Project Overview

The well-being of humankind and the biosphere, from generation to generation, is at stake in the quest for sustainable development and calls for collaborative efforts across all sectors of society. Yet, higher education institutions play a particular role. As hubs of knowledge generation, universities are able to provide evidence for transformational strategies and actions that foster sustainable development around the world. Similarly important, however, is universities’ opportunity and responsibility to educate future change agents who are willing and able to initialize, support, and carry out the transformation of economy and societies towards sustainability. Over the past decade, sustainability has inspired new curricula and has been incorporated into existing ones at universities worldwide. Additionally, novel approaches on how to teach and learn sustainability have been developed and applied in innumerable courses. However, to date little empirical research has been conducted on sustainability curricula and courses as to provide robust evidence specifically on how students can best be educated to acquire such competencies that would qualify them for becoming impactful change agents.

The proposed project attempts to generate this type of evidence. It addresses the research question, how competence acquisition can best be fostered on two levels – for novel teaching and learning approaches in individual sustainability courses as well as for entire sustainability curricula. To this end, the project adopts a multi-methodological approach, combining in-depth qualitative case studies with a quantitative sample study to generate both detailed as well as generalizable insights. The project is designed in a transdisciplinary way involving sustainability professionals (alumni), human resource managers from selected sustainability employers, curriculum developers, course instructors, and students. The team integrates expertise in research on higher education (competencies and pedagogies), sustainability solution options, and sustainable entrepreneurship.

The proposed project conducts its research on two universities that have pioneered sustainability education in Europe and North America, namely, Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany and Arizona State University in the United States. Both universities have fully developed degree programs in sustainability (Bachelor, Master, PhD) and are widely known for their innovative teaching and learning approaches, including transdisciplinary, problem-based, project-based, and solution-oriented pedagogies. The project is expected to generate results on:

  • What competencies in sustainability are critical for future change agents, qualifying them for employability or entrepreneurship;
  • How effective are novel teaching and learning formats in conveying these key competencies;
  • Which of such novel teaching and learning formats yield the most profound impact (longitivity);What types of integrating sustainability into curricula are best suited to educate competent and passionate change agents;
  • What institutional factors are conducive to adopting such types of sustainability curricula;
  • If and how real contributions to the sustainability transformation can get attributed to the acquisition of key competencies during higher education.

The project results will advance the evidence base in the field of research on sustainability education. With regard to the practice of higher education, the project offers evidence-based guidance to other universities around the world. There is great interest in adopting and establishing impactful sustainability curricula and courses that educate future change agents able to support and carry out the sustainability transformation. This project offers some of the necessary evidence to do this in successful ways. The work plan is illustrated graphically in the figure above. For details on each stage of planned research see the descriptions of the work packages.

Additional Project Webpages