10 March 2022

North Carolina State University, commonly called NC State, is a Research 1, public land-grant university located in Raleigh, North Carolina, United States. Founded in 1887, NC State has historically maintained a strong science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) focus, and is now home to over 36,000 undergraduate and graduate students who learn by doing.

In their work on and off campus, our students increasingly prioritize sustainability. In the fall of 2020, for example, 72 per cent of students indicated that the commitment by NC State to the environment and sustainability influenced their decision to attend, while information requests about campus sustainability increased by 7 per cent over the previous year.

Although our institution has an active commitment to sustainability, the long-term emphasis was particularly strong in the area of operations and facilities. In recent years, we realized that our academic achievements and research accomplishments in the area of sustainability were not always visible to students and faculty, even though the 2021 Times Higher Education Impact Ranking listed NC State as sixth in the world for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), and seventh in the United States for both SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation). Even though NC State adopted a multilayered Strategic Sustainability Plan in 2017, it was an ongoing challenge for our large University to find a way to visibly capture the wide variety of activities happening under the umbrella of sustainability. Defining “sustainability” in a way that is sufficiently broad but operationally specific proved challenging, as it has for many institutions and researchers.

The Process: From Goals to Courses

After conversations among a few faculty and staff who were members of the NC State Sustainability Council, we determined that the SDGs provided a convenient conceptual framework and could potentially be a ready-made solution to our problem. Beginning in the fall of 2019, we explored how the SDGs could be used to identify and organize existing classes and service-learning activities at the University. It was apparent from our earliest discussions that an inherent advantage of using the SDGs as a guiding framework was that we could allow students interested in different aspects of sustainability—whether poverty reduction, resource conservation or gender equality—to fully explore their personal, intellectual or professional interests and to focus on their own unique motivations for supporting sustainability.

The undergraduate SDG course listing was completed and launched in April 2021. A few months later, staff in the University Sustainability Office completed the review of graduate courses for the Sustainable Development Goals Course Inventory.

We began our project by reviewing the UNESCO learning objectives for the SDGs. One inherent challenge we faced was that the SDG learning objectives used to categorize our courses are quite specific, but the courses themselves include a wide variety of approaches and areas of study. Using strict alignment with the learning objectives as a requirement for inclusion would, for instance, exclude courses that otherwise covered relevant material in course assignments, submodules or service-learning components. Instead, we opted to use the learning objectives as a keyword source, and then map these keywords onto the courses taught at NC State.

In order to establish a reliable methodology, and unsure of how our approach would fare in practice, we began with a small, student-driven pilot research project to connect identified keywords with course descriptions in the University course catalog, on departmental websites or with public facing syllabi. Our work started with six different departments, and once we were convinced of the value and replicability of our approach from this initial exercise, we expanded to an evaluation of the entire NC State undergraduate catalog. When we were unsure about the reliability of a match between a particular SDG and a particular course, our research team would contact instructors directly to determine if there was indeed alignment of a given course with one or more specific SDGs. The undergraduate SDG course listing was completed and launched in April 2021. A few months later, staff in the University Sustainability Office completed the review of graduate courses for the Sustainable Development Goals Course Inventory, employing the same process used for undergraduate courses, and merged all resulting data into a single database. Following all evaluation processes, each faculty with course(s) identified for inclusion in the Inventory was given the opportunity to provide input and approve the addition of their course in the inventory. We believe that this type of consensual decision-making process about building out the Sustainable Development Goals Course Inventory is key to faculty participation and to the successful ongoing maintenance of our database.

The Sustainable Development Goals

The Outcomes: Enhanced SDG Visibility and Ongoing Challenges

By the conclusion of the 18-month long exercise, we had reviewed over 4,500 undergraduate and graduate courses. We found that overall course alignment with one or more SDGs was more common in graduate than in undergraduate courses (21 per cent vs. 14 per cent). We also observed that SDG-aligned courses were predominantly clustered in three of our twelve colleges: Natural Resources; Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Humanities and Social Sciences. These colleges offer 90 per cent of the SDG-aligned coursework at NC State, but all colleges offer some number of relevant courses. The Sustainable Development Goals Course Inventory allows students to identify courses offered in their home department or college and determine which of the required courses for their respective degree may, perhaps unbeknown to them, align with a specific SDG. This resource will also allow students to cultivate knowledge and skills in an SDG area while completing required coursework for their studies. By facilitating a menu of courses and activities to choose from, the SDG framework also sets the groundwork for an organized programme of study, such as a campus-wide minor or certificate, and helps faculty identify researchers in other units on campus who are active in similar fields of interest, thereby increasing the possibility of intramural interdisciplinary collaborations.

