S2-S&SI1-4 - Engineering Students’ Conceptualizations of Sustainability

3. Research Full Paper
Jens Kabo1 , Dean Nieusma2, Caroline Baillie3
1 Chalmers University of Technology
2 Colorado School of Mines
3 University of San Diego

This Research Full Paper follows an investigation of one small group of technical students in a course that addressed sustainability in the context of technology design, whose aim was expanding students’ appreciation for the concept’s complexity. Our goal was not to evaluate the outcomes of the course per se, but rather to ask: What range of conceptions is held by the students at a collective level? And can this inform sustainability’s integration into engineering education?

While the integration of a sustainability lens within engineering education is increasingly urgent, the appropriate conceptual underpinnings for such integration remain unclear. We argue that an important component of such integration is to explore the diversity of ways in which sustainability is understood by students in order to design more relevant and impactful learning experiences in engineering educational contexts.

In order to achieve our goal, we employed the qualitative research approach, phenomenography, which focuses on the different ways students talked about “sustainability”, especially in the context technology design. Using this approach, we identified seven qualitatively distinct categories, ranging from “Sustainability as other people’s unrealistic ideals” to “Sustainability as integrated problem solving”. The categories were organized and related to one another according to three dimensions of variation, which were themselves emergent from the data. The dimensions of variation overlap with key themes of the course, most notably including the recognition that multiple dimensions of sustainability often exist in tension with one another, sometimes fundamentally so. 

While several studies exist that explore sustainability, including some that focus on students’ conceptions and others using phenomenography as research methodology, few studies lie at the intersection of engineering, sustainability, and phenomenography. Our study addresses that gap, resulting in both empirical and practice-oriented contributions to the field of engineering education research. Specifically, the findings can be used as parts of a tool for scaffolding students’ learning experiences: by using our quotes as mirrors for students’ own ideas about sustainability; by developing an assessment tool based on the categories of description or by highlighting critical aspects of sustainability through structured variation around the three dimensions of variation identified. However, we also urge caution in interpreting our findings, based as they are on undergraduate student conceptions, excluding more complex understandings of sustainability held by practitioners or scholars. Hence, if the aim is to push students’ understanding far beyond current dominant constructs, for examples those concerning economic growth, we would need an expanded range of categories.