KTH Sustainability Education Day 2015

Today, I gave a talk at the KTH Sustainability Education Day 2015 on the work with the course module that I have designed and been teaching for the last few years at the Royal Institute of Technology: Introduction to Sustainable Development. My impression was that there was a large interest in the module and there may also be a general interest to people outside KTH. Therefore, I have written a description of the module, which I publish here.

The Introduction to Sustainable Development course module is a mini-course corresponding to 1,5 ECTS (approximately one week’s effort for the students), which can be embedded as a part of a larger course. In many cases, I am hired to give this module as part of an introduction course in the first year of an Engineering Degree programme. This is a really good way to introduce sustainability for the engineering students and meanwhile emphasise the connection of sustainability to their future profession as engineers.

The module curriculum covers:

  • Introduction coupled to the need to use resources within limits; the history of the concept of sustainable development; some common definitions of the concept and how they differ; the three dimensions and various ways to describe those and relate them to each other;
  • Identification of complexity, transdisciplinarity and respect for different perspectives as some key issues in sustainability;
  • Discussions on sustainability challenges; planetary boundaries; social boundaries;
  • Technology and sustainability; strategies for sustainability – for the company and for society; good examples;

There are five class room activities:

  • Lecture I: covering mainly the first three of the bullets above
  • Seminar I: the Fish Banks board game
  • Seminar II: the Dilemma board game, part 1
  • Seminar III: the Dilemma board game, part 2
  • Lecture II: covering mainly the last of the bullets above

Literature used is the text book “Sustainable Development – an Introduction for Engineers” (Jon-Erik Dahlin, Studentlitteratur, ISBN 9789144092669) together with references to papers and reports.

Assessment is in the form of:

  • Three small written assignments, one for each of the seminars; students should demonstrate critical thinking and reflection by formulating arguments and counterarguments.
  • Written test; computerised multiple choice style as an additional incentive for reading the literature.

Class room activities in the module are highly interactive, both the lectures and the seminars, during which we play several board games. The Fish Banks game and the Dilemma game have different and complementary learning objectives, but both spawn discussions, interaction, and competition as well as cooperation.

In Fish Banks, students form teams that take on the role of fishing companies. They can order and trade with fishing ships and have to decide where to send their ships to fish. Teams need to make strategic decisions with limited access to information. The game demonstrates the tragedy of the commons phenomenon, typically ending with overfishing of the ocean. In the debriefing we discuss the student’s experiences and their explanations to why thing took the course it did. We reflect upon how complexity and system dynamics affects their decisions and relate to what other situations in life and society there are where similar processes may take place.

Fish Banks 1 Fish Banks 2

The Fish Banks board game is a highly interactive teaching tool.

In Dilemma, students have to answer quiz questions on sustainability facts, and argue for or against certain positions regarding moral dilemmas on various sustainability issues. Quiz questions may be easier to answer for those that have taken in the text book literature before they came to the seminar, but various clues found in the game may help those with less knowledge to progress on the board (with a slower paste though). Moral dilemmas in the game are polarised with two opposing positions and players may have to argue for a position they do not agree on – which of course is a very interesting and enlightening experience. In the debriefing we pick a few of those dilemmas and lift the level of discussion somewhat, realising that many dilemmas in reality may be grey rather than black or white even though they are often polarised in the public media debate. We play Dilemma two or three times during the module, each time with a different set of moral dilemmas.

Dilemma board

The Dilemma board game is a quiz-like board game for 3-5 players, and a fun way to learn about sustainable development.

The experience from giving this module to 600-800 students on a yearly basis for several years is that they like the interactivity, both with the teacher and with their peers. They like the framework of playfulness that the games give but understand seriousness of the subject. Besides a rather thorough introduction to the subject of sustainability, the main lessons learnt from this module are that complexity and system dynamics can make both consequence analysis and decision making difficult but that both are essential in sustainability leadership; and that respect for differences, transdisciplinarity and communication are all necessary for a truly sustainable development.

Release party for my book!

Tomorrow, Wednesday 11th March 2015 it’s time: release party for my book!

Time: from 4 p.m.

Place: ”Salongen”, the KTH library (KTH Campus Valhallavägen, Stockholm)

It is really really great to now at last get to celebrate the publishing of my book – a text book in sustainable development: Hållbar utveckling – en introduktion för ingenjörer (Eng. Sustainable Development – an Introduction for Engineers). And yes, I agree… It took a lot more time to write it than I had anticipated.

