7 challenges in education for sustainable development – and how you can address those

Education for sustainable development (ESD) is becoming increasingly important as we strive to create a more sustainable future for all. However, there are several challenges that need to be addressed in order to effectively integrate ESD into the education system. These challenges include a lack of understanding of the concept of sustainability, a lack of resources and support for ESD, a lack of integration of ESD into the curriculum, a lack of teacher training, a lack of student engagement, a lack of assessment and evaluation, and a lack of collaboration and partnerships.

1. Lack of understanding of the concept of sustainability:

Many people, including educators, still lack a clear understanding of what sustainability is and why it is important. This can make it difficult to integrate ESD into the education system, as educators may not fully understand the concept and its relevance. To address this challenge, educators and decision-makers need to be provided with clear and accessible information on the concept of sustainability and its importance.

There are many resources that can be useful to raise knowledge and awareness in sustainable development among educators. For example, Unesco has published a set of suggestions for learning objectives for the Sustainable Development Goals of the Agenda 2030.

2. Lack of resources and support for ESD:

Another challenge is the lack of resources and support for ESD. This can include a lack of funding, a lack of materials and resources, and a lack of support from decision-makers. To address this challenge, it is important for educators and decision-makers to advocate for increased funding and support for ESD. This can include lobbying for more funding for ESD programmes and initiatives, as well as developing partnerships with organizations and businesses that can provide resources and support.

This is a subject that is often discussed and debated in various forums. Unesco has also produced a roadmap for ESD that is very informative, and that can be incredibly useful background material when advocating for increased ESD support.

3. Lack of integration of ESD into the curriculum:

A third challenge is the lack of integration of ESD into the curriculum. This can make it difficult for educators to effectively teach ESD, and for students to understand the relevance of the topic. To address this challenge, it is important for ESD to be integrated into the curriculum at all levels of education. This can include developing ESD-specific curriculum and resources, as well as integrating ESD into existing subjects and courses.

Snowflake Education has developed several learning packages for sustainability that can easily be integrated in any course or education programme.

4. Lack of teacher training:

A fourth challenge is the lack of teacher training on ESD. This can make it difficult for educators to effectively teach ESD, as they may not have the knowledge and skills necessary to do so. To address this challenge, it is important for teachers to receive training on ESD, including on the concept of sustainability, teaching strategies, and the use of ESD-specific resources and materials.

Snowflake Education offer a great faculty/teacher training course called Teaching Sustainability in Higher Education – from Theory into Practice.

5. Lack of student engagement:

A fifth challenge is the lack of student engagement in ESD. This can make it difficult for students to understand the relevance and importance of ESD, and to take action to promote sustainability. To address this challenge, it is important to develop engaging and interactive ESD resources and activities that will capture students’ interest and inspire them to take action.

Educational classroom games (board games, simulation games, roleplay games and so on) have shown a strong ability to raise student engagement in the learning process, especially in ESD. I had the opportunity to contribute in a project on critical evaluation of simulations and games as tools for expanding student perspectives on sustainability, for which we reported the findings in this conference paper.

6. Lack of assessment and evaluation:

A sixth challenge is the lack of assessment and evaluation of ESD programmes and initiatives. This can make it difficult to determine the effectiveness of ESD and to identify areas for improvement. To address this challenge, it is important to develop and implement assessment and evaluation tools that can be used to measure the effectiveness of ESD programmes and initiatives.

This research paper by G. Davis (2007) delves deeper into the importance of assessment and evaluation in sustainability, specifically in the field of engineering education. The study was performed at the University of Bristol in Bristol, England, and clearly show that even though students had a good knowledge of the terminology associated with sustainable development principles, there was a discrepancy in the understanding of the various subject areas, tools and methods for sustainable development.

7. Lack of collaboration and partnerships:

A seventh challenge is the lack of collaboration and partnerships between educators, decision-makers, and organizations and businesses. This can make it difficult to effectively implement ESD and to secure the resources and support necessary for its success. To address this challenge, it is important to develop partnerships and collaborations between educators, decision-makers, and organizations and businesses that can provide resources and support for ESD.

A few years ago, Comenius (the EU programme for schools) produced this report. The conclusions in the report generally still hold and this is a great resource for digging deeper into the subject of collaboration and partnerships for ESD.


In conclusion, there are several challenges that need to be addressed in order to effectively integrate ESD into the education system.

Have efforts for enhancing sustainability in education ceased due to the pandemic?

Priorities changed in 2020.
Icons made by srip from www.flaticon.com

In spite of the extreme and negative implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, some people have put forward that the disease might be what the world needs to break negative trends – and that it might actually be good for the environment. It might seem like that the Earth is recovering as people stay at home and wildlife returns to places from where it previously had been banned. For some, it may even be tempting to smile at nations crumbling to their knees as economic growth is finally seeming to end. As planes are grounded and factories are closing, carbon emissions are dropping around the world. In China, carbon emissions fell by 25% due to the lockdown in the beginning of 2020 and in March 2020 in Italy, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions diminished to a fraction of what they were before, as shown in satellite images by ESA.

However, these effects are very local and temporary. In a paper in May 2020 in Nature, Le Quéré et al (2020) conclude that even though daily global CO2 emissions decreased by 17% in early April, the total drop in emissions for the year 2020 will probably ‘only’ be in the range of 4-7%. And in 2021 they will most likely go up again, eradicating the reduction of this year.

So, the positive effects of COVID-19 might be very slim. The horrific human impacts with hundreds of thousands dead already, directly linked to the disease, are obvious. But in what other ways may the COVID-19 pandemic impact sustainability? And what about sustainability in education, does that exist anymore?

