Integrating sustainability into your teaching

In a series: Sustainability in teaching and learning
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How can you integrate sustainability into your teaching?

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) has been around in the higher education sector for some time now – but it’s been used in a lot of different ways and has a lot of different meanings. Sustainability is more directly relevant in some subjects – biology and geography, for example – than others, but it can be integrated into many different types of teaching. What’s more, students from all subjects are concerned about sustainability: recent research conducted by the Higher Education Academy, in conjunction with the National Union of Students, found that 80% of students wanted their university or college to cover sustainability, and over 65% wanted it to be part of their programme.

Students are right to be concerned. In a rapidly changing world, sustainable development is becoming increasingly important. From government to business, organisations are ever more aware of their environmental impact, short-term and long-term. This isn’t just about recycling; it’s a key factor in global development, as well as local living. Sustainability has an impact on people’s quality of life, as well as the economic viability of their businesses. Whatever students choose to do after they graduate from university, they’ll need to be prepared for this increasing emphasis on environmental impact. To quote Future Fit, the HEA’s framework for embedding ESD into university education: “ESD is big and slippery. But it is also rich in potential, relevance and opportunity”.

Not feeling quite ready for embedding ESD on a holistic level? Don’t worry. This guide is designed to give you just a few practical tips on integrating sustainability into your teaching. You’ll be able to implement them quickly and see the benefits, and it’s a great starting point.

  1. Reduce your paper usage.

How many handouts do you print for each class? It’s amazing how much paper one can get through, especially if you want to show a lot of interesting pictures or documents. Why not save yourself the stress of printing or photocopying and ask students to bring their own electronic devices to view these things. Using ShoutKey or TinyURL (especially the custom feature) you can create memorable URLs so that you can direct students to places instantly. Want them to view a PDF? Simply upload it to Google Drive or OneDrive and turn the sharing link into a ShoutKey. This also means that if students have visual impairments such as dyslexia they can customise the resource (e.g. adjusting the contrast) to suit their own preferences. You can display things on a projector, too, for the benefit of students without devices.

2. Turn off the projector.

I’ve seen a lot of sessions where the instructor will project something onto the board for the whole lesson, but it’s actually only relevant for a small part of it or not at all. If you’ve projected something and it stops being relevant, just turn off the projector for the rest of the lesson. You can always write things like spellings and important dates/formulae on the whiteboard or blackboard – it’s old-fashioned, but it works!

3. Get students recycling

Do you or your students bring things such as cardboard coffee cups, plastic water bottles or cans of drink to class? Make sure that they throw away their waste in the correct recycling bin, and set a good example by doing the same with your waste.

4. Secondhand books

Do your students really need the latest edition of a textbook? In some cases the answer may be yes, but not in all. Too often teachers force students to buy new copies of books they may already own or can buy second hand. Think critically about whether the edition needs to be new, or (for example) from the last five years. Does it need to be the Oxford Shakespeare copy of Macbeth, or can it be any scholarly edition? This has the dual benefit of saving students money as well as saving the environment, so it should make you pretty popular!

5. Make use of natural light and air

Do you really need all the lights on and the blinds closed? It’s more pleasant to have the blinds open, and it saves you having to turn on the lights in the room. If you’re teaching in a room that is too big, see if you can limit your use of lights to the area in which you are teaching. 10 people in a 50-seat lecture theatre probably don’t need to switch on all the lights in the theatre. Likewise, if you are in a hot room, always open the windows before thinking about turning on a fan.

6. Recycle equipment

Do you regularly work in a classroom with disused equipment? Is your department planning to throw away or replace any chairs, tables, computers or lab equipment? Sign up to WarpIt, a new network for sharing equipment among your university. Another department might be able to make use of your department’s spare stuff – and of course you may be able to get equipment from WarpIt instead of buying it. This is a great way to save the university money as well as reducing your use of resources. If you don’t find anyone within the university who wants the equipment, there may be a local school or charity who needs it – have a look around to find some likely candidates in the local community and give them a call.

7. Make students aware of water consumption

If you work in a lab and spend time washing hands and equipment, make sure students are aware of the need to save water (rinsing glassware in a washing up bowl rather than under a running tap, for example). That said, be aware of the health and safety implications of this and don’t contravene health and safety – if something needs rinsing in running water then that’s different.

8. Buy Green!

Consult with whoever is responsible for purchasing in the department and make sure recycled paper is bought where necessary, from as local a source as possible. The same applies when buying other equipment: try to make sure it’s locally sourced and as ecologically-friendly as possible. If you work in a lab-based subject, it’s worth consulting the technicians on this issue as they may have some useful ideas.

Interested in the issue of sustainability in higher education? Check out ADEPT’s research seminar on Sustainability in Higher Education Institutions from April 2016.