhuijs and Smits, 2000), hence Aalborg’s working definition of PBL as “Problem-Oriented, Project-Organized, Learning” (Dym et al., 2005) 

PBL thus facilitates the creation of immersive student-centric environments where group projects enable collaborative learning (Kokotsaki, Menzies and Wiggins, 2016). As Lozano et al. (2017) highlight, the nature of PBL advances critical thinking and problem-solving in engineering contexts, enabling students to critically reflect on sustainability concepts and apply this understanding to real-world challenges. Importantly, it is paramount in engineering education to foster action-oriented competencies and incorporate social contextualisation aspects (Fogg-Rogers et al., 2022), such as ethical nuances, justice, and equality, ensuring a comprehensive grasp of an engineer’s role amidst evolving societal and environmental challenges (Wang et al., 2022).  

 

2. Overcoming challenges within PBL:

While PBL presents an obvious approach for embedding sustainability, there are a series of challenges which engineering educators need to overcome to facilitate transformational learning. This section presents some of the most common challenges encountered, along with pedagogic solutions.  

 

Lack of apparent topic relevance
Sustainability topics can sometimes be treated as isolated topics, rather than an integrated aspect of an engineering problem. A perception of sustainability in engineering is that it is not implicit in design, manufacture, and operation; rather it is often perceived as an ‘add-on’ to technical skill development. This applies to both students and teachers: both require support to understand the relevance and complexities of sustainability. When academics delivering sustainability materials may struggle to relate the topic to their own engineering disciplines, students may fail to see how they can impact change. Students must work on real-world projects where they can make a difference locally or globally, and they are more inclined towards sustainability topics that are relevant to their subject discipline with subject experts.  

 

Dealing with an overwhelming amount of information
Students can be overwhelmed by the large amounts of multidisciplinary information that needs to be processed when tackling real-world problems. This can also be a challenge for academics delivering teaching, especially if the topic is not related to their speciality. Additional support (and training), along with allocation of teaching workload, are needed to successfully integrate sustainability contexts for both staff and students.   

 

Group work challenges
PBL is best conducted by mixing individual study and group work. However, groups can fail if group creation, monitoring, supporting, and assessing processes are inconsistent, or not understood by academic tutors or students. Tutors need to act as group facilitators to ensure successful collaborative learning.  

 

Issues with continual engagement
PBL often requires active engagement of students over an extended period (several weeks or months). This can be a challenge, as over time, students’ focus and priorities can change. We suggest that whole programmes need to be designed around PBL components, so that other modules and disciplines provide the scaffolding and knowledge development to the relevant PBL topics.  

 

Delivering PBL online 

PBL is best delivered using experiential hands-on learning. For example, at UWE Bristol, this is provided through civic engagement with real-world industry problems and service learning through engagement with industry, schools, and community groups (Fogg-Rogers et al., 2017). This experiential learning was exceptionally challenging to deliver online during the COVID-19 pandemic, and programmes would need to be re-designed for online learning. 

 

3. Recommendations for successful implementation of PBL:

Sustainability topics need to be embedded within engineering education so that each discipline-specific engineering problem is explored within PBL from a technical, economic, ethical, and sustainability perspective.  Drawing from UWE Bristol’s journey of ESD implementation using PBL, key recommendations are outlined below.  

 

Managing academic workload
In the initial phases of ESD integration at UWE Bristol, a small number of committed academics contributed a lot of time, effort, and dedication to push through and enable ESD acceptance from staff and students. Programme-wide implementation of ESD required wider support at the institutional level, alongside additional support for module leaders and tutors, so they felt capable of delivering ESD with a realistic workload. 

 

Structured delivery of ESD
Structuring delivery over time and throughout different modules enables students to work through large amounts of information. Providing summative feedback/assessments during key phases of the PBL exercise can also help students stay on track and manage their workload. At UWE Bristol, group presentations with pass/fail grading are introduced mid-project, so students can present information gathered about the context, before beginning problem-solving. 

 

Managing group work challenges
PBL is best conducted by mixing individual study and group work. Ensuring assessment briefs have implicit sustainability requirements is vital to embedding ESD concepts, so that students can see the need for engagement. This is further enhanced by stating the relevance to workplace contexts and UK-SPEC requirements. Tutors need to facilitate group dynamics and engagement, along with providing support structures for students who, for whatever reason, are unable to engage with group work.  