In reality, the pandemic is extremely dangerous both from a social and an environmental perspective. And one of the most disturbing consequences seem to be a dramatic drop in initiatives and efforts for increased sustainability. In countries, corporations and schools alike, it is as if ‘sustainability’ would suddenly be regarded as that luxury ingredient of the dish that we no longer can afford, when in reality it is the ingredient that holds all the nutrients without which we will not survive.

SDGs on decline

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of Agenda 2030 have been efficient in bringing a focal point to sustainability discussions, not least in education for sustainable development. Collectively, the 17 Goals and the 169 Targets form an easy-to-grasp summery of a reasonable to-do-list for humanity. They also convey the message that sustainability can only be reached by taking a systems perspective, and by respecting opposing viewpoints, since the SDGs are intrinsically indivisible. Progress in one SDG can lead to second-order effects in other SDGs that can be either beneficial (synergies) or unfavourable (revealing goal-conflicts). Taking a systems approach means trying to disclose the feedback loops of the system and inciting the beneficial ones while repelling the detrimental ones. In education for sustainable development, this is one of the natural starting points.

Already before the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the SDGs were already off target. In the newly published The Sustainable Development Goals Report2020, the United Nations reveal that the coronavirus pandemic has put the SDGs out of reach.

For example, childhood vaccination programmes have been delayed in 70 countries around the world, and more than 70 million people will be forced into extreme poverty this year, breaking a slow but steady trend that has been in the right direction for decades. The goals to eliminate poverty, hunger and inequality, and to promote health, well-being and economic growth are headed for extinction. The pandemic risks wiping our years of improvements.

As schools have closed, this has prevented 94% of the world’s schoolchildren and students – nearly 1,6 billion learners – the chance to go to school. In low and lower-middle income countries, up to 99% of the learners have been affected by school closures (Policy Brief: Education during COVID-19 and beyond by the UN, August 2020). In many countries, schools have tried to continue in the form of distance studies and although millions of teachers across the world have made a heroic effort to transform classroom studies into online studies in almost no time, millions of students are in the risk of loosing out because of this. The UN is anticipating an increased dropout rate due to the pandemic, both due to direct effects of school closures and additional impact due to increased economic inequalities if millions of people are pushed into severe poverty.

What is even worse is that it seems that the efforts to work strategically for the SDGs have been weakened. Many European Union sustainability initiatives have been postponed, diluted or cancelled. The United Nations have postponed or abandoned many of their sustainability meetings, for example the Glasgow Climate Change Conference.

Time to step up

Not least in education for sustainable development, I have noted a sudden and dramatic reduction in efforts to integrate sustainability in courses within most education disciplines as educators struggle to reinvent education to fit online.

My call to action for all educators is to use this opportunity, when you anyway are making such dramatic changes to your courses, to make them smart. Use sustainability as a motivator for students to stay tuned during distance learning challenges. Use the Global Goals as a point of departure for whatever you want them to learn about the core subject. Use the pandemic as a source for discussion.

It is time to step up for sustainability, and to turn this challenge into the enormous opportunity in education for sustainable development that it could be!

Integrating sustainability in engineering education – a national study of programme director perspectives

Yesterday, I received an email declaring that I and my colleague Dr. Ola Leifler had gotten our most recent scientific article published in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, with the title Curriculum integration of sustainability in engineering education – a national study of programme director perspectives.

Every publication day is a celebration day!

I have presented the findings from this study on several occasions in both national and international conferences, and in this blog post I will be summarising the most important results. I believe those could be of quite significant importance to policy makers and decision makers on various levels in higher education, and specifically in engineering education – naturally in Sweden since this is a national study, but indeed the findings also have broader implication.

BIG THANKS to all respondents who participated in this study!

Background to the study

Since of 2006, all higher education institutions (HEIs) in Sweden are enforced to, “in the course of their operations, […] promote sustainable development to assure for present and future generations a sound and healthy environment, economic and social welfare, and justice” (The Swedish Higher Education Act, Chapter 1, Section 5). This means, among other things, that sustainability must be integrated in higher education. Details on how this must be performed for acquiring and maintaining accreditation to issues HE degrees is specified in The Higher Education Ordinance, Annex 2.

In order to evaluate to which extent HEIs meet the requirements of the law, the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) performed an evaluation in 2017 on the work of universities and colleges in promoting sustainable development. It was found that three quarters (!) of the higher education institutions are deemed to need to develop their processes in this area. In other words: they fail to meet the requirements in the law!

With this study, we wanted to further explore on those results of UKÄ’s evaluation with a more detailed account, especially for engineering education. We believe that the results are mostly generalisable and of interest to an international audience.

The research questions of the study

Programme directors are key stakeholders for integrating sustainability in education. In this study, we wanted to learn about their perspectives on integrating sustainability in the education programmes they are responsible for.

Specifically, we were curious about the following questions, specifically for engineering education:

  • To what extent do programme directors in engineering education possess a deep understanding of the subject of sustainable development?
  • Which are the core competencies in sustainable development that programme directors identify as important for their engineering students to acquire during their basic training?
  • To what extent are those competencies integrated into engineering education today and what kind of support do programme directors receive from their department to integrate these competencies into the curriculum?

Arguably, teaching sustainability is difficult indeed! But it is also crucial, in order to realign education – and in the longer term, society – for the challenges our global society faces today and tomorrow.

How the study was performed

We addressed all 244 programme directors in Sweden that are responsible for one (and in some cases several) engineering programme(s) on Bachelor or Master level. Following up emails with several phone calls showed to be an extremely efficient method for reaching this community, and in the end, we gotten no less than 89 respondents! This corresponds to a response rate of 34%. We had a broad representation of the engineering spectrum (from mechanical engineering to computer science, chemical science and biotechnology etc.). Each respondent answered an online survey and, in some cases, we followed up with clarifying interviews.

