söndag 25 oktober 2015

Student Sustainability Lunch Seminars

Something pretty unusual happened as our course about ICT and sustainability came to a close one week ago. During the very last week, one student said he didn't want the course seminars to come to an end and suggested we should continue to meet regularly also after the course was finished. I gave him the opportunity to stand up in front of the class and pitch his idea at the very last lecture and more than 25% of the students signed up when a list was circulated. The course is compulsory so we totally understand if not every student loves the course, but, more than 20 students expressed an interest in voluntarily participating in a series of seminars after the course had finished. That's pretty amazing. Here's the deal we worked out with the student in question in advance:

- He (and a couple of friends of his) will be responsible for organising these events. These lunch seminars should be a student-initiated and student-led activity.
- Elina and I will help out by booking a suitable seminar room for each lunch meeting.
- Elina and I will make sure at least one of us will attend each meeting.
- Depending on the theme (see below), we could help by suggesting/selecting some background reading materials.

We kicked this thing off by having a lunch meeting a few days ago where we discussed the format of these meeting. It was decided that:
- We will have lunch meetings with the students every second week (Fridays) for the rest of the term.
- Each meeting will have a specific theme and we will all prepare for the seminar by reading a text (doesn't have to be academic) or perhaps watch a movie.
- Depending on the theme, me and Elina (and Hanna) might also invite suitable guests (most probably experts/researchers from other parts of KTH).
- The first regular lunch seminar will treat the topic "Sustainability and global justice" and will be followed by optionally attending a public seminar on that topic a few days later (more info here and here).

We started the kick-off meeting by going round the table so that the students could present themselves and state why they wanted to participate in this activity. Only six students showed up at the inaugural meeting (since next week is exam week and most students opted for staying home to study and prepare for their exams). The testimonies of the students that were present were hearth-warming for us teachers though. I took notes and here are some of the reasons the students offered:
- "My goals and visions for my future has changed [after I took the course]. From getting rich and driving an expensive car to something totally different."
- "It's not just a XXX [incomplete notes] but also about the future, about what jobs I want to apply for [after I finish my degree]. I'm not interested in the same jobs I was a year ago."
- "[Taking the course has] led to an internal paradigm shift, a new world view for me."
- "I know that a lot of the students who took the course were looking forward to the [weekly] seminars."
- "I'm looking forward to these seminars. I've been to other courses with the same structure but with seminars that gave me nothing."

Another great outcome of giving the course this year has been the massive student interest in writing their master's thesis on a topic relating to sustainability. half the class (≈ 40 students) will write their master's theses this coming spring and around five students have been in touch with me and an equal number have gotten in touch with Elina in regards to this issue (there might be an overlap though). Some of these students might drop off, but there might also be other students who haven't yet gotten in touch with us - including 4th year students who will get in touch with us next year instead. To inspire and help our students, we have listed no less than 30 thesis proposals on our team blog and we will hopefully get at least get a healthy bunch of student to write their master's theses on "our" topics during the spring term. There are also potential synergies with the upcoming Sustainability Student Lunch Seminars as it will be possible to choose themes for these meetings that are related to topics that our students will write their theses about. We have in fact already found several other spin-off benefits of having these lunch seminars and I might write more about these spin-offs during the spring if they pan out.

It is highly irregular to "continue a course" after the course finishes and we teachers are absurdly thankful for the students' enthusiasm and interest in the topics we teach - especially taking into account the (for the most part) lukewarm student interest in sustainability before this compulsory course started. It is at the same time a little absurd that we feel so thankful and blessed to have students who are genuinely interested in the subject we teach since that does not bode well for the rest of the education we provide them with (including all the teaching I've done during the previous decade at KTH...). Aren't students in fact supposed to study at the university based on a genuine interested in a variety of topics that we (the faculty) can help them explore and master? Or are we just cramming courses down their throats on a 5 year long conveyor belt?

Our course has obviously been very successful this year. Elina and me have asked ourselves why, or rather "why now?". We can't know for sure but have tried to find possible reasons for why things seems to have taken off this year but not before:
- It might be because this was the fourth time we gave the course and we have finally mastered how to teach this course, including planning and tweaking the contents and in various ways honing in on the delivery.
- It might be because sustainability, resource challenges and climate change are timely topics (for example with the Paris COP 21 meeting coming up at the end of this year).
- It might also be that this could equally well have happened last year and that the only difference was that one student actually stood up and suggested it this year but not last (a sort of "social dynamics tipping point").

To sum up, we just don't know why the course was more successful this time around, but it definitely seems there has been a qualitative difference between this and the three previous rounds. It's fun to note that me and Elina have written two academic papers together about our course and the the titles of these papers are "’It’s not fair! – Making students engage in sustainability" (pdf file) and "ICT4S reaching out: Making sustainability relevant in higher education" (pdf file). It definitely seems like we have succeeding on both those accounts and we hope to write a third paper too not too long from now.

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