 

Creating an enabling environment for ESD integration
The integration of sustainable development throughout the curricula at UWE Bristol has been supported at the institutional level, and this has been critical for the wide scale rollout. An institution-wide Knowledge Exchange for Sustainability Education (KESE) network was created to support staff by providing a platform for knowledge sharing. Within the department, Staff Away days were used to run sustainability workshops to discuss ESD and topics of interest to students. An initial mapping exercise was conducted to highlight where sustainability was already taught within the curriculum and to identify the discipline relevant contexts (Lamere et al., 2022). Further training and industrially relevant contexts were provided to convince some staff that sustainability needed to be included in the curriculum, along with evidence that it was already of great relevance in the wider engineering workplace. This led to the development of an integrated framework of key learning requirements which embedded professional attributes and knowledge of the UK-SPEC.  

 

Student motivation and continual engagement  

For sustainability education to be effective, the content coverage should be aligned, or better still, integrated, with the topics that form part of students’ disciplinary studies. To maintain continual engagement during the PBL delivery and beyond, clear linkages need to be provided between learning and future career-related practice-based sustainability activities. Partnerships have been developed with regional stakeholders and industry, to provide more context for real-world problems and to enable local service learning and community action (Fogg-Rogers, Fowles-Sweet, 2018). Industry speakers have also been invited to contribute to lectures, touching on a wide range of sustainability and ethical issues. ESD teaching is also firmly linked to the individual’s own professional development, using the UK-SPEC competency requirements, and linked to end-point assessments. This allows students to see the potential impact on their own professionalism and career development. 

 

These recommendations can enable engineering educators to integrate sustainability topics within the curriculum using PBL to enhance student learning and engagement.  

 

References:  

Cavadas, B., Linhares, E. (2023). ‘Using a Problem-Based Learning Approach to Develop Sustainability Competencies in Higher Education Students’, in Leal Filho, et al. W., Azul, A.M., Doni, F., Salvia, A.L. (eds) Handbook of Sustainability Science in the Future. Springer, Cham. (Accessed 05 February 2024) 

De Graaff, E. and Kolmos, A. (2003) ‘Characteristics of Problem-Based learning’. International Journal of Engineering Education. 19 (5), pp. 657–662. 

Dym, C.L., et al.  Agogino, A.M., Eris, O., Frey, D.D. and Leifer, L.J. (2005) ‘Engineering design thinking, teaching, and learning’. Journal of engineering education. 94 (1), pp. 103–120. 

Engineering Council (2024). UK-SPEC Fourth Edition. (Accessed 05 February 2024).  

Fogg-Rogers, L., Lewis, F., & Edmonds, J. (2017). ‘Paired peer learning through engineering education outreach’, European Journal of Engineering Education, 42(1). (Accessed 05 February 2024).   

Fogg Rogers, L., & Fowles-Sweet, W. (2018). ‘Engineering and society: Embedding active service learning in undergraduate curricula’, in J. Andrews, R. Clark, A. Nortcliffe, & R. Penlington (Eds.), 5th Annual Symposium of the United Kingdom & Ireland Engineering Education Research Network (125-129). Aston University 

Fogg-Rogers, L., Bakthavatchaalam, V., Richardson, D., & Fowles-Sweet, W. (2022). ‘Educating engineers to contribute to a regional goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2030’. Cahiers COSTECH, 5, Article 133 

Fiselier, E. S., Longhurst, J. W. S., & Gough, G. K. (2018). ‘Exploring the current position of ESD in UK higher education institutions.’ International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 19(2), 393–412.  

Kokotsaki, D., Menzies, V. and Wiggins, A. (2016) ‘Project-based learning: A review of the literature.’ Improving Schools. 19 (3), pp. 267–277. 