The most important results

I present eight results in this blog post. We present results associated with Bachelor programmes (3YP), Master programmes (5YP) and summarised (3/5YP) separately.

The first result determines what programme directors in engineering education associate with the concept ‘sustainable development’, as an attempt to understand their level of understanding of this complex subject. In Results 1/8 it is evident that reference to the Brundtland report’s definition of sustainable development, the management of natural resources and a general reference to the three-pillar conception of sustainability (social, economic and environmental). Nothing surprising or controversial so far thus.


In Results 2/8 we see which of the United Nations’ Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that programme directors believe their students will acquire skills to address in the future. This is more interesting indeed, and wee see that SDGs associated with ‘traditional’ engineering skills (eg. energy, industry, innovation, infrastructure, production and in some cases climate change) are overrepresented. We do find this interesting since the we believe this may reveal a quite old-fashioned view on the engineering profession held by those responsible for renewing engineering education. We had hoped for a much more evenly distributed histogram that had better reflected the view that the SDGs are indeed indivisible and that engineers may be key candidates to become change agents for sustainability – able to address ALL OF THE SDGs on an system level.

We were also interested to learn what the progression of sustainability looked like through the programmes surveyed. In Results 3/8 we can see that there is a fairly good amount of introduction courses on sustainability but only a minority of the programmes follow up on those with progression throughout the programme. And to be honest: even if 60% of engineering programmes having at least an introduction module on sustainability is probably much higher than the corresponding fraction in many other disciplines, it is far from the goal of integrating sustainability in all engineering programmes. Another note on this relates to the concept of Virtual Course Plans for Sustainability Progression in Education Programmes, which I have reported on elsewhere. Perhaps there would be a need for a national programme to implement virtual course plans in engineering programmes?

In Results 4/8 it becomes increasingly obvious that even though sustainability is far from being a traditional subject it is often taught as any other traditional subject. Sustainability is intrinsically complex, interdisciplinary, being a subject of values and it needs a systems perspective to be truly understood. Innovative forms of teaching and learning such as active learning seminars, classroom games, role plays and so on do exist, but apparently many engineering programmes seem to be in desperate need of updates on the matter of the forms by which these issues are taught and learnt.

Note: red frames indicate ‘traditional teaching activities’, green frames indicate innovative teaching activities for which there is support in scientific literature of being effective in delivering sustainability education; yellow frames indicate teaching activities that can take both ‘traditional’ and ‘innovative’ forms and which therefore are difficult to evaluate.

One hunch that we had before we performed the study – that showed to be completely wrong – was that there might be some resistance among senior lecturers and programme directors against deep integration of sustainability in engineering education. However, as shown in Results 5/8 we could conclude that an overwhelming majority of programme directors saw very clear connections between the sustainability concept and their own subject. Instead, they reported that the most important challenge to overcome would be the lack of competence among the teaching staff to deliver sustainability education.

This picture became even clearer when analysing Results 6/8, where programme directors were asked to report on what motivate them personally to integrate sustainability in education. To our great satisfaction we could conclude that the main driver for integrating sustainability in education is the personal conviction of programme directors that this is actually important to do! We were very surprised over this being such a strong driver indeed, and that the legislative drivers were relatively weak (even though they were not weak on an absolute scale).

Results 7/8 and Results 8/8 respectively show to what extent programme directors feel they get the support they need from university management, and to what extent they believe that support is important.

Where do we go from here?

The general conclusion is that programme directors see teacher training for sustainability education as the most important lever to make real change – and that they feel that universities are not providing that to a sufficient extent.

Since I have personally been engaged with teacher training for sustainability education for almost a decade, I strongly agree with the opinion of this being of uttermost importance. This is also why I have done my best to develop, deliver and promote such teacher training courses both formerly as a lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and today at Snowflake Education where we offer a teacher training programme that is absolutely game changing for those who take it.

This study was indeed very rewarding to perform. It confirmed some intuitions about sustainability education that we had before but it also challenged our own believes on a few points. It definitely gives me further confidence in promoting active learning with education games and flipped classroom as efficient ways to integrate sustainable development in education. And it certainly provides arguments when I promote the teacher training programme that I am proudly able to offer to those educators in need of further building their competence and confidence.

Understanding the pandemic through the lens of systems thinking

The ongoing coronavirus/covid-19 pandemic is a tragedy. Many people have already died from the virus and many more will follow. The double tragedy of the virus outbreak itself and the economic crisis due to the attempts to slow down the spread of the disease, doubles up the effects of this black swan event.

Visualization of the coronavirus causing COVID-19. Picture attribute: Fusion Medical Animation

In the light of the potential threat of the virus in combination with fast and non-predictable disruptions in our societies, it is not surprising that the outbreak is accompanied with a lot of anxiety and even horror. It is potentially scary indeed to listen to daily reports on the rising number of deaths, hearing about people you know catching the disease and passing away, and perhaps catching the illness yourself, as the new and unknown disease is unfolding around us. However, we tend to fear the most those things that we understand the least. Understanding the dynamics of the disease and the societal disruptions themselves is a key to diminishing and handling the anxiety it might bring.

This is also true in the attempt to help others coping with their fears of the development – not least of all in (virtual) classrooms around the world where educators try their best to calm their students. Many young people are afraid and their teachers can do a lot to help them not only to manage, but actually even to learn from the current global event.

