onsdag 23 mars 2022

Addressing students’ eco-anxiety when teaching sustainability in computing education (paper)


Our article, "Addressing students’ eco-anxiety when teaching sustainability in computing education" has been accepted for publication at the upcoming 8th International Conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S). The conference will be held in the second largest city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv, between June 13-17 and some of us plan to go there by train (more info to come).

The article has no less than six authors: Elina Eriksson, Anne-Kathrin Peters, Daniel Pargman, Björn Hedin, Minna Laurell Thorslund and Sandra Sjöö. Elina, me and Minna work at the Division of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID), while our co-authors Anne-Kathrin and Björn work at the Department of Learning in Engineering Science. Sandra is a KTH master's student, she was our Teaching Assistant in November - December and she has also been involved in the mini-project that generated material for this paper.

The background of the paper is that we wrote an application for a small pedagogical project at the end of May last year, "Sustainability and the emotionally competent engineer". We asked for a sliver of money (125 000 SEK) to further develop our course DM2573 Sustainability and Media Technology. To be able to define and implement small projects based on our own pedagogical interests is one of the most rewarding ways of taking responsibility for furthering my/our own pedagogical education! It's also very rewarding to document what we have learned in a project like this, to analyze our pedagogical insights and to write a paper that might inspire other teachers! 

In this particular case, a successful project also harbored the promise of beneficial effects not just for us but also for KTH more generally, since we teamed up with researchers a the unit Learning in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at the Department of Learning in Engineering Science (KTH/ITM School). Björn Hedin (Associate professor in Learning in Engineering Science with a focus on Integrating Sustainable Development) helped write the application and we also invited Anne-Kathrin Peters to join the project (she was hired as an Associate professor in Technology Education with a focus on Sustainability after we wrote the application). Both Björn and Anne-Kathrin worked for free in the project since their work efforts could be construed to be part of their ordinary jobs (and thus paid for by their own division). There's thus the benefit of possibly being able to incorporate results from this project into KTH’s pedagogical courses, for example LH215V Learning for Sustainable Development which Björn is responsible for.

The text below constitutes about 30% of the text in the application (translated from Swedish):

"To acknowledge and accept facts about the challenges we face by reading texts about species extinction (Almond et al. 2020) or tipping points for the climate (Steffen et al. 2018) can provoke strong emotional reactions. This is something we ourselves have experienced among our students and in our sustainability education; some students feel it's “unfair” that their future probably does not look as bright as that of the parent generation (Pargman & Eriksson 2013), and some students have said that course materials that describes major problems that humanity face have made them feel at least some degree of climate anxiety (Eriksson & Pargman 2017).

KTH is at the forefront of integrating sustainability into our educational programs, but then usually with a focus on technological or societal transformations and on verifiable facts. In our own teaching, we have however allowed for and encouraged discussions also about opinions and values (Eriksson & Pargman 2014). However, we have not seriously considered the necessary "inner transition" or the competencies that today are often placed outside of the conventional role of engineers, but that are needed to be able to approach, take on and speed up the transition into a more sustainable society (see for example www.gdee.eu). There is also research that indicates that engineers need to become better at both theoretical and practical skills, e.g. concerning empathy (Rasoal et al., 2012). [...]

With this application, we want to apply for funding to develop a course module that will help students reflect on sustainability challenges on a deeper level [including but not limited to intergenerational justice, social sustainability, gender equality etc.]. At the same time, we want to highlight the importance of issues related to emotional reactions of being confronted with images of the future that are characterized by increased complexity and uncertainty."

We got the funding we applied for and the money basically paid for 10% of phd student Minna's annual salary. This meant she could legitimately spend something like 150 - 200 hours working on this project (e.g. reducing her ordinary teaching load correspondingly). The activity Minna led was about planning a parallell and voluntary "side-track" or “intervention” in the course, as well as a study of this intervention. The side-track activity was offered to all students who took the course and seven students chose to sign up for it. It also generated a lot of materials, but this paper is however not about the side-track but about the changes and the effects that acknowledging eco-anxiety had in the ordinary course that around 80 students took. So there will be (at least) one more paper written about the cutting-edge, experimental side-track activity/intervention that happened in Nov-Dec and in parallell with the ordinary course (which is the topic of this paper). 

Below is the abstract of the just-accepted paper. The paper will be available to read sometime this coming summer.


The widespread awareness, sense of urgency and helplessness regarding the ongoing sustainability crisis (climate change, biodiversity loss etc.) can evoke feelings of grief, sorrow, despair and anxiety. Those emotions are seldom discussed in computing or in computing education. They can have detrimental effects on the well-being of students and others, and also lead to inaction. But concern can on the other hand also be a catalyst for learning. In this paper, we present results and reflections from a research and development project in our introductory course to sustainability and ICT focusing on emotions in sustainability education. We focus on “eco-anxiety” and ask: 1) How is eco- anxiety communicated by students and teachers?, 2) In what ways do students receive support to deal with eco-anxiety?, 3) What could be done to better address eco-anxiety in computing education? We here present an analysis of how we have seen, and responded to eco-anxiety, which activities that have been added to the course, and an evaluation of these interventions. The results are based on joint reflections that have been guided by literature, a small-scale ethnographic study as well as a course evaluation. The paper will end with recommendations for other ICT4S educators on how they can start addressing eco-anxiety in their education.


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