Lamere, M., Brodie, L., Nyamapfene, A., Fogg-Rogers, L., & Bakthavatchaalam, V. (2022). ‘Mapping and enhancing sustainability literacy and competencies within an undergraduate engineering curriculum’ in 9th Research in Engineering Education Symposium and 32nd Australasian Association for Engineering Education Conference (REES AAEE 2021) (298-306) 

Lozano, R., Merrill, M.Y., Sammalisto, K., Ceulemans, K. and Lozano, F.J. (2017), ‘Connecting competences and pedagogical approaches for sustainable development in higher education: a literature review and framework proposal’, Sustainability, Vol. 9 No. 10, pp. 1889-1903. 

Perrenet, J.C., Bouhuijs, P.A.J and Smits, J.G.M.M. (2000) ‘The Suitability of Problem based Learning for Engineering Education: Theory and practice.’ Teaching in Higher Education. 5 (3) pp.345-358. 

QAA & HEA. (2014). Education for sustainable development: guidance for UK higher education providers. Retrieved from Gloucester, UK. 

Savery, J.R. (2006) Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions.  The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning. 1 (1), pp. 9–20. 

Wang, Y., Sommier, M. and Vasques, A. (2022), ‘Sustainability education at higher education institutions: pedagogies and students’ competences’, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 23 No. 8, pp. 174-193.  

 

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Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters. 

 

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Funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering the EPC’s Engineering Ethics toolkit was recently launched – containing a range of case studies and supporting articles to help engineering educators integrate ethics content into their teaching. EPC Board member and Professorial Teaching Fellow, Mike Bramhall, at The Engineering and Design Institute (TEDI-London) has incorporated three of the case studies from this recently produced toolkit into TEDI’s BEng (Hons) in Global Design Engineering. Mike and two of his students, Stuart Tucker and Caelan Vollenhoven, gave a presentation at this year’s EPC Annual Congress about their positive experience teaching and learning with the case studies. In this blog, Mike reflects on how and why he incorporated these resources.

The BEng (Hons) Global Design Engineering programme was launched in our brand new institution – TEDI-London – in September 2022. The programme is a blended mix of online learning integrated with project-based learning. Through this project-based learning approach and working in partnership with industry, our students will create and contribute to solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the 21st century and be equipped with the skills employers need from future engineers. Within these real-world projects, students work in teams and consider the ethical, environmental, social, and cultural impacts of engineering design. These issues are important for an engineer to understand whilst working with society. This importance is highlighted in the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence and Commitment (UK-SPEC: 4th edition) with accreditation bodies identifying ethics as one of the core learning outcomes and competencies in engineering programmes. The Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes in engineering standards (AHEP: 4th edition) reflects the importance of societal impact in engineering. To meet AHEP 4 our programme learning outcomes have been mapped against all required outcomes. The Engineer and Society outcomes include:

To help students understand some of these issues whilst working on their design projects we chose three case studies from the Engineering Ethics Toolkit:

Choosing to install a smart meter

Smart homes for older people with disabilities

Solar panels in a desert oil field

We converted key parts of these case studies to be compatible with our virtual learning environment and incorporated them into one online learning node. To support students in their development of ethical thinking, each case study focuses on different parts of ethics for engineers:

  1. Everyday ethics
  2. Ethical reasoning
  3. Ethical analysis

Students are guided through the case studies in small chunks and asked to reflect upon each ethical issue. In this way students are not overwhelmed with too much information all at once. Eventually students are asked to incorporate their reflection into an end of year Professional and Personal Portfolio, explaining and evidencing how they have met each of the AHEP learning outcomes. The image below shows an example of a reflection task.

We asked the students to go through the online node individually prior to a class session in which staff then facilitated small-group discussions on each of the case studies. For example, for the Smart Meter case study we suggested that one group could look at being ‘for smart meters’ and another group ‘against smart meters’, using ethical issues and judgement in their decision making. Other issues arose during these discussions such as sustainability, data security, risk, and equality, diversity & inclusion. Some of the student comments are shown below:

On a high level, installing a smart meter is being portrayed as the decent thing to do in terms of the environment however it is just an instrument to monitor usage.
One way to be good to the environment is to be careful with your energy usage, e.g. switching off lights, only having heating and hot water when required so installing effective timers/thermostats in parts of your home where you need it.
Security & privacy: Who can see your consumption data and what can they do with it? The meters are all connected to the central wireless network, called the Data Communication Company (DCC). Concerns are that this network could be ‘hacked’ into. They may see a pattern of no-usage and provide opportunity for theft.
As first year undergraduate engineers we now have an insight and awareness of ethics and the responsibility of engineers in society.
Breaking down the case studies into a more interactive format and in manageable chunks made it easier for students, to stop us being overwhelmed – making it perfect for discussion in small groups.