In its initial phases, a pandemic is exponential on almost any measure: the number of new cases per day in a region; the number of patients in intensive care; the number of deaths; and so on. This is true up to a certain point in time, when curves tend to flatten – either because a high enough fraction of the population has acquired some level of immunity or resistance to the virus, or because interventions to stop or reduce the paste of the outbreak are having effect. Much of the dynamics of the pandemic can be understood by understanding the tension between exponential growth and the dampening effects of balancing feedback loops.

The disease curve is exponential in the initial phase, but will not remain exponential forever. By controlling the spread of the disease during the exponential phase we can most effectively reduce the death rate, by increasing the doubling time and reducing the rate of transmission of the disease. Picture attribute: Our World in Data through Forbes

Feedback loops are at the core of systems thinking, and understanding systems is to a high extent all about understanding feedback between interconnected components of the system. Fostering a systems thinking is key to understanding almost any part of the world we live in, and certainly for understanding a pandemic outbreak. In education for sustainable development, systems thinking is identified as one of the key competences that all students should acquire for being able to contribute to a sustainable society, as the development and dynamics of everything around us is unfolding as development of systems. This is true for the climate system, where reinforcing feedback loops may cause global warming to spiral out of hand. For example, when the melting of polar ice causes Earth’s albedo to drop, trapping more of the incoming sun light within the system and reinforcing global warming – leading to more polar ice melting and so on. This is however to a certain extent compensated by dampening feedback loops such as global warming also leading to an increase in cloud formation, rising Earth’s albedo and thus reflecting more sunlight back into space and therefore cooling the planet. The climate system can only be understood by understanding the tension between (exponential) reinforcing feedback loops and dampening (balancing) feedback loops.

An example of a very simple system with feedback loops: the support from the supervisor makes an employee work harder leading to increased performance (reinforcing feedback loop); this is balanced by a dampening feedback loop due to the eventual ‘burnout’ of the employee. Picture attribute: Daniel Kim

The same is true for man-made systems. Take the global economy: it consists of a complex mix of components affecting one another in complicated patterns, which gives rise to feedback loops some of which are reinforcing and some are dampening. For example, without any outside restrictions or interventions, a factory producing goods is an example of an exponentially reinforcing feedback loop. For each product item it delivers, it produces revenue that can partly be invested in the production system to increase future production rate and therefore revenues. If the factory was producing in a vacuum without any boundaries, this feedback loop alone would cause exponential growth in productivity. In reality, reinforcing feedback loops are, on the longer term, balanced by dampening feedback loops that are keeping the balance of the system. In the example of the production facility, examples of dampening feedback loops would be the effects of competition, taxes, and limited resources.

Similarly, we see complex systems all around us, working along the same general dynamics of competing (exponential) reinforcing versus dampening (balancing) feedback loops. On a general level, this is true for the dynamics of any system including ecosystems, geophysical systems (the circulation of rock and magma from Earth’s interior to the surface in volcanoes and back again in the oceans’ subduction zones), hydrophysical systems (the circulation of water as vapour from land and oceans into rain clouds, falling down forming lakes and glaciers and finally pouring back into oceans again). Even human psychology is working on the same basic principles: in general dampening biochemical feedback loops in our central neural system are keeping and balancing levels which causes a fairly stable mood (in most people), but sudden outbreaks of electrical and chemical signals trigger feedback loops in the form of chain reactions to go off, which changes mood from one meta-stable state to another meta-stable state.

In fact, one of the features that would reveal that you are dealing with a complex system governed by feedback loops, is that there exists some type of stable or meta-stable state that can be interrupted by the onset of exponential growth of some parameter. The shift from the meta-stable state can only be exponential for some time though before limiting feedback loops kick in and the system may acquire another meta-stable state. For example, the climate system has been shifting between two meta-stable states for several million years (until humans came about and disturbed the system into another direction), namely the about 100,000 years long ice ages interrupted by shorter, about 10,000 years long interglacial periods (as the current one). The same dynamics work for the pandemic as well: there may exist several meta-stable states in the population, at least two of which would be (1) a population with no (or only infinitesimal) level of infection, and (2) a population with a high degree of resilience to infection (due to immune system resistance). The respective state is fairly stable but the transition between states is rapid (on the time scale of weeks or months).

Understanding systems and feedback loops is key to understanding anything in the natural world as well as human-made systems. This is why I and others with me advocate for integrating systems thinking in all education as this is one of the most important skills to learn for enabling a sustainable development to happen. It is only by understanding systems we can truly understand the world, and it is only by understanding the world we can put the right and most efficient interventions in place to change development of the world’s natural and human-made systems onto paths that are sustainable on the longer term.

The same is true for handling this pandemic. Indeed, a viral outbreak is a great example of a sustainability issue. In my own classroom teaching, I have often used the exponential growth of a virus as an example of a sustainability issue that can be understood by system dynamics. The growth is exponential and the potential interventions are effective depending on the level of damping they can provide. If an intervention does provide damping, it may prove efficient in slowing down the process by decreasing the rate of growth. However, the situation must also be understood as a whole-system where the viral outbreak is but a part of a larger system: interventions to decrease viral growth do indeed have other effects, such as dampening productivity which ultimately can lead to another phase shift in the system if it causes an economic crisis and even economic collapse. In such case the number of deaths from other causes, such as famine and the spiking of other diseases, would potentially outnumber the potential deaths of the pandemic outbreak by several orders of magnitude – by which end nothing would had been won and a lot would had been lost. This is why handling the pandemic is a very delicate and difficult matter for governments and agencies around the world, and it is by no means certain that one approach to dealing with the situation will be more efficient than any other.

