Best practices in teaching sustainable engineering to 1000+ students (and benefits of student-centered learning)

April 11, 2024
Johan Berg Pettersen
Johan Berg Pettersen
Programme Head of studies at the Faculty of Engineering of NTNU
This spring is the third time we teach the multicampus course in engineering systems thinking to 1000 students. Sustainable engineering is a large topic of the course. Here I present a list of recommendations for best practice in teaching sustainable engineering to so many learners.

About the teaching

The course in engineering systems thinking is 10 ECTS and compulsory for all bachelor engineers graduating from NTNU.  It runs parallel to the bachelor thesis in the last semester, and students participate from all three campus towns (Trondheim, Gjøvik, Ålesund), as well as through our flexible programs.

Sustainable engineering represents half the course load. I have been asked to propose some recommendations for best practice based on the teaching. I will focus particularly on student-centered learning, which has been a main principle in designing the learning activities.

We have already presented some insights, e.g., how student-centered learning in digital environments (may) support engineering competencies for sustainability (Pettersen & Lundqvist 2023), and experiences with student-centered learning of sustainable engineering in classes with 1000+ students (at the Nordtek 51st in Aarhus).

Recommendation 1: Move to student-centered leaning activity

Sustainable engineering is not only about informing material choices, energy optimization or mitigating emissions. These things matter, clearly, but more importantly is the ability of candidates to engage in societal development with curiosity, reflection, and dialogue. Engineering is more than purely technical expertise, and this is particularly visible when we talk about sustainable engineering.

Student-centered learning supports exactly these competences. Put shortly, student-centered learning is when students are doing the activity, as opposed to being an audience for the teacher. It carries multiple learning benefits: facilitation of deep learning and promotion of growth mindsets, self-efficacy, and self-regulation (Hempel et al., 2020).

One example of student-centered learning is cases for assessment and discussion in flipped classroom. For these sessions, learners are provided online tools they may use also in other activity, such as project work. In one case, they use En-ROADS to simulate a global climate policy that meets Paris agreement goal and discuss its consequence for countries to meet other sustainability targets. In another case, learners are provided compacted environmental data and tasked with conducting a simplified product LCA for plastic bags and their alternatives.

Flipped classroom teaching typically polarizes a classroom. For the engaged and curious learner, the format invites involvement and freedom to explore. A significant portion of students typically report (strong) frustration and loss of motivation if they are less interested in sustainability issues, or perhaps if they are less self-motivated. Both these findings are observed in our teaching. Use of flipped classroom therefore must be the outcome of a conscious process regarding the intended outcome of the learning activity.

  • Student-centered learning effectively supports learning sustainability competences, as well as other professional skills.
  • Paired with digital learning environments it allows large-scale and flexible participation.
  • Must be critically considered and assessed towards the learning outcome.

Recommendation 2: Use digitized resources to scale-up learning

The main reading syllabus for the contextual part of sustainable engineering is supplemented by MOOC-formatted course to complement the textbook. This covers status and concepts in sustainable development, strategies for increased sustainability, and aspects for society, economy, and societal transition. The MOOC contains explanations, curated video material, recorded video-lectures, discussion topics, and quizzes, to explain and extend the textbook.

We use auto-graded computation material to train in sustainability assessment: life cycle assessment, material flow analysis, energy analysis, and footprint assessments. These are also covered in the textbook and include randomized assignments and training examples, implemented as (python) Jupyter Notebooks with nb-grader.  The automated format facilitates formative grading of computational assignments in large courses, with an instantaneous (for training) or relatively fast response (for assignments, approximately 1 hour).

  • Assignments with many small programs reduce stress in candidates.
  • Auto-grading removes need for strict deadlines and facilitates self-paced learning.
  • Digitized tools are scalable and can be integrated with flipped classroom activity.
  • Formalized digitized learning activities allow revisitation of material and is potentially more inclusive to study conditions and learning challenges.

