Educating future change agents – Higher education as a motor of the sustainability transformation

Prof. Dr. Matthias Barth, Prof. Dr. Jantje Halberstadt, Prof. Dr. Daniel Lang, Prof. Dr. Arnim Wiek

The well-being of humankind and the biosphere, from generation to generation, is at stake in the quest for sustainable development and calls for collaborative efforts across all sectors of society. Yet, higher education institutions play a particular role. As hubs of knowledge generation, universities are able to provide evidence for transformational strategies and actions that foster sustainable development around the world. Similarly important, however, is universities’ opportunity and responsibility to educate future change agents who are willing and able to initialize, support, and carry out the transformation of economy and societies towards sustainability. Over the past decade, sustainability has inspired new curricula and has been incorporated into existing ones at universities worldwide. Additionally, novel approaches on how to teach and learn sustainability have been developed and applied in innumerable courses. However, to date little empirical research has been conducted on sustainability curricula and courses as to provide robust evidence specifically on how students can best be educated to acquire such competencies that would qualify them for becoming impactful change agents.

The project conducts its research on two universities that have pioneered sustainability education in Europe and North America, namely, Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany and Arizona State University in the United States. Both universities have fully developed degree programs in sustainability (Bachelor, Master, PhD) and are widely known for their innovative teaching and learning approaches, including transdisciplinary, problem-based, project-based, and solution-oriented pedagogies. The project is expected to generate results on:What competencies in sustainability are critical for future change agents, qualifying them for employability or entrepreneurship

  • How effective are novel teaching and learning formats in conveying these key competencies
  • Which of such novel teaching and learning formats yield the most profound impact
  • What types of integrating sustainability into curricula are best suited to educate competent and passionate change agents
  • What institutional factors are conducive to adopting such types of sustainability curricula
  • If and how real contributions to the sustainability transformation can get attributed to the acquisition of key competencies during higher education

Research results will advance the evidence base in the field of research on sustainability education. With regard to the practice of higher education, the project offers evidence-based guidance to other universities around the world.