This is however not to say that we have no clue. The key for understanding the pandemic, and to maximise the chances for handling it correctly, is to understand it as a complex system with feedback loops. ‘Complex’ does not mean that we cannot understand it, it just means that we cannot be certain of how it will develop. But with better understanding of the system we will certainly have a better chance of doing the right thing than if we were shooting completely blind (which by the way some governments seem to be doing).

To conclude, the dynamics of this pandemic is very similar to the dynamics of any system. As in any system, where we have the possibility to affect the system, maximising the chance for an as beneficial dynamics as possible, can only be achieved by understanding the feedback loops of the system. And the first step in understanding those, is to attain a systems thinking approach and learn the basics about feedback loops.

A great way to learn feedback loops is though the simulation game FishBanks. If you are following what I am writing and lecturing about you may know that I am a keen promoter of games as tools for learning, and that I and my colleagues have developed many learning packages around sustainability and systems thinking. Please check them out here if you are interested, and do write a comment or share this article if you liked it. And by the way, another great game for understanding the dynamics of the current crisis is Pandemic.


How American universities will teach sustainability to engineering students [report from roundtable with experts in Washington D.C.]

How will American engineering students learn the skills they will need to tackle the grand challenges of the world? The concept of sustainable development – including environmental and social responsibility – has not previously been mandatory to study at American institutions. But this is going to change.

This week I participated in a roundtable discussion in Washington D.C. focusing on how American universities should integrate sustainability in engineering education. For two intense days, 20 experts including professors and industry experts discussed how principles of environmentally responsible engineering should and must be integrated in all engineering education in the US. The roundtable was a pre-conference activity of the OPEN VentureWell conference (28-30 Martch 2019).

The session was facilitated by Darcy Winslow and Charles Holmes of the Academy for Systems Change, on behalf of the hosts VentureWell and the Lemelson Foundation. The objective of this work will be to create a roadmap for change.

Facilitator Darcy Winslow of the Academy for Systems Change and participants to the roundtable in Washington D.C.

The role of the engineer

Engineers are key professionals in the transformation that society is undergoing, and have been so for the last two centuries. Technical development has had a huge impact on how we go by our daily business and made life easier, safer and more comfortable to ever more people. However, as our technological strength has increased, our increasingly technology-based lifestyle has brought many unwanted side effects. Those include the eradication of 60% of animal populations since 1970, the loss of 7 million people every year due to air pollution, and potentially devastating effects due to anthropogenic climate change.

In more and more countries, engineering education is considered a key leverage point for making the needed change towards a more sustainable development. More and more young people are also making a conscious decision about their career, refusing to work for companies that have a net negative impact to climate change for example. Embedding sustainability as a natural part of engineering education is becoming a differentiation and branding opportunity for institutions of higher education.

Creating a roadmap for change

The roundtable hosted by the Lemelson Foundation and VentureWell convened 20 thought leaders from across higher education, non-profit organisations, corporate business, and government. I was the only expert called in from outside the USA. All of us had extensive experience and expertise in engineering education for sustainable development through research, teaching and invention as well as in spreading this approach within our respective fields.

Facilitators Darcy Winslow and Charles Holmes of the Academy for Systems Change.

The scope of the meeting was to create a roadmap for defining and developing a framework for environmentally responsible engineering. Throughout these two days, we were engaging in workshops and discussions. Everybody was sharing their personal experiences and challenges, and we tried to innovate about the most feasible way ahead.

As everyone was expressing their enthusiasm about taking part in future activities following these two intensive days, at the end of the second day indeed we had reached a few conclusions:

  • As a valuable next step, a strategic document should be created that clarifies the rationale and urgency of this work. In this document, the concept of environmentally responsible engineering should be defined and the core questions, goals, and values that define it should be brought into light.
  • It would also be valuable to develop comprehensive communication tools and a repository of existing sustainability frameworks and other relevant resources.
  • This year, 2019, was cited as a clear window of opportunity for establishing a timeline of critical milestones and deliverables for the future of this effort

The work that we have been devoted to at Snowflake Education for the last couple of years indeed reflect extremely well the needs stated by the participants at the roundtable. Since we have already developed the teaching tools and the methodology that everybody was claiming to be missing, undeniably, there will probably be a huge demand for the products and services that we are able to deliver.

A poster at the OPEN VentureWell conference (28-30 Martch 2019) reflecting on some of the outcomes from the roundtable. Note the Venn diagram, which by no accident resembles the Snowflake Education concept for integrating sustainable development in education.

Is America finally on the right path towards sustainability?

I learnt during the roundtable that ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology), the recognized accreditor of engineering programs in the United States, has recently updated its’ accreditation standards and decided to strengthen the statements for sustainability and ethics.

Reading the new learning objectives for sustainability, it is astonishing how closely those now resemble the learning objectives in the Swedish accreditation documents.

This is how the learning objectives for sustainability and ethics are stated in the ABET Engineering Area Delegation as of October 20, 2017, for implementation in the 2019–2020 accreditation review cycle:

“2. an ability to apply engineering design to produce solutions that meet specified needs with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, as well as global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors

4. an ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts”

This is the corresponding articulation in the Swedish Higher Education Ordinance:

“For the degree of Master of Science in Engineering, the student should be able to:

show the ability to develop and design products, processes and systems with regard to people’s conditions and needs and society’s goals for economic, social and ecologically sustainable development,

demonstrate the ability to make judgments with regard to relevant scientific, social and ethical aspects and to show awareness of ethical aspects of research and development work,

show insight into the possibilities and limitations of technology, its role in society and people’s responsibility for how it is used, including social and economic aspects, and environmental and work environment aspects, […]”


During the roundtable, I got a distinct feeling of haven travelled back in time with a time machine. The fact is, that we have worked along those lines at universities in Sweden for the last fifteen years. I suddenly realized how much I had to contribute with, since I was essentially the only one in the room equipped with a crystal ball. I had done this whole exercise before.