We could put our thoughts on ethics into our end of year Portfolios – mapping against the AHEP requirements

These comments show how broadly and deeply students were able to engage with the ethical concepts presented in the case studies and apply them to their future work. As our course progresses, we intend to use more of the case studies, and map them appropriately against particular projects that students are working on at each level of the programme.

 

This blog is also available here.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Theme: Universities’ and businesses’ shared role in regional development.

Author: Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers (University of the West of England, Bristol).

Case-study team: Wendy Fowles-Sweet; Maryam Lamere; Prof. Lisa Brodie; Dr Venkat Bakthavatchaalam (University of the West of England, Bristol); Dr Abel Nyamapfene (University College London).

Keywords: Education for Sustainable Development; Climate Emergency; Net Zero; Sustainable Development Goals.

Abstract: The University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has declared a Climate and Ecological Emergency, along with all regional councils in the West of England. In order to meet the regional goal of Net-Zero by 2030, sustainability education has now been embedded through all levels of the Engineering Curriculum. Current modules incorporate education for Sustainable Development Goals alongside citizen engagement challenges, where engineers find solutions to real-life problems. All undergraduate engineers also take part in immersive project weeks to develop problem-based learning around the Engineers without Borders international challenges.

 

Engineering Education for Sustainable Development

The environmental and health impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss are being felt around the world, from record high temperatures, drought, wildfires, extreme flooding, and human health issues (Ripple et al., 2020). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that urgent action is required to mitigate catastrophic impacts for billions of people globally (IPCC, 2022). The UK Government has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050, with a 78% drop in emissions by 2035 (UK Government, 2021). Following IPCC guidance, regional councils such as Bristol City Council and the West of England Combined Authority, have pledged to reach Net Zero at an earlier date of 2030 (Bristol City Council, 2019). In parallel, UWE Bristol has embedded this target within its strategic plan (UWE Bristol, 2019), and also leads the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), an Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (UWE Bristol, 2021b). All UWE Bristol programmes are expected to embed the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within curricula (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2021), so that higher education degrees prepare graduates for working sustainably (Gough, 2021).

Bourn and Neal (2008) draw the link between global sustainability issues and engineering, with the potential to tackle complex sustainability challenges such as climate change, resource limitations, and extreme poverty. The SDGs are therefore particularly relevant to engineers, showing the connections between social, environmental, and economic actions needed to ensure humanitarian development, whilst also staying within planetary boundaries to support life on earth (Ramirez-Mendoza et al., 2020). The engineering sector is thus obligated to achieve global emissions targets, with the work of engineers being essential to enable the societal and technological change to reach net zero carbon emissions (Fogg-Rogers, L., Richardson, D., Bakthavatchaalam, V., Yeomans et al., 2021).

Systems thinking and solution-finding are critical engineering habits of mind (Lucas et al., 2014), and so introducing genuine sustainability problems provides a solid foregrounding for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in engineering. Indeed, consideration for the environment, health, safety, and social wellbeing are enshrined in the UK Specification for Professional Engineers (UK SPEC) (Engineering Council, 2021). ‘Real-world’ problems can therefore inspire and motivate learners (Loyens et al., 2015), while the use of group projects is considered to facilitate collaborative learning (Kokotsaki et al., 2016). This aligns with recommendations for creating sustainability-literate graduates published by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA and Advance HE, 2021) which emphasise the need for graduates to: (1) understand what the concept of environmental stewardship means for their discipline and their professional and personal lives; (2) think about issues of social justice, ethics and wellbeing, and how these relate to ecological and economic factors; and (3) develop a future-facing outlook by learning to think about the consequences of actions, and how systems and societies can be adapted to ensure sustainable futures (QAA & HEA, 2014). These competencies are difficult to teach, and instead need to developed by the learners themselves based on experience and reflection, through a student-centred, interdisciplinary, team-teaching design (Lamere et al., 2021).  

