This Education for Sustainability case study is from Claire Lucas, Professor of Engineering Teaching and Learning at King’s. As well as time in industry, Claire has taken a national role in Engineering education, including as a QAA subject specialist and deputy chair of the 2022 subject benchmark statement review for Engineering. Here she discusses Energy & Sustainability 4CCE1SUS, a core module all new Electronic Engineering and General Engineering students take in the first semester of their first year.

“Students learn that Engineering is about compromise rather than making the most efficient thing possible, and that historically the compromise has been one way.”

Sustainable development goals addressed Sustainability competencies addressed
7. Affordable and clean energy.

9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure.

Integrated problem solving. Students work on energy problems in realistic settings such as transport or buildings.

Collaboration. Students undertake problem-based learning in groups using formal decision-making approaches.

Systems thinking. Students use tools to analyse emerging and interactive behaviour.

Normative competency. Alongside their quantitative methods students develop judgement to balance competing priorities.

What is the purpose of your module and why is sustainability important to it?

Often at the start of their degree, Engineering students have a classical Engineering science module. With our module we want to make it really obvious from the start that Engineering science and sustainability are intrinsically linked. For example, when you learn about thermodynamics (the interaction of temperature and air movement) in the lab you learn how the internal combustion engine or ram pump relate to thermodynamics and ultimately to global warming – which itself is a thermodynamic process.

How do you bring together sustainability and disciplinary learning?

We have a competency framework with some overlap with the ESD competencies – systems thinking, for example, which we take to be understanding emerging and interactive behaviour. In the first year of Engineering, the functional competency is to apply methods to solve broadly-defined problems, and the non-functional competencies are self-awareness, ability to reflect, cultural competency and creative thinking. Different parts of the degree address different competencies.

The first half of the module is the science and lab part where students learn about mechanical, electrical, thermal and fluid energy. We’re showing that, say, fluid flowing round pipes follows the same principles as electricity flowing round a circuit or heat flowing round your house. We have five labs where they analyse these principles in action. One of those labs is an internal combustion engine where they learn about chemical heat process, thermodynamics and fluid dynamics. The reason we have that – and it might seem really old-fashioned – is that at this early stage, students don’t have the material science knowledge to understand the complex electrical machines that power a wind turbine, but taking an internal combustion engine apart and putting it back together is a really good way to learn about the interactions between mechanical, electrical, chemical and thermal energy – and in the process how much energy is wasted as heat and pollution.

The labs are interesting because as well as the standard activities like learning to write a lab report, we also want them to start thinking experimentally as early as possible, so that they can validate their decisions and their models. So when they learn how to operate a piece of equipment, we are also scaffolding their thinking about what that equipment could validate. All of this prepares them for the science of sustainability in their Materials module – that’s where they’ll start using formal tools to analyse supply chains and lifecycles.

Then the second half of the module is Problem-Based Learning (PBL) to demonstrate why the science and labs are relevant. The groups need put their maths so far into practice to take a sustainability perspective on modelling realistic cases like buildings or vehicles. Students learn that Engineering is about compromise rather than making the most efficient thing possible, and that historically the compromise has been one way.

How do you assess the learning?

One element is PBL group coursework. That exists to show students that sustainability is something you can quantify and evaluate, and that you can use Engineering science to do that. They take an energy model of a building or a vehicle and carry out a lifecycle analysis. They use their maths so far to design an energy system to meet the demands of normal use – we give some datasets on this – and protect the environment by maximising efficiency, minimising pollution, or being responsive to changing energy demands. We’ve decided to give a group mark for this module rather than an individually differentiated mark.

For these first years we pitch the problem carefully so they’re working on something new rather than retrofitting an existing site – that way we can manage the systems thinking complexity based on what they know at this early stage. One option they have is a tender for a greenfield house building scheme and the other is a tender for new buses. There’s always a business-as-usual baseline which they use their creativity to improve on. They explain their criteria, they use their maths to do the modelling. We also ask them to write an individual reflective statement where they respond to prompts about what they learned and the kinds of problems they faced. That helps develop self-awareness.

The other assessments are individual coursework on the labs (30%) and an exam on the scientific knowledge (40%), which is fairly typical for this kind of course.

What support do students need?

We spend a lot of time scaffolding the skills students will need for group work. We explicitly give students approaches to teamwork, negotiation, and decision making with formal decision-making comparison tools like pugh matrices and multi-criteria analysis graphs. It’s about evidence for the decision rather than the person who is the strongest leader winning – we doing all we can to help students keep an open mind about group work and avoid settling into fixed roles early on. We timetable the PBL group work and observe attendance, and in the following semester we give each student a specific role within their groups.

We see this group work scaffolding as just as important as learning how to use a piece of equipment to take measurements in a lab. Students often arrive with habits of keeping their ideas secret. We say that we’re not looking for the Dragon’s Den person who ‘wins’ and actually, winning is sometimes about losing your idea or bringing it into the open so it can be iterated and improved. The way we put it is that to be truly excellent you have to help others to be excellent.

I mentioned already that we manage complexity for students based on their level of learning. We don’t do complex systems without systems boundaries until Level 6 or 7. This is why we give first years the problem of designing a new system from a blank slate – it means they’re thinking about conflicting requirements, which is a kind of systems thinking, but with a lot less complexity than retrofitting a system that already exists, like the existing London transport network, or existing buildings. This is because retrospectively adapting existing systems in the real world is often a matter of iterating based on a restricted number of leverage points which as a systems thinking problem is often really challenging.

But ultimately students do need to be able to claim that systems thinking competency, so this first year problem is the start of a thread that students follow throughout the degree. When they revisit it in their third year Energy Generation and Storage module, this time the constraints are removed, they gather their own data, the models are more complex because the systems already exists, and the techno-economical and lifecycle aspects are present.

One thing I often wonder about is how much to explain to students about why something is important without making them sick of the framing. We spend a lot of time justifying why we teach what we teach in the way we teach it, and it sometimes comes out in students’ reflections that they would rather just get on with the project. I sometimes wonder if women spend more time defending their decisions, and whether if we didn’t it would make a difference. But on the other hand, there are good pedagogical reasons to do it and it gives students a chance to criticise the approach.

What benefits have you seen?

The labs mean that students are generally well-prepared for the second semester. They have a good understanding of engineering as multidisciplinary and can start to take different perspectives and recognise commonalities between problems in other disciplines. Typically this group project is not successful, and that’s why it exists – it’s there to shake things out a bit and give us a chance to observe the cohort ready for the next semester when the group project is higher stakes.

Students learn that sustainability needs both Engineering science and qualitative judgement. They learn that sustainability does have a cost, and Engineering science can be used to bring  quantitative sustainability equations to negotiating balanced outcomes between competing priorities. They get an introduction to some approaches and tools for that analysis, and they start learning how to reflect on their own contributions, roles and strengths.

Do you have any suggestions?

We’re talking here about a single module, but we don’t think it is possible to fully develop the sustainability competencies in just one module and it would be a mistake to try to put everything students need to know about sustainability into a single module. So we are separating the sustainability science from the sustainability competencies, and mapping the competencies out across the degree so we can reinforce them all the way through.

I really recommend to anyone to make a table for their discipline where they set out the knowledge students will learn but also the corresponding skills which help them learn really well and become great mathematicians, historian or lawyers. And then to think about whether some sustainability competencies are more advanced and cognitively challenging than others, and how to develop them.