PGRs explore how sustainability relates to research and professional development

SustainaWHAT?! is a multi-disciplinary, cross-faculty and now cross-institutional collaborative project which encourages PGRs to explore the relationship between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and their research, with a focus on their professional and personal development.

Building on the success of the 2021 event, in Spring 2023, PGRs from three institutions (Newcastle, Bournemouth and Cardiff) worked with academic leads to create SustainaWHAT?! 2023 – a series of four events which aimed to:

  • provide an opportunity to bring a sustainability lens (via the UNSDGs) to their prospective research with a view to informing the rationale and potential impact of their current and future research;
  • develop a range of competencies applicable to their contexts;
  • develop a network of PGRs (+PGTs and ECRs) interested in sustainability within and across the three institutions.

‘The Gathering’ (March) was an introductory workshop which saw over 60 students (predominantly PGRs, with some ECR, PGT and UG students) exploring the UNSDGs in relation to their own lives and research through a range of activities.

At Newcastle, this event gave 26 postgraduate students from HaSS, FMS, and SAgE faculties a vital opportunity to collaborate across schools and research interests. This hybrid, part in-person, part over zoom, event between Newcastle University, Bournemouth University, and Cardiff University provided a space for whole university thinking on how research can be related to the UNSDGs.

A powerful keynote speech was given by sustainable development expert and Insights North East Fellow Jecel Censoro, and discussion panel members Dr Elisa Lopez-Capel (SAgE), Dr Jenny Davidson (HaSS/ School X) and Mx Jan Deckers (FMS) answered attendee questions on sustainability.

This opportunity to work across schools was deem important by attendees, with one Newcastle PGR stating after the event, ‘The climate crisis requires interdisciplinary solutions and collaboration’. Of the 52 survey responses (from all three institutions), 95% of students reported that they are rarely or never given the opportunity to work across disciplines on sustainability projects, so we believe this Sustaina-WHAT?! work fills a vital niche.

SustainaWHAT?!’s work draws on UNESCO’s Learning Competencies for Education for Sustainable Development, including overarching ways of thinking (e.g. critical thinking), of practicing (e.g. collaboration), and of being (e.g. reflection), when planning events. As demonstrated by attendee responses below, our work continues to be successful in developing attendee ESD competencies which prepare and support student work not only in their research projects but also their ongoing professional development.

Critical Thinking: Through the individual and group activities during the March event the percentage of students who stated they were able to link the SDGs to their research increased from 43% before the event to 76% after the event.

Collaboration: Cooperation between students with disparate research interests during a group activity led attendees to make clearer links between each other’s work through the SDGs, with students commenting that ‘SDGs are interconnected’ and ‘I became more aware of SDGs in my domain of research’.

Reflection: After being invited to review their existing awareness of sustainability during the March event, 84% of students leaving the event reported they intended to explore sustainability as part of their future career, and 82% stating that they planned to adopt sustainable actions in their daily lives.

What did the students across the three institutions learn? When asked what their biggest take away from the March event was, the students commented:

  • ‘More exposure on SDGs and their relation to communities, societies, and countries.’ (Bournemouth)
  • ‘Connection and motivation.’ (Cardiff)
  • ‘Develop potential connections between sustainable development and my research.’ (Newcastle)

In ‘The Challenge’ (April), three multi-disciplinary and cross-institutional PGR teams worked closely online and under time constraints over two events to explore and respond to country-based briefs, drawing on the UNSDGs. ​Each team (supported by a PGR facilitator) produced a proposal which was judged by a panel of academics from 3 institutions and an external NGO. In addition to prizes being awarded for 1st-3rd place, teams received individualised feedback on their proposal strengths ​and developmental suggestions. First prize was awarded for a proposal on “Improving Sustainability Through UK Manufacturing Law”, which was developed and presented by Callum Thompson (PGR in Engineering, Cardiff) and Tushar Somkumar (PGR in Law, Newcastle). Their work illustrated the value of creating opportunities for students to come together from different disciplines and institutions to work effectively to respond to global challenges.

Finally, there was an online event, ‘The Celebration’ (May) to announce ‘The Challenge’ winners, and to celebrate the achievements of all involved – the project team and student attendees. 

The initial findings from the project’s evaluation work were also shared. Understanding the student attendee experience of the project and the impact on people’s learning and views on sustainability have been a core element of the work undertaken by a dedicated evaluation team. We’ve not only been interested in attendee experiences, but the team have been keen to observe and explore the cross-disciplinary and institutional project team (some self-reflection was required too) in terms of what working practices are needed for successful collaborative working across disciplines and institutions. The team are now working on finalising an evaluation report to share across our institution.

Moving forward – get involved! Colleagues from Bournemouth, Newcastle and Cardiff are scoping out a student-led sector-wide sustainability network which brings together Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and Postgraduate Research Students (PGRs) who are working on bringing sustainability into their research. The network seeks to connect its members across institutions and facilitate cross-disciplinary interactions and collaborations. To find out more/ get involved contact: rosalind.beaumont@newcastle.ac.uk.

Co-authored by Charlie Osborne (PGR, SNES) and Rosalind Beaumont (Senior Lecturer, School X)

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