The need for engineers to learn about the SDGs and a zero carbon future is therefore necessary and urgent, to ensure that graduates are equipped with the skills needed to address the complex challenges facing the 21st Century.  Lamere et al., (2021)describe how the introduction of sustainability education within the engineering curriculum is typically initiated by individual academics (early adopters) introducing elements of sustainability content within their own course modules. Full curricula refresh in the UWE Bristol engineering curricula from 2018-2020 enabled a more programmatic approach, with inter-module connections being developed, alongside inter-year progression of topics and skills.

This case study explores how UWE Bristol achieved this curriculum change throughout all programmes and created inter-connected project weeks in partnership with regional stakeholders and industry. 

Case Study Methods – Embedding education for sustainable development

The first stage of the curricula transformation was to assess current modules against UK SPEC professional requirements, alongside SDG relevant topics. A departmental-wide mixed methods survey was designed to assess which SDGs were already incorporated, and which teaching methods were being utilized. The survey was emailed out to all staff in 2020, with 27 module leaders responding to highlight pedagogy in 60 modules, covering the engineering topics of: Aerospace; Mechanical and Automotive; Electrical, Electronic, and Robotics; Maths and Statistics; and Engineering Competency.

Two sub-themes were identified: ‘Direct’ and ‘Indirect’ embedding of SDGs; direct being where the engineering designs explicitly reference the SDGs as providing social or environmental solutions, and indirect being where the SDGs are achieved through engineering education e.g. quality education and gender equality. Direct inclusion of the SDGs tended to focus on reducing energy consumption, and reducing weight and waste, such as through improving the efficiency of the machines/designs. Mitigating the impact of climate change through optimal use of energy was also mentioned. The usage of lifecycle analysis was implemented in several courses, especially for composite materials and their recycling. The full analysis of the spread of the SDGs and their incorporation within different degree programmes can seen in Figure 1.

 

Figure 1 Number of Engineering Modules in which SDGs are Embedded

 

Project-based learning for civic engagement in engineering

Following this mapping process, the modules were reorganized to produce a holistic development of knowledge and skills across programmes, starting from the first year to the final year of the degree programmes. This Integrated Learning Framework was approved by relevant Professional Bodies and has been rolled out annually since 2020, as new learners enter the refreshed degree programmes at UWE Bristol. The core modules covering SDG concepts explicitly are Engineering Practice 1 and 2 (at Level 1 and 2 of the undergraduate degree programme) and ‘Engineering for Society’ (at Level 3 of the undergraduate degree programme and Masters Level). These modules utilise civic engagement with real-world industry problems, and service learning through engagement with industry, schools, and community groups (Fogg-Rogers et al., 2017).

As well as the module redevelopment, a Project-Based Learning approach has been adopted at department level, with the introduction of dedicated Project Weeks to enable cross-curricula and collaborative working. The Project Weeks draw on the Engineering for People Design Challenge (Engineers without Borders, 2021), which present global scenarios to provide university students with “the opportunity to learn and practice the ethical, environmental, social and cultural aspects of engineering design”. Critically, the challenges encourage universities to develop partnerships with regional stakeholders and industry, to provide more context for real-world problems and to enable local service learning and community action (Fogg-Rogers et al., 2017).

A collaboration with the innovation company NewIcon enabled the development of a ‘design thinking’ booklet which guides students through the design cycle, in order to develop solutions for the Project Week scenarios (UWE Bristol, 2021a). Furthermore, a partnership with the initiative for Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI) has enabled students to take part in the Inspire outreach programme (Fogg-Rogers & Laggan, 2022), which brings together STEM Ambassadors and schools to learn about engineering through sustainability focussed activities. The DETI programme is delivered by the National Composites Centre, Centre for Modelling and Simulation, Digital Catapult, UWE Bristol, University of Bristol, and University of Bath, with further industry partners including Airbus, GKN Aerospace, Rolls-Royce, and Siemens (DETI, 2021). Industry speakers have contributed to lectures, and regional examples of current real-world problems have been incorporated into assignments and reports, touching on a wide range of sustainability and ethical issues.