In Sweden, the Higher Education Act from 2006 states that all university education must be designed to promote a sustainable development. Therefore, all education programmes have to integrate sustainability and environmental concern into their curriculum, learning activities, and assessment. It is inspiring to conclude that US universities will now be following after on the same path. Maybe there will be one thing or two that we could share on how to do this – and how not to do it.

Teacher training course in Education for Sustainable Development: register for the course starting in January NOW and get 25% off the course fee

In January we will launch the next round of our popular course in Education for Sustainable Development: Pedagogical Methods for Integrating Sustainable Development in Education. The course starts on Wednesday 9 January 2019 with a two-day session here in Stockholm where we will have a series of interactive exercises and workshop seminars. Most of the course is then run as a distance learning course from January through June and ends with another two-day session in Stockholm on 12-13 June.

Register before 15 December and get 25% off the price – type in discount code HUKURS at checkout!

The methods demonstrated during the course are based on modern educational concepts such as digital learning, blended learning, flipped-classroom, active learning and serious games. The course focuses on teaching tools for integrating sustainable development at the course and program level.

We will go through a number of educational tools, not least the educational games that I have been involved in developing and using in my own classroom. Those include DILEMMA, FishBanks, Clime Out and In the Loop. Naturally, we will also be using the Snowflake Education online Toolbox for sustainability education, both as the learning platform used during the course itself and as an online reference resource for teaching material that participants could use in their own classroom during and after the training course.

During the course all participants will be given the opportunity to initiate a process of change at their own institutions, alternatively work on a concrete, reality-based case that simulates this. All participants will also receive personalized tutoring and feedback throughout the course.

I hope that you’ll join in and register! See you in Stockholm! 😊

Interview with Jeremy Faludi, inventor of the Whole System Mapping method

In this blog post I am delighted to present an interview with Jeremy Faludi, who is an Assistant Professor of Engineering at Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. Jeremy is a sustainable design strategist. He has contributed to six books on sustainable design, including Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. He created the Whole System Mapping sustainable design method, designed the prototype of AskNature.org for the Biomimicry Institute, and a bicycle he helped design appeared in the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum’s 2007 exhibit “Design for the Other 90%.”

Jeremy, could you tell us a little about your background?

Sure.  I grew up between the farmer’s fields and woods of rural Wisconsin, which I think is how I became an environmentalist.   Then I went off to the west coast and got a physics degree, then a design degree, and finally a mechanical engineering degree, with 15 years of industry consulting and jobs in between them, trying to make the world a better place though green design.  I just started teaching at Dartmouth a year ago, but before that taught at Stanford, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and other places.

How did you become interested in design?

I had a hard time deciding between creative pursuits and the analytical rigor of solving hard problems.  Design is one of the few places that requires both in great measure, and sustainable design especially.  The problems we’re solving are extremely complex and difficult, and they require a ton of creativity.  But it’s immensely satisfying.

What is the Whole System Mapping method, and who is it for?

It’s a sustainable design method aimed at product designers, engineers, and managers.  It makes systems thinking simple, concrete, and actionable, and attempts to turn sustainability from a burden into a source of innovation.  The method combines big-picture creative thinking with quantitative sustainability metrics.  It broadens the design team’s scope by the creation of a visual whole-system map; a later step using this map also encourages more thorough and radical brainstorming. The method also helps target efforts to get the biggest improvements for the least work by setting ideation priorities and choosing final designs through quantitative measurements, such as life-cycle assessment or point-based certification systems.

In a study I performed with over 500 participants in industry and academia, practitioners valued Whole System Mapping not only for its sustainability benefits, but also as an innovation tool and a communication tool to get disparate team members of different specialties all aligned on the problem definition and goals.  It can also be easily combined with other green design practices like biomimicry, The Natural Step, 12 Leverage Points, and others.

Where can people learn more about the Whole System Mapping, if they want to perform the method themselves?

You can find out more about Whole System Mapping and try it yourself in the VentureWell Tools for Design and Sustainability site.  There are three pages on Whole System Mapping: the first contains a six-minute video summary and downloadable PDF, the second contains a step-by-step exercise, and the third contains an example PDF.  There’s also an academic article analyzing it here.  Actually, the VentureWell site is most of a masters-level capstone class I taught on green product design, covering everything from energy to material choice to persuasive design, with recommendations for how instructors can integrate the content into ordinary engineering, design, or business classes.

Which role do you envision that technology and design may play in the future to help us obtain a sustainable development?

Technology and design are the hands and feet of change; business is the pumping blood that keeps everything moving, and culture plus politics are the brain that decides what the whole body does.  Without effective technology and design you can’t implement change, but they’re not sufficient by themselves, you need to also change culture, politics, and business to enable technology and design to build the better world.

As for the difference between them, technology can improve the environmental impacts of people’s lifestyles without changing their behavior (e.g. changing from a gas car to an electric car); design can change people’s lifestyles without requiring new technology (e.g. changing from a car to a bike or bus).  Both have power, and they enable each other.

Which of the grand challenges do you believe will be the most difficult one for us as a society to address?

What’s most difficult is not necessarily what’s most impactful.  I’m interested in what’s most impactful; if it’s easy, all the better.  I have a whole hour-long lecture on priorities for sustainability (in a nutshell, empirical research from many organizations around the world suggest dense livable equitable cities, better buildings, better transportation of people, better food systems, and cleaner energy generation). I also recommend Project Drawdown’s analysis.  But really, so many of these challenges are intertwined: for example, pollution mostly affects those in poverty, who are most often racial or ethnic minorities, etc.  So if you reduce pollution you help minorities, and if you empower minorities, they will force pollution reduction, etc.

