Despite the disruptions to education caused by COVID-19, the role of academia in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on college campuses is more important than ever. Recognizing this fact, Dork Sahagian, a professor of earth and environmental science at UNAI member Lehigh University, worked with a group of graduate students to conduct research and publish a model to enable universities to mainstream the SDGs into campus curricula.  

According to Prof. Sahagian there are at least two key aspects of incorporating SDGs, and sustainability in general, into courses and curricula at the college level. The first is through sustainability and environmental degree programs, whose students plan to pursue these topics as a career and whose faculty have already made this their career. The second, and more difficult, aspect is incorporating SDGs throughout the entire college curriculum to reach those students who may not be pursuing sustainability as their life’s work.

Prof. Sahagian’s team developed a means for reviewing current courses using keywords in course catalog descriptions to determine whether sustainability is central or even pertinent to the course, and if so to which SDG(s) it would map. Some courses pertain to specific SDGs, yet the course descriptions didn’t mention any such connection so one finding of this initial inventory was that course catalog descriptions could be revised to better link to the SDGs.

The course inventory includes basic course information, keywords, and designations such as  “sustainability focused”, meaning the primary and explicit focus of the class is on sustainability and/or understanding and solving one or more sustainability challenges, or “sustainability related”, meaning a focus on a topic other than sustainability but incorporating a unit or module on sustainability or a sustainability challenge, including one or more sustainability-focused activities, or it integrates sustainability issues throughout the course.

Prof. Sahagian’s goal was to determine how many of the university’s courses already address the SDG’s, as well as to identify gaps that could be filled with modest curricular adjustments. The product of this research is a model that can be replicated in any institution of higher education. Once an initial inventory is established, it is then possible to identify the suite of SDGs that are addressed throughout the curriculum, determine gaps that could be filled within existing courses, and identify courses that do not address SDGs but could, without significant alteration.

The model also allows instructors to adjust course descriptions and course content to better align with SDGs and gives some guidance on the provision of resources to help faculty achieve this. For Prof. Sahagian, it is essential to reach students who would not otherwise be exposed to the importance of a sustainable relationship between people and the planet. “This approach is based on the actual assumption that all students should have at least a working knowledge of SDGs and their underlying principles, to be used in their subsequent careers and personal lives,” he stresses.

For those who would like to learn more about integrating SDGs in college curricula, check out this resource from UNESCO: Education for Sustainable Development Goals: Learning Objectives.