Reflections and recommendations for future engineering sustainability education

Students have been surveyed through module feedback surveys, and the project-based learning approach is viewed very positively. Students commented that they enjoyed working on ‘real-world projects’ where they can make a difference locally or globally. However, findings from surveys indicate that students were more inclined towards sustainability topics that were relevant to their subject discipline. For instance, Aerospace Engineering students tended to prefer topics relevant to Aerospace Engineering. A survey of USA engineering students by Wilson (2019) also indicates a link between students’ study discipline and their predilection for certain sustainability topics. This suggests that for sustainability education to be effective, the content coverage should be aligned, or better still, integrated, with the topics that form part of the students’ disciplinary studies.

The integration of sustainable development throughout the curricula has been supported at institutional level, and this has been critical for the widescale roll out. An institution-wide Knowledge Exchange for Sustainability Education (KESE) was created to support staff by providing a platform of knowledge sharing. Within the department, Staff Away days were used to hold sustainability workshops for staff to discuss ESD and the topics of interest to students.  In the initial phase of the mapping exercise, a lack of common understanding amongst staff about ESD in engineering was noted, including what it should include, and whether it is necessary for student engineers to learn about it. During the Integrated Learning Framework development, and possibly alongside growing global awareness of climate change, there has been more acceptance of ESD as an essential part of the engineering curriculum amongst staff and students. Another challenge has been the allocation of teaching workload for sustainability integration. In the initial phases, a small number of committed academics had to put in a lot of time, effort, and dedication to push through with ESD integration. There is now wider support by module leaders and tutors, who all feel capable of delivering some aspects of ESD, which eases the workload.

This case study outlines several methods for integrating ESD within engineering, alongside developing partnership working for regionally relevant real-world project-based learning. A recent study of UK higher education institutions suggests that only a handful of institutions have implemented ESD into their curricula in a systemic manner (Fiselier et al., 2018), which suggests many engineering institutions still need support in this area. However, we believe that the engineering profession has a crucial role to play in ESD alongside climate education and action, particularly to develop graduate engineers with the skills required to work upon 21st Century global challenges. To achieve net zero and a low carbon global economy, everything we make and use will need to be completely re-imagined and re-engineered, which will require close collaboration between academia, industry, and the community. We hope that other engineering educators feel empowered by this case study to act with the required urgency to speed up the global transition to carbon neutrality.

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Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors: Dr Sarah Junaid (Aston University); Professor Mike Sutcliffe (TEDI-London); Jonathan Truslove (Engineers Without Borders UK); Professor Mike Bramhall (TEDI-London).

Keywords: Active verbs; Bloom’s Taxonomy; learning outcomes; learning objectives; embedding ethics; project based learning; case studies; self-reflection; UK-SPEC; AHEP; design portfolio; ethical approval checklist and forms; ethical design.

Who this article is for?: This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to integrate ethics into the engineering and design curriculum or module design. It will also help prepare students with the integrated skill sets that employers are looking for.

 

Premise:

Engineering can have a significant impact on society and the environment, in both positive and negative ways. To fully understand the implications of engineering requires navigating complex, uncertain and challenging ethical issues. It is therefore essential to embed ethics into any project or learning outcome and for engineering professionals and educators to operate in a responsible and ethical manner.

The fourth iteration of the Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes (AHEP) reflects this importance to society by strengthening the focus on inclusive design and innovation, equality, diversity, sustainability and ethics, within its learning outcomes. By integrating ethics into engineering and design curricula, graduates develop a deeper comprehension of the ethical issues inherent in engineering and the skill sets necessary to navigate complex ethical decision-making needed across all sectors.

 

Policy:

There is growing advocacy for bringing engineering ethics to the fore in engineering programmes. At the policy level, this is evident in three general areas:

  1. UK-SPEC and accreditation bodies are identifying ethics as one of the core learning outcomes and competencies in accreditation documents.
  2. The inclusion of more descriptive competencies that expand on engineering ethics.
  3. The fourth iteration of AHEP standards reflecting the importance of societal impact in engineering.

However, to translate the accreditation learning outcomes and their intentions to an engineering programme requires a duty of care by those responsible for programme design and development. The following are points for consideration:

 

Curriculum structure:

In the UK-SPEC (4th edition) guidance the Engineering Council states: “Engineering professionals work to enhance the wellbeing of society. In doing so they are required to maintain and promote high ethical standards and challenge unethical behaviour.”