What would be your number one advice that you would give to a young person who is concerned about the future, and who is thinking about which education route to take to play a role in making the future as bright as possible?

Any job in every industry can drive sustainability.  But some places have more leverage than others—business has the most leverage.  So even if you’re like me and prefer design, get some competence in business and work to redesign company strategies, or start your own company.  I recommend aiming for high priorities (as mentioned a minute ago), and looking for places where small interventions can have big effects.  For example, back in 2005 I was writing for Worldchanging, and wrote an article about how Google Maps (which only did driving directions then) should make an open API for cities to provide public transit trip planning, because Google had the best map interface and was providing it for free, while lots of cities were spending tons of money on custom transit mapping software with terrible interfaces.  One of the comments on the article was from the head of IT for Portland, Oregon’s transit agency, saying that they wanted the same thing but couldn’t get anyone at Google to talk to them.  I had friends at Google, and asked them to find the Maps people.  Six months later, Google Maps did transit, and now it does it on your phone in hundreds of cities around the world.  That software design has caused more people to switch to public transit than any innovations in train or bus design, station signage, route layout, or urban planning.  And it was cheaper and easier, too.

So look for places where small design interventions can have big effects, and aim to redesign business models as well as products.


Training in teaching for sustainable development

This week we launched no less than two separate teacher training efforts:

Wednesday: I and Emma Strömberg (IVL) hosted the first session of six in our new training course in pedagogical methods for integrating sustainability in education, for a cohort of university teachers at KTH in Södertälje

Thursday: the launch of a training endeavor for teachers in secondary schools, were they receive training on using our educational board games and the Snowflake Education online toolkit for teaching sustainable development. This event was hosted by Helena Lennholm (KTH, The Department of Learning in Engineering Sciences).

Thank you Emma, Helena and all participating teachers! I am looking forward to the coming sessions in the next few weeks!

EESD18: Engineering Education for Sustainable Development – Rowan University conference June 2018

Last week I attended the EESD18 conference in Engineering Education for Sustainable Development at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, USA. This was the ninth edition of the EESD conference series, and my own fourth time.

EESD18 Rowan University

The theme for this year was Creating the Holistic Engineer – which focuses on the urgent need to start breaking the silos that we are currently working in at engineering institutions. We live in an increasingly complex world and we are at a critical juncture at which humanity must make some serious choices about the future. Engineers are indeed key players in the societal transitions that need to happen. Creating engineers with a holistic approach to complex problem management and who are able to negotiate sometimes opposing attitudes and viewpoints among stakeholders, will be one of the most challenging and most important changes to engineering education we have to make.

These were four days filled with interesting discussions and meetings with people that are totally dedicated to integrating sustainable development into engineering education.

On the opening session on Monday 4th June, Dr. Jordi Segalas gave a historical recap of how the EESD conference series have developed from the first edition of the conference held in Delft, The Netherlands, in 2002. The topics covered have changed somewhat throughout the years and pretty much followed societal trends and how the state of the art in sustainability has developed. The multi- and transdisciplinary characteristics of the subject have always been a strong ingredient in the conferences, and connect indeed with how to deal with complexity, different viewpoints and multiple stakeholders. Interesting trends that can be seen in the statistics are for example less emphasise on environmental and more on social issues; more discussions on how to change the engineering curriculum and how to integrate sustainability on a program level; and perhaps to some extent less focus on specific techniques (such as Life Cycle Assessment) and more on overarching challenges.

During an excursion to the FMC Tower in Philadelphia, hosted by the FMC Corporation, we had the opportunity to host a workshop displaying the digital toolkit and the educational games that we build learning packages around at Snowflake Education. Together with my colleague Sara Trulsson, we demonstrated a selection of four games: Dilemma, ClimeOut, FishBanks and In the Loop – as well as showing how teachers can use our digital toolkit to build flipped-classroom sessions with the games, using our library of recorded online lectures, student assignments etc. We would like to send a thanks to all who participated in our workshop! Also, a great thanks to those of you who already ordered a classroom package for one or several of the games! 😊

EESD18 FMC Tower
EESD18 Snowflake Education Games and Toolkit Workshop

During these days I had so many interesting meetings and listened to so many good talks on the challenges and insights in integrating sustainability into engineering education from universities around the globe that it would be impossible to review all of them in this blog post. But I want to just briefly mention a couple of them:

Dr. Morgan, Dr. Byrne and Dr. Orozco-Messana described a unique collaboration between five universities (University of Cambridge, University College Cork, University of British Columbia, TU Delft and Universitat Politècnica de València): During a week-long workshop at Universitat Politècnica de València in April 2017, students from a range of disciplines and from all participating universities worked with projects where they outlined integrated development plans for a real life local project. What was really inspiring to hear in this presentation was how the authors had overcome the challenges of coordinating such diverse perspectives – both from the broad range of disciplines represented and from a cultural perspective. They used improvisation as a tool, describing this very colourfully using a jazz band as a metaphor for how they had experienced this collaboration.

Another talk that caught my interest was Dr. Neal’s presentation about the new program in Sustainable Energy Engineering that they are developing at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The challenges and opportunities in such a project are but all too well-known to me from my own experiences in my advisory role at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, where have assisted in the build-up of the new department and new satellite Campus in the city Södertälje. I our case, focus lie on sustainable industrial production. Dr. Neal pointed to the opportunities in integrating a rich set of experiential, transformative pedagogies, including problem-based learning, research, reflective learning, and real-world interdisciplinary projects. Thinking completely new, may indeed be easier when building a completely new organisation, while there are plenty of huge obstacles to overcome throughout the process as well. I was inspired by the talk and will definitely bring forward a few insights to my own clients.

