Fostering Sustainability in engineering education

April 11, 2024
Aldert Kamp
Aldert Kamp
Aldert Kamp Advies, the Netherlands
In 2015 the United Nations formulated the set of seventeen Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) as an urgent call for action by all countries in global partnership. But global progress on the SDGs has been static, and for universities and schools in particular it’s time to ramp up sustainability action. They have a role to play: ‘Educating creative world-class graduates who are able and willing to contribute to a better and sustainable world’. The truth is that many educators find it difficult to know where to start. And if they do, they keep on emphasising the technocratic perspective.

Education for Sustainability is different and is not about technological innovations, deeper expert knowledge and optimising applications alone. It’s  also about a social transformation, where engineering is no longer the centre of society, but society will be the centre of engineering. Can you imagine any other profession that has so much power as engineering? Engineers who design and create everything we consume, buy or dispose. It seems they have the ultimate power over the planet. Of course they don’t have a life of their own. The how and what they design and engineer is not only driven by technology but also by society where privacy, cybersecurity, sustainability and social acceptability gain prominence.

How do we want to immerse our student engineers in a green mindset? Should we transfer theories, models and principles about carbon management, green energy, environment conservation? Should we teach them the sciences behind these issues? Should we train them the tools and methods so that they can analyse and design solutions? Or should we  teach them how to act on sustainability and grow their personal agency, so that they are able to apply knowledge humanely and equitably?

Figure 1 Trias Sustainability

Green working knowledge

Within the rigour of technological literacy, it is crucial to create a positive green mindset, teach the students about the environmental and societal context, give them a basic understanding of the environmental, societal and economic context, teach them the generic engineering and design processes for sustainability such as life cycle analysis, green manufacturing, repurposing and circular economy. On top of that we should teach the systems knowledge in relation to green technologies, beyond the horizon of their expertise. Last but not least we should stimulate permanent curiosity to stay up to date with the latest developments and innovations (adapted from M. Pavlova (2018).

Sustainability tools

Students have to learn how to deal with sustainability in work and life in tomorrow’s highly specialized world. The multifaceted nature of sustainability requires that student engineers master more range at graduation. Six competencies or tools are key enablers for solving the interdisciplinary problems (Arnim Wiek (2011),  ASU School of Sustainability):

  1. Systems Thinking, a holistic view, crossing domains, understanding complex relations
  2. Futures Thinking, scenario thinking, forecasting how to build strategies, prevent, adapt
  3. Values Thinking: ethics, justice, fairness, responsibility
  4. Strategic Thinking: changing behaviour, influencing others
  5. Collaboration: teamwork, communication, leadership, building trust.
  6. The final one is about using these five together to design viable solutions: Integrated Problem Solving

Personal agency

The previous paragraph was about how to deal with sustainability. This one is about how to deal with self, about self-leadership, about taking social and environmental responsibility in the practice of engineering. Remember universities aim to develop game changers! Empathetic, open minded people, who know how to get people aligned, who are strong in improvisation and who understand their responsibility as a designer of products and systems. So it is crucial that student engineers learn who they are as a person and how they are supposed to deal with sustainability in future work and personal life.

This is an inside-out way of thinking: Change can start inside each of us and works its way out. That’s the idea behind the five dimensions of the Inner Development Goals: Who I am, How I think, What I care for, How I collaborate and communicate, How I make Change happen. By touching them at a very personal level, this mind shift will spur the students more to action. (

The student perception

What about the students? This generation is tech-savy, lives their life online , wants jobs that matter and contribute to the ‘common good’. Students are ‘awakening’ and enter classes with a different mindset than five or ten years ago, often a mindset of dissatisfaction with the status quo, but narrowed down to environmental and technocratic perspectives. Limited to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using low or zero carbon energy, cutting down the use of plastics and promoting a plant-based diet. Their personal action and active engagement is still pretty weak. For them the Goldschmeding Foundation in Amsterdam coined the term Homo Florens, the flourishing human. Generation-Z and tomorrow’s Generation Alpha will make decisions that place the interest of people and nature first in their profession.

A shift in teaching and learning

The sustainability trias that I posit is easy to grasp and sticks to the mind and is an interesting point of departure to adapt curricula and upskill educational staff in relation to sustainability. The green knowledge, sustainability tools and personal agency cannot be bolted on top of today’s jam-packed curricula. It will be necessary to make a radical shift in how we teach problem definition and problem solving. Social and environmental responsibility have to be made as important as performance, functionality and cost.

There is no single road for this. Many agree that students can only learn these skills when they are actively engaged, in internships, group work, project education, or problem- or challenge-based learning. This is where students work and learn with people in and outside their discipline, with people from industrial companies, research institutes, the public sector in authentic sustainable innovation projects. Where they take context, complexity, risks and ethics into account and recognise the limits of what they know and how they work.

Both engineering for sustainability and the digitalisation of the engineering profession are game changers that will lead to a humanisation of engineering. Higher engineering education is on the verge of a paradigm shift from thinking in technical systems to thinking in human values and human qualities.

NORDTEK has a role to play

The adoption of the SDG’s, the digitalisation of engineering processes, the fusion of cyber space of data and information with the physical space of systems and products, and the fusion of engineering with social sciences requires a major transformation of higher engineering education.

The members of the NORDTEK network share the ambition of maintaining and strengthening their  position of advanced engineering education. Together they form a powerful community that will thrive if they intensify cooperation and focus on the urgent above mentioned changes in engineering education. It’s time to ramp up the joint development and the sharing of expertise and effective practices of the educational innovations within the NORDTEK network. It’s unquestionable that this will support the international standing of high quality engineering education in the Nordic and Baltic countries.


  • Pavlova, M. Fostering inclusive, sustainable economic growth and “green” skills development in learning cities through partnerships. Int Rev Educ 64, 339–354 (2018).
  • Wiek, A., Withycombe, L. & Redman, C.L. Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustain Sci 6, 203–218 (2011).
  • Doreen Ankrah, Jamie Bristow, Daniel Hires and Jan Artem Henriksson, Inner Development Goals: from inner growth to outer change, in Field ACTions Science Reports, special issue 25 (2023) pp. 82-87.