In AHEP 4, students must meet the following learning outcome: “Identify and analyse ethical concerns and make reasoned ethical choices informed by professional codes of conduct”

So, when designing a new programme, ethics should ideally be built into the learning outcomes of the programme and modules at the early design stage and consistently be emphasised throughout. To ensure ethics are embedded, students should be required to consider the outputs of their project work through a societal or community lens, especially if they are undertaking projects with a practical delivery of ethics such as, say, designing for older people in care homes.

For existing programmes, ethics could be most readily introduced through a stand-alone ethics module. It is better, however, for ethics to be embedded across the whole programme, encouraging a holistic ‘ethical considerations mindset’ as a ‘golden thread’ across, and within, all student project work (Hitt, 2022). Minor or major modifications could be made to programmes to ensure that ethics is considered and emphasised, such as through the use of active verbs that embed critical reflections of design. For programmes with a large project-based learning component, ethical considerations should be required at the initial stage of all projects.

 

Learning and teaching activities:

In all efforts to embed ethics in engineering education, there should be a focus on constructively aligning teaching activity to learning outcomes. Examples include: employing user-centred design and/or value-sensitive design approaches and case studies for technical and non-technical considerations, using empathy workshops for ethical design, and ensuring ethical considerations are included in problem statements and product design specifications for decision-making. The use of self-reflection logs and peer reflections for team working can also be useful in capturing ethical considerations in a team setting and for addressing conflict resolutions.

A pragmatic step for programmes that use project-based learning is to encourage these ethical discussions at the beginning of all project work and to return to these questions and considerations during the course of the project. Reflecting on ethics throughout will lead to an ethical mindset, a foundation that students will build on throughout their subsequent careers.

One way of ensuring this for students is to complete an ethical scrutiny checklist, which, when completed, is then considered by a departmental ethics committee. The filter questions at the start of an ethics scrutiny submission would help determine the level of review required. Projects with no human participants could be approved following some basic checks. In some universities it has become policy for ethical scrutiny to be required for all group and individual project work such as problem-based learning projects, final year degree projects, and MSc and PhD research projects. For projects that collaborate with the Health Research Authority (HRA), it is a requirement that scrutiny is through their own HRA committee and it is good practice to put these types of projects initially through a departmental and/or university ethics committee as well. Having students go through this process is a good way of revealing the ethical implications of their engineering work.

 

Assessments:

Closing the constructive alignment triangle requires assessments that are designed to utilise learning and teaching activities and to demonstrate the learning outcomes. The challenging question is: How can ethics be evaluated and assessed effectively? One solution is through using more active verbs that demonstrate ethical awareness with outputs and deliverables. Examples where this could be applied include:

For more information on methods for assessing and evaluating ethics learning, see this related article in the engineering ethics toolkit: Methods for assessing and evaluating ethics learning in engineering education.

 

Conclusion:

Using accreditation documentation to develop effective engineering programmes requires engaging beyond the checklists, thereby becoming more accustomed to viewing all competencies through an ethical lens. At programme design and module level, it is important to focus on constructively aligning the three key elements: learning outcomes written through an ethical lens, learning and teaching activities that engage with active verbs, and assessments demonstrating ethical awareness through a product, process, reflection and decisions.

 

References:

Davis, M. (2006) ‘Integrating ethics into technical courses: Mirco-insertion’, Science and Engineering Ethics, 12(4), pp.717-730.

Gwynne-Evans, A.J, Chetty, M. and Junaid, S. (2021) ‘Repositioning ethics at the heart of engineering graduate attributes’, Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, 26(1), pp. 7-24.

Hitt, S.J. (2022) ‘Embedding ethics throughout a Master’s in integrated engineering curriculum’, International Journal of Engineering Education, 38(3).

Junaid, S., Kovacs, H., Martin, D. A., and Serreau, Y. (2021) ‘What is the role of ethics in accreditation guidelines for engineering programmes in Europe?’, Proceedings SEFI 49th Annual Conference: Blended Learning in Engineering Education: challenging, enlightening – and lasting?, European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI), pp. 274-282.

 

Additional resources:

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

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