My own talk was about attitudes towards curriculum integration of sustainable development among programme directors in engineering education. Together with Dr. Leifler at the University of Linköping, we conducted a combined Internet-survey and follow-up interviews among programme directors at engineering programmes in Sweden to learn what motivates them to integrate sustainability into courses and programmes. One interesting conclusion from this work was that their own conviction of this being important – for many even perhaps a moral obligation – is a much more important driver than for example regulations from the accrediting boards or university branding reasons. To us, this is indeed a very encouraging result and as a next step we are now considering making an international study to follow up on these results.

Many thanks to the presenters of all the great talks and workshops I had the opportunity to attend! I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the organisers at the Rowan University for a rewarding and very well-organised conference!

Learning objectives for sustainable development – and how to integrate those on an education programme level

Imagine you are the programme director of an engineering programme. Imagine that you are deeply concerned about where the world is heading, and that you realise that the students coming out from your programme could have the capacity to make a real change in the world. How do you make sure that they will get the skills and knowledge they need to work for a sustainable development? How can you ensure that sustainability issues are discussed, taught and learnt throughout the courses of your programme?

I have hade quite a few of these discussions with programme directors over the last few years. But recently we received a consultancy job at Snowflake Education along these lines, where we eventually came up with a completely new answer to those questions. This job was for the M.Sc. in Engineering for Energy and Environment, at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm.

This particular programme could be called ‘the flagship programme’ when it comes to sustainable development at KTH. I was actually assigned as project manager for the process leading up to the launch of the programme some eight years ago, so it was super interesting to get involved in the programme again.

At Snowflake Education, we have identified a process for how to do these kinds of jobs: we regularly assist programme directors and university management in the process of integrating sustainable development in a relevant way into their education programmes. This process typically consists of four stages:

  1. current status analysis
  2. creating a vision
  3. creating a roadmap
  4. applying the change process

Each of these steps consists of interviews, focus group seminars, workshops and a range of other activities. Depending on the clients’ particular needs and what they have done before, the focus of the process can be put on different aspects.

In this particular case, stage 1 and part of stage 2 had already pretty much been taken care of in another project done the previous year, so we started by reviewing their results – and refined them a little according to our own experience.

An interesting feature with this engineering programme, is that it has everything to do with sustainable development. When you look at the current programme objectives, they all connect deeply with sustainable development issues. However, the first thing we realised was that although the integration of sustainable development into this programme is obviously much more profound than in almost any other programme I have worked with, there a still a lot of things that can be improved. So, we started to figure out a process for how this could be done. From scratch.

I and my colleague at Snowflake Education, Sara Trulsson, presented the results of this work today at a programme conference for the teachers on the programme, after having worked with this for a couple of weeks. Here is roughly what the process we presented would look like:

  • First of all: we realised that there is a certain complexity to writing programme objectives that are both broken down into different taxonomic levels, and simultaneously broken down into different subject-related fractions. We realised that this is not normally well done in most education programmes, and there would probably be a need for a more rigorous generic process for how to do this.
  • Second, we decided that there were actually three aspects that we wanted to take into consideration:

Sustainable development is such a vast and complex subject that we need first of all a structure for covering the different aspects of the subject. The method of choice should be one that is both broad enough and deep enough, and one that recognises sustainable development as a truly multidisciplinary and complex subject. We choose the Sustainable Development Goals from Agenda 2030 (the SDG’s) as the schematic for this. UNSCO has later developed those into topics and suggested learning objectives, as a starting point for organisations in education for integrating the SDG’s into education. We used those as a starting point for our process.

There are a number of specific skills that professionals trained to manage sustainability issues must be trained for. Different authors arrange such skills in different ways, but after considering a couple of commonly cited schematics, we choose Wiek’s five key competences (Wiek et al., 2011). This is a presentation that describes the concept.

Last but not least we still favour a taxonomic dimension. In this case, we choose to work with Bloom’s taxonomy.

  • We then turned the presentation into a workshop where the attendants had the chance to briefly try out our process for developing and follow up on sustainability learning objectives, learning activities and assessment. The workshop would follow the same steps as the process would:
  1. For each of the 17 SDG’s: work through the 10 ‘topics’ that UNESCO have defined in their report and decide within the teacher community IF that particular topic should be covered by this education programme or not, and if so to WHAT taxonomic level.
  2. For all selected topics, define one or several intended learning outcomes (ILO’s) and learning activities (LA’s) – based on Wiek’s key competences. Allocate the ILO’s and the LA’s to the courses in the programme. Then relate those back to the key competences. This is an iterative process that is repeated until all topics are allocated to courses in the programme.
  3. Identify overlaps between ILO’s. Condense to long list of ILO’s to a compressed list.
  4. Develop a virtual course plan for sustainable development within the education programme. Identify individuals and responsibilities to implement the virtual course plan and for reviewing it recurrently, for example every second year.

The workshop was then followed by a discussion on how the process would work if fully implemented on the programme.

The teachers and other participating personnel agreed that this would be a great process and the next step will be to launch this during the autumn semester 2018.

This is a very brief summary of the outcomes of the meeting we had with the teachers and the process we have worked on. I will post updates to the process as we move into the next phase for the next few months. However, in the meantime please get back tom me with you comments and questions – I am tremendously curious to hear whether you believe something similar would be appropriate at your institution!