Every day we receive more information on pollution in the seas and oceans caused by the invasion of plastics. In fact, nobody can ignore the images of the massive slicks of plastic floating through the seas, which are even more distressing when they show animals surrounded by plastic bottles and other waste. The responsibility we feel towards the environment and the planet’s health as we watch these images can doubtlessly be used to boost commitment, implication and action from institutions of higher education.

The Ocean i3 project (Oi3) is an educational innovation initiative developed within the framework of the strategic alliance of the Euskampus Bordeaux cross-border International Campus of Excellence and involves the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), a UNAI member institution in Spain, and the University of Bordeaux (UB), in France, university communities. It began as a pilot experience in the 2018-2019 academic year and has received funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) since 2020.

Oi3 takes on board the key aspects of the UPV/EHU’s own educational model, known as IKD i3, which combines learning, research and sustainability, incorporating values from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development compiled in the EHUagenda 2030 and in the road map for transitions, both environmental and social, that are components of the UB’s strategic plan for 2030 (U30). Thereby matching up these universities’ work with the major challenges for the planet and people.

Students from both universities, accompanied by their professors, get an experience in education for sustainability that mainly consists of an inter-university, interdisciplinary, multilingual and multicultural schedule of intensive training. They develop cross-discipline skills for sustainability by getting involved in real challenges set by social actors from the Basque-Aquitaine cross-border coastline, bound to the issue of plastics in the sea.

The students’ work revolves around five workshops where they are put in inter-university groups to work on a challenge set by a wide range of social actors. The Oi3 training schedule uses participative learning dynamics so that in their teams, the students: a) jointly define the scope of the challenge/problem they have been assigned; b) design feasible, specific and measurable proposals in a collective and interdisciplinary way; and c) offer results (action plans, studies, prototypes, specific interventions, etc.) agreed with the territorial stakeholders that impact these challenges so as to help reduce plastics along the Basque-Aquitaine cross-border coastline.

The innovation project approach encompasses students on undergraduate and postgraduate courses from both universities through their implication and commitment to Degree Final Projects (TFG) and Master’s Degree Final Projects (TFM), voluntary internships, course projects, doctoral dissertations, etc. Students from very different degrees are involved, and this gives the whole Oi3 community the chance to work on skills required to tackle the challenges raised by sustainability such as understanding and solving complex problems, creativity and global and comprehensive vision of problems, communication in cross-cultural and multilingual contexts, among others. In Oi3, all persons involved benefit from taking part in an extended community of knowledge and intervention where specialists from different areas work together by providing their ‘know-how’ and experience to support and run actions and outputs from students at UPV/EHU and UB.

Over the last three academic years and up to that of 2020-2021, 98 students have taken part and generated 90 individual academic products, and 34 territorial stakeholders from either side of the border have worked closely together. This has been made within the framework of the so-called blue economy, which according to a report by the World Bank, is a concept that "seeks to promote economic growth, social inclusion, and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability of the oceans and coastal areas."

Oi3 constitutes an authentic and significant learning environment for students because it sets them actions where they must combine their ‘know-how’ and experience and where their decisions and actions are reflected and make their mark on the well-being of the sea.

*This text is an adaptation from the one originally published on 'Campusa', the magazine of the University of the Basque Country