It all started about two years ago. I had already been involved in the teaching for sustainable development in several degree-level Engineering programmes at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm (Sweden), and I where in the middle of developing a completely new course module aimed at the introduction of sustainable development for mechanical engineers.

I tried to find good literature to use in the course module, literature that was actually written for engineering students – who have a good understanding of mathematics, problem solving and technology, among other things. So I wanted to use literature that used equations and models that we could work with in the module, and problems that we could introduce and that I know students will see again in subsequent courses – sometimes from another perspective. I wanted to use literature that used examples from technology to show how engineering can play a positive role for sustainability. Examples from technology that presented how great technology can be. I wanted to sow the feeling among students that as engineers, they can help solving the sustainability dilemmas – as engineers they can save the world!

And I wanted to use literature that did not preach, that did not proclaim that we have a moral obligation, but that emphasised that sustainability is full of contradicting values and perspectives. Right and wrong solutions are not objective, but part of what different stake holders chose to claim. Truly understanding other people’s perspectives and a humble attitude to the reality of how people and society work are key elements to achieving anything at all.

In my opinion, teaching sustainable development involves four phases:

  • Background: basic facts about the concept of sustainability, the challenges we face, and various strategies and ideas to how to meet those.
  • Reflection: critical thinking and the understanding of sustainability as a subject of values.
  • Discussion: the ability to formulate an opinion, to listen to other peoples arguments, to debate, negotiate and compromise with others to reach a decision – and to live with the decision even when it isn’t perfect.
  • Integration into subject specific conditions.

The four phases do not have to come in order, but may preferably be trained in parallel.

In my teaching, and in my book as well, the goal is not to make the students think in a certain way but to help them find their way to think. Therefore it is absolutely essential to discuss the roles of various perspectives and how different values and opinions influence how you look on the subject of sustainability.

Since I couldn’t find all this in a book already written, I had to write this book. If you are a teacher, my hope is that you will also find it useful in your teaching. And if you are a student, I hope that you’ll find it interesting and rewarding to read.

Paper submitted for the EESD15 conference

Today, I submitted my paper contribution to the EESD15 conference (E.E.S.D. is for Engineering Education for Sustainable Development), which is organized by the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) this summer. In the paper, I and my co-authors reflects on what we’ve learnt from using various games in the class room (especially board games, role playing games and simulation games). Our laboratory has been class rooms at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm (Sweden) and the University of Cambridge (UK), where we conduct education in degree-level Engineering programmes.

Games in the class room have shown to be powerful learning tools for several reasons: Students consider it as a playful way to learn and games help to generate interest and curiosity. Also, games make it possible to simulate situations and processes in the class room that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. One example on that is decision making in complex situations with limited access to (partially outdated) information, where decisions both influence and are influenced by complex system dynamics – exactly as in many real situations!

The greatest learning output do games have, we experience, when combined in a well thought out way with traditional teaching such as lectures, assignments (individual and in group), literature studies – and a good briefing and discussion afterwards about what the students experienced during the game.

It will be exciting to discuss these issues with other teachers and experts of this field from around the world. I look forward to the EESD15 conference in Vancouver this summer!

Sustainable Development

The world is not black or white, but a caleidoscope of opportunities.

Development can become more sustainable by following many paths, but all people do not agree on which path is best – or even whether some paths lead to more sustainability or less. Accepting that there may be no objective right or wrong answer to sustainability issues and that several sometimes seemingly conflicting perspectives may coexist, is one of the first steps towards working for true sustainability.

Many of the sustainability issues we face are complex and a consequence of dynamic systems with internal interconnected feedback loops. Complexity is an important aspect of sustainability and the tools that I have come to use in my own teaching for sustainable development are aimed to put students in situations that simulate complexity in decision making. For example the various board games that I have found to be extremely useful in the class room, provide excellent opportunities to discuss both the complexity and perspectivity issues.

Engineering is a key for sustainability and engineers are key workers for sustainable development. Technological may not provide solutions to all problems, but it definitively has the potential to redefine the boundaries for sustainability. Engineers are the providers of new possibilities.

The challenges that our generation face are immense and definitive: how we choose to manage our society within the next few years will undoubtedly have a huge effect on the course of history for decades or even centuries ahead. I see it as my mission to contribute towards more consciousness in decision making, especially by developing and providing tools for education in engineering and natural sciences. Board games developed for the class room, literature and teacher training courses are examples of such, which you find references to on this web site. If you have any inquiries or development ideas, don’t hesitate to send me a note.

– Jon-Erik Dahlin, PhD