Recommendation 3: Use peer-to-peer review to allow students to learn from each other

Peer-to-peer review assignments relieve the teacher from the direct duty of assessing deliverables. It provides a room to reflect on norms, values, roles and responsibilities of oneself and others, for learners to apply normative and critical thinking. It is also an effective way to learn across the student group.

We apply peer assessments in many different forms, including to assess quantitative assignments, create spaces to present orally and discuss project assignments, and evaluate written deliverables.  Today, several digital tools are available to manage peer-assessments, and they allow pre-defining guidelines or evaluation criteria.

  • Peer-assessment is scalable and can be integrated with flipped classroom activity.
  • Seeing the thoughts and views of peers, be it anonymous or not, creates a strong involvement and reflection from participants.

Recommendation 4: Allow learning from (graded) project assignments

Project assignments is the perhaps most used form of student-centered learning. Besides flipped classroom, project assignments are the learning activities in our teaching that best support integrated problem-solving competency. With this we intend that they provide opportunity to combine and develop a variety of personal and professional competences to solve complex challenges with realistic solutions that are sustainable, equitable, and inclusive. Here we may refer to the UNESCO definition, or the more recent European sustainability competence framework.

Learners in the course achieve integrated learning by developing innovative business concepts to given societal challenges, such as energy crisis, or societal safety and preparedness. Groups describe concepts, and identify, consider, and negotiate their sustainability and market aspects.

  • Project-based approach is proposed as particularly relevant for sustainable development in engineering education (Lehmann et al., 2008).
  • Allow integration of multiple learning activity, including peer-assessment, oral presentations and critique, and contextual learning of discipline knowledge in sustainable engineering.
  • Class feedback is that graded assignments is crucial for active learner involvement.

Recommendation 5: Communication, communication, communication

Any student-centered learning activity in a digital environment involves several platforms, or tools. At minimum it can include an LMS, a simulator/tool for application, and integration of hardware and software to facilitate communication. Most often it also combines video and reading material, calculation platform(s), and channels for synchronous as well as asynchronous communication. And this is just for one activity, e.g., one flipped classroom session.

The teaching for sustainable engineering that we describe here covers several types of activities, and multiple platforms. We use NTNUs general LMS as the core platform between the MOOC, the Jupyter Notebooks, the peer-assessment tool, and the project work, where each relies on its own dedicated platform. Obviously, it requires a lot from learners to keep up with all that is going on.

Even if everyone was present in one place, with one thousand participants the course becomes quite a large community. In the real world we are divided between three towns, with a significant portion of the population only following online. The lack of a communal venue to meet and talk puts a stress on sharing and updating information. Through the years we have made several actions that relate to communication.

  • Compulsory, physical kick-off in each study campus at start of semester (tour of campuses) to properly onboard participants and initiate active group participation.
  • Regular schedule Monday-Wednesday with slots for preparation time, flipped classroom sessions, support from student assistants, and time dedicated for the project assignment.
  • Clear table of assignments and activities in LMS, indicating activity and due dates.
  • Weekly email newsletter, with updates, deadlines and coming activity.

Recommendation 6: Sustainable engineering = engineering

Engineering in a world of resources is a thing of the past. The future engineer must find solutions in a resource-scarce world, where solutions only exist if they keep within planetary boundaries. Land conflict, resource scarcity, energy variability and limitation, social unrest, these are the conditions for engineering in the future. Necessarily, we must train our candidates to maneuver and balance the interest of multiple actors on local and societal scales.

Looking at the recommendations that are outlined here, they are not only relevant when teaching sustainable engineering. They also provide a guide for integration of sustainability into teaching in engineering disciplines, e.g., though the CDIO framework.

The competences that learners acquire when learning for sustainability, such as strategic thinking, problem framing, exploring possible outcomes and thinking critically about roles, interests, and norms, these are relevant for any engineer, now and in the future. Sustainable engineering and student-centered learning, offers an arena for students to explore and develop these competences, where benefits will be seen also in the more discipline-oriented skills.