ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION – Integrating sustainability into engineering education

April 10, 2024
This roundtable brought together a working group consisting of five participants, an initiative stemming from a collaboration outcome of the NORDTEK alliance. NORDTEK is a network comprising 30 technical universities across the Nordic and Baltic countries.

Roundtable participants:

  • Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, (Lithuania).
  • Staffan Schedin. Docent, Faculty Office of Science and Technology, Umeå University, (Sweden)
  • Helen Sooväli-Sepping. Councillor of Sustainable Development and Green Transition, Tallinn University of Technology, (Estonia).
  • Johan Berg Pettersen. Associate Professor, Industrial Ecology Programme, Faculty of Engineering. Norwegian University of Science and Technology, (Norway).
  • Elina Kähkönen. PhD Science, Project Manager, Aalto Co-Educator Team, Aalto University, (Finland.)
  • The moderator and rapporteur was Ms. Melissa Georgiou, communications, (Aalto University).


Question one:
Our goal is to develop graduate competencies. In which competence do we see the biggest gap? Which are the most urgent and needed?

Elina Kähkönen emphasized the need for a systemic view in engineering education, particularly in the field of product development. She highlighted the shift from a company-centric focus to an eco-design principle focus that considers the entire value chain from raw materials until the end of the life of the product. Elina mentioned the importance of providing tools to enable individuals to comprehend and incorporate the broader impact of products and put themselves into the decision-making process.

Skirmantė Mozūriūnaitė highlighted a significant gap between theoretical knowledge and practical implementation. In her experience teaching at various levels, she observed that students comprehend theoretical aspects but struggle to apply them in real-life situations. The lack of tools and skills for practical implementation emerged as a crucial issue.

Staffan Schedin echoed the importance of providing students with an engineering context and a broad perspective. He emphasised the need to train students to consider sustainability when working on projects, addressing the contextual challenges associated with sustainable engineering.

Helen Sooväli-Sepping emphasised two key aspects: transdisciplinarity and responsibility. She underscored the need for engineers to collaborate across disciplines and develop cooperation skills. Additionally, she highlighted the growing importance of engineers understanding and incorporating ethical considerations and societal responsibilities, particularly in the context of resource scarcity.

Johan Berg Pettersen brought attention to the societal context of being an engineer, emphasizing the need for a broader understanding beyond technical aspects. He highlighted gaps in addressing consequences, ethics, norms, entrepreneurship, and the ability to bring about change in engineering programs. Johan stressed the importance of preparing students not only for improvement but for transformative change in the context of the green shift.


Question two
a) What initiatives and activities have pushed sustainability forward in curriculum development, teacher competence development, course development, and tenure track development? What has worked in interdisciplinarity? 

b) What well-intentioned activities haven’t worked at your university? Can you elaborate on what you wouldn’t recommend repeating? 

Elina Kähkönen emphasized the success of initiatives grounded in academic freedom. Building on this, she highlighted the importance of convincing teaching staff about the significance of sustainability and liberating time for them to establish connections between sustainability and their specific fields. Elina advocated for approaches such as workshops, training, and elements like tenure tracks as functioning tools. However, she cautioned against top-down initiatives, citing the criticism drawn regarding the requests for SDG labeling on courses.

Skirmantė Mozūriūnaitė expanded on the concept of academic freedom, proposing that education on sustainability should begin earlier by involving teachers in schools. She discussed successful activities where teachers from her university visit schools, providing lectures aligned with their research topics. This engagement not only fosters student interest but also ensures a seamless transition of sustainability topics into higher education. However, she highlighted the challenge of inconsistency in sustainability implementation across different education levels.

Staffan Schedin shared activities from Umea University, focusing on increasing teacher competencies. He mentioned courses and workshops offered by the Department of Pedagogical Development, aiming to teach sustainability. Staffan discussed challenges related to time constraints and the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability, making some teachers uncomfortable. He highlighted initiatives like economic support for projects to implement sustainability into existing engineering courses and the successful integration of sustainability goals in one study program.

Helen Sooväli-Sepping highlighted the positive impact of the European Union’s funding initiative called “Green Skills for Business Sector,” providing €15 million for higher education. This top-down initiative involved collaborations with the business sector and professional associations to develop courses and modules. Helen stressed the importance of reskilling teachers and the ongoing dialogues with students about necessary skills. She acknowledged challenges in defining specific skills needed for the workforce and the importance of keeping the momentum through a communication plan and leadership.

Johan Berg Pettersen emphasized the need for a lifelong learning initiative similar to the one described by Helen. He outlined three essential elements: the integration of sustainability into contextual learning, student involvement in designing learning activities, and the importance of maintaining discursive pressure on teachers. Johan underscored the challenges in motivating students to embrace the process of change and highlighted the need for ongoing discourse and ‘pressure’ to drive sustainability integration further.


Question Three:
Looking towards Turku NORDTEK, how can we take this conversation further?

Elina Kähkönen suggested concentrating on the assessment of sustainability programs, emphasising the importance of setting goals and tools for assessment. She proposed exploring a ‘target level of engineering education’ and finding ways to integrate sustainability into programs.

Skirmantė Mozūriūnaitė reiterated the need to upgrade professors and the entire academic society in sustainability. She emphasized the importance of measurements or tools for students to see their impact, as well as the value of students getting involved with communities or forming a ‘sustainable idea tank’ for students to integrate sustainable practises into their start-up businesses. Skirmantė suggested structuring a guidebook based on different levels within the university.

Staffan Schedin proposed focusing on research activities and their connection to pedagogical and disciplinary research related to sustainable development. He suggested creating a toolkit collectively before the next conference.

Helen Sooväli-Sepping emphasized the need to raise awareness among academic staff about the expectations from both the public and private sectors regarding sustainability. She stressed the importance of narrowing down the sustainability goals into a few specific things and maintaining the discourse despite challenges.

Johan Berg Pettersen encouraged reflecting on how the NORDTEK partnership could benefit the group collectively rather than individually. He proposed discussing how sustainability interests could be integrated into engineering education and suggested exploring how to integrate planetary boundaries and fair development concepts into the curriculum.

Recommendations and Action Points

In conclusion, the roundtable discussion revealed a shared commitment to advancing sustainability in engineering education. The participants emphasized the critical need to develop interdisciplinary competencies in graduates, identified common challenges and explored potential collaborative initiatives. Academic freedom, workshops, training and a guidebook emerged as effective tools.

Moving forward, participants expressed a collective interest in creating a guidebook that consolidates the shared insights and tips for implementing sustainability into engineering education. This proposed guidebook could serve as a valuable resource, providing practical guidance and strategies for upgrading professors, integrating sustainability into engineering contexts, and addressing the societal and ethical aspects of sustainability.