Separately, and serendipitously, the NC State Office of Global Engagement launched a new Global Learning for All strategic plan in 2020, using the SDGs as its core framework. This comprehensive initiative for engaging the SDGs at NC State involves curricular, co-curricular and high-impact experiences, all of which are difficult to connect and scaffold in a large institutional setting. The simple fact that one group of faculty was developing the Sustainable Development Goals Course Inventory unaware that, at the same time, the Global Learning for All efforts were underway underscores the need for enhanced visibility and coordination around sustainability efforts at large universities. But the convergence of both efforts highlights that, across the board, the SDGs can serve as an ideal means to connect global concerns with local engagement.

One of the main objectives of the Inventory is to demonstrate that the SDGs are applicable, relevant and already embedded in many fields beyond those obviously connected to environmental or sustainability studies. 

Between the Course Inventory and the Global Learning for All initiatives, the SDGs have emerged as an important organizational framework to further support the strategic goals of NC State. They will be an inspiration for the University’s 2023-28 Sustainability Strategic Plan, the initiatives of which form the core of our SDG Expo, scheduled during this year’s SDG Awareness Week (28 February4 March 2022). They have encouraged us to reframe events, such as our Global Film Series, and think about which SDGs can be highlighted there to make unconventional connections between the global and the local. For example, we showed the 2019 Japanese animated film, Weathering with You, which attracted a group of students who are fans of the genre but had never attended prior events organized by the Global Learning for All initiative. Although the film is a romantic fantasy, it also centres around issues of climate change, which allowed us to connect our subsequent audience discussion of the film to SDG 13 (Climate Action).

Talley Student Union at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, United States, 2020. Pixabay

NC State also recently launched our latest 10-year comprehensive Strategic Plan, which added sustainability as a new core value. This value defines sustainability as a “commitment to wise stewardship of resources, prudent financial planning and environmentally responsible operations.” Placing sustainability at the centre of our mission to integrate research and knowledge production, excellence in teaching and engagement with public as well as private entities presents a genuine opportunity to “think and do” the SDGs at NC State. The inclusion and promotion of the SDGs in academic and engagement programmes, such as the Sustainable Development Goals Course Inventory and Global Learning for All initiative described here, prepare students to support this value by encouraging sustainable behaviours, attitudes and training that directly impact the University’s progress from aspirational goals towards operational targets.

While there certainly are challenges with maintaining a course database in the face of continuous changes to course offerings, the Sustainable Development Goals Course Inventory has quickly emerged as an important way for faculty to promote SDG-aligned courses and attract students from various disciplines across campus. One of the main objectives of the Inventory is to demonstrate that the SDGs are applicable, relevant and already embedded in many fields beyond those obviously connected to environmental or sustainability studies. In that way, we have already shown students across our campus that they can engage with the SDGs in a variety of ways, helping them connect the dots between the multiple meanings and aspects of sustainability.

The Future: Opportunities for the SDGs, Near and Far

Our experience demonstrates how the SDGs can serve as a type of universal language to connect operations, facilities, instruction, research, co-curricular student activities and high-impact experiences. We believe that this kind of engagement within the United Nations around the SDGs, particularly for the members of the United Nations Academic Impact initiative, is important because it provides a concrete example of how simple organizational efforts can lay the foundation for new opportunities for collaboration in research and curriculum development. For example, the Sustainable Development Goals Course Inventory and our upcoming SDG Expo present an opportunity to not just publicize courses aligned with the SDGs, but also for researchers working in adjacent fields to network with like-minded colleagues and potentially foster new interdisciplinary partnerships. We are working to create a comprehensive SDG-aligned research inventory that identifies all faculty researchers at NC State. In addition to facilitating year-round co-curricular programming based around the SDGs, the Office of Global Engagement is currently mapping existing study abroad programmes and affiliations in order to better identify opportunities for students wishing to deepen their interests in one or more SDGs while undertaking an international experience. Our hope is that, collectively, these efforts will enable us to identify, recruit and retain an even greater proportion of undergraduate and graduate students who are highly motivated by sustainability issues in their choice of university.