CASE STUDY 5: University of the Sunshine Coast
Bridging the divide: Creating opportunities for professional conversations about sustainability
This university has two core research priorities – regional engagement and sustainability. Key sustainability initiatives include:
- a Regional Sustainability Research Group drawn from academics across the university – the first interdisciplinary research group of its kind
- a number of buildings that have been designed around passive solar design principles and plans for the first university wildlife reserve in Australia
- becoming a signatory to the internationally recognised Talloires Declaration, committing the university to sustainable practices.
At the time the project commenced, however, sustainability did not have a high profile within courses. The university did offer a sustainability major (40CP) and minor (20CP), which could be taken as part of any course across the university provided there were enough electives. Notably, the two main areas without enough electives were Education and Engineering.
As a small, regional university, we have offered Education for approximately five years. During this time there have been significant staff changes along with the appointment of a number of sessional staff. Prior to this project, none of the staff were familiar with Education for Sustainability (EfS). Within the School of Education, the only course which addressed EfS was an elective, EDU303 Learning for Sustainability in Schools, which I coordinate. While this course had been ‘on the books’ for a number of years, it was not offered until 2008. Clashes with other courses resulted in small enrolments.
This project therefore focussed on involving a core group of teacher educators working as co-researchers and key agents of change on ways to integrate EfS examples, concepts and practices into their own education courses.
Interest in project
My interest in being involved in this project was twofold. I had been involved with scoping the original research upon which this systems/action-research process was based, and I was keen to follow this line of inquiry further and see whether the model we proposed in Stage One of this project was useful. Secondly, with its parallels to what David Orr calls an ‘ecological’ model (holistic and integrated), I was really interested in finding out more about systems thinking and research in an applied and practical way and this project was an opportunity to gain skills in this area.
Identifying hubs and creating networks
This project began with a small group of teacher educators who expressed an interest in being involved after being informed of the project at a department meeting. The ‘recruited’ teacher educators expressed an interest in sustainability and saw it as a key challenge of the future. Thus, they effectively self-identified as key agents of change within the university. Their role was to help drive the process of mainstreaming sustainability education into teacher education through developing competencies in EfS and incorporating these into their courses.
Engaging at the systemic level involved collaborating with the local Queensland Sustainable Schools Initiative (QESSI) hub on a quantitative research project aimed at identifying the status of EfS in the region’s schools and the ways that the university could support their work in this area. Embedded in the survey was a section aimed at identifying schools that were willing to host and nurture practicum students with an interest in EfS. Connecting with these schools provided a win-win situation for the project and the university more broadly, as finding suitable practicum schools is often a challenge for Education Faculty staff.
Most significant changes
The most significant change that has come about as a result of this project is the raised profile of my role as sustainability educator within the university. As a member of the university’s Regional Sustainability Research Group, I am situated in a different part of the university from the remainder of the Education faculty staff. This, coupled with the spread of my teaching load across Education, Science and Sustainability areas, resulted in reduced opportunities to interact with fellow teacher educators in my institution and engage them in EfS.
This project has enabled me to bridge this potentially significant geographical divide and helped to position me as an influential voice on EfS within my university. I am now being contacted by fellow teacher educators within my institution to provide resources and guest lectures on EfS, as well as input into course outlines. Additional engagement has come in the form of collaborating on a number of projects. One such project involved assisting a colleague in his negotiations with an international university regarding a study-abroad program for their education students which will consist of sustainability education courses and practicum placements.
A second project came about after I was contacted by a new staff member seeking assistance in developing the idea of a ‘science for sustainability’ fair for primary school students and the university’s first intake of primary pre-service teachers. The fair, intended to coincide with Science Week in 2010, will provide an opportunity for pre-service teachers to engage with primary students in a series of fun and challenging projects organised around the theme of alternative energy. It will also assist in promoting the university as a leader in science education and raise the profile of science as a career choice.
Overwhelmingly, this project has created opportunities for ongoing and in-depth professional conversations about sustainability and its relevance to teacher educators within my institution. Many colleagues are now more open to, and engage with, the complexities of sustainability. As a result of this project, some sustainability literacy now exists within my teacher education system.
Aside from successfully engaging with a group of teacher educators to build knowledge and capacity in EfS within my institution, this project has resulted in the establishment of another important ‘systemic’ relationship. As a result of the collaborative research project with the local QESSI hub, a strong partnership has developed between the university and the region’s largest primary school. As a sustainable school, this school not only supports pre-service teachers with an interest in EfS through practicum placements, but is also working with the university to provide professional learning experiences for in-service teachers. Offered as ‘short courses’ in the area of Education for Sustainability, the goal is for accreditation of these professional development programs by the Queensland College of Teachers (QCT).
Looking to the future
Beyond this project, I will continue to drive the process of mainstreaming EfS into all pre-service teacher education courses within my institution. I will continue to support and build the capacity of teacher educators, and facilitate linkages between sustainability focussed courses and workplace learning in sustainable schools.
Building on the results of the local QESSI research project, my intention is to work with school staff to identify and implement opportunities for incorporating EfS into their schools. The provision of professional development opportunities in EfS is also an important undertaking given that the QCT now mandates professional learning obligations for all in-service teachers. To this end, I will provide support to school staff wishing to undertake sustainability education in my region. The 6th World Environmental Education Congress will be held in Queensland in 2011 and will no doubt assist me in furthering the profile of EfS within my institution and mobilising the full support of the QCT.
Our research grouping is also currently investigating an ‘Eco-versity’ project that will see sustainability become the core guiding principle behind teaching, facilities management, research, and community engagement. We are building partnerships with other universities internationally and have begun discussions and negotiations with interested staff and students to further this agenda.