This is the second post in a two-part series on sustainability in learning and teaching. You can read the first post here: Nature, future and society: what sustainability means to UTS academics.

When I first started investigating the concept of sustainability, I was intrigued by the term itself. In my first post, I asked five field-leading UTS academics what the term sustainability meant to them. Their insights gave me a sense of the uniqueness of their disciplinary perspectives and, perhaps more importantly, the kinship their understandings of sustainability share—a concern for the natural environment and the survival of humanity; the need for interdisciplinary and social understandings of sustainability. 

But as I chatted with them, I realised I couldn’t end my conversations with these passionate educators without delving more deeply into how sustainability informs their teaching practice. 

Focusing on the future

For each of the lecturers I spoke to, an awareness of the damage created by climate change, environmental degradation and social inequality impels them to embedded sustainability in every aspect of their teaching – especially as they prepare students for their future careers and lives. 

Walter Jarvis sees a focus on sustainability as being at the heart of UTS’s role. “We’re a public institution with public responsibilities”. As an academic in the Business School, the task is therefore to help students see beyond the orthodoxy that businesses should prioritise profit over all else.  

I say to students ‘Let’s get serious because you’re going to have obligations staring you in the face. You might not have seen them yet, but they are coming.’ My job is to take students into a space where sustainability and ecological integrity are fundamental, and to prepare them for the resulting complexities.

Walter Jarvis, UTS Business

Our students will not have to face this future alone, however. For Elizabeth Humphrys, a grounding in sustainability will “allow them to stare reality in the face while giving them skills so they can be part of a collective effort”.

What I try to emphasise is that students don’t have to solve these problems on their own. There are jobs in NGOs, in government and in a whole range of industries that they can move into, where collectively they can have an impact on the world.

Elizabeth Humphrys, FASS

Despite her expertise in the day-to-day realities of the construction industry, Sara Wilkinson prepares students for the future by drawing on emerging and speculative ideas.

We have to introduce students to ideas that perhaps might not be the norm now, but may in the future be adopted. Things that are on the fringes at the moment. That may amount to something or may not.

Sara Wilkinson, DAB

Real-world application

But this blue-sky thinking doesn’t mean abandoning the real world. Sara has been working with colleagues in Science to create building facades using glazed panels containing algae, which can then be converted into biofuel. This allows her to ask students questions like “Can you improve these panels? Should we make the glazing different? Should we make the seals different? What about the pumps? The species of algae? Could this be done on an industrial scale?”.

“It’s a privilege to be able to talk to students about sustainability”, biologist Megan Murray says, “because it’s in everything, in every practice”. This perspective prompts Megan to foreground sustainability in nearly every class. 

When we’re thinking about the oceans, we might be thinking about microplastics. If we’re thinking about terrestrial systems, then we’re thinking about things like contamination. You can be looking at agricultural practices, and considering how much carbon they generate.

Megan Murray, Science

For engineer Elizabeth Tomc, our students will have to bring sustainability into every aspect of their future practice. “If you don’t do sustainability, you are absolutely nowhere close to real life”, she tells me, emphasising that it’s the current generation who “are in a position of having to fix the problems that have been created by others”.

What I’m trying to do is make sure that they understand the power that they have. And I have no doubt that sustainability has become and it’s becoming even more every day the norm.

Elizabeth Tomc, FEIT

Positive change

Although there are clearly huge obstacles for our students to overcome, I felt like everyone I spoke to was surprisingly upbeat. This sense prompted my final question – are you optimistic about the future and about the chances of our students instigating positive change? The responses were unanimous. 

“We’re equipping them,” says Elizabeth Humphrys, “with the language and the knowledge to take on the world, to be taken seriously by the people who make decisions and who hold the power at this current time”.

For Elizabeth Tomc, there’s a similar feeling. “This whole cohort is going to go into industry and it’s going to change things…if we have any place to be optimistic, it’s because of that”.

Megan Murray openly acknowledges challenges, but sees reasons for positivity. “This generation of students, those coming through our university now, there’s a lot of things stacked against them in terms of climate change, and also employability and housing affordability, but they’re feeling, through local actions, that sense of control and responsibility. I think it’s really empowering”.

Optimism meets reality

For me, that last word used by Megan is the key – empowering. These UTS academics are not only teaching, not only training, not only inspiring, but empowering. Empowering students to make a real difference in the world. And so it’s impossible to speak to these passionate educators without being affected by their positivity. As Walter Jarvis told me, “The situation is far more complex, far more personal than it has been before. The stakes are higher. But there is a serious appetite. [Our students] want to know more. They want to do more. And that’s where my optimism meets reality”. 

 Feature image by Fidel Fernando.

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