Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz UniversityEmbedding sustainability into the curriculum at Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University

Embedding sustainability into the curriculum at Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University

Students in the College of Engineering are applying a sustainability lens to their research projects and have inspired the rest of the university to follow in their footsteps

In his dual roles as professor of electrical engineering and coordinator of the ranking and academic standards unit at Prince Sattam bin Abdulaziz University (PSAU), Abdullah Elias always has a close eye on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). His responsibility is to ensure that PSAU meets the key criteria for the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which assess universities against the 17 SDGs, while also seeing that his students work towards tangible outcomes that address the goals through their studies. 

“We want to put the students at the centre of the SDGs,” he says. “Before my rankings unit was established, I asked myself how I could get my students involved in meeting the SDGs.” This was very much the case in May 2022, when PSAU’s engineering college hosted the university’s first ever SDG Week, and Elias asked his first-year engineering students to work on a 12-week project to develop ideas and initiatives that could address particular problems within the scope of the SDGs.

“We formed project groups of three to five students, taking the first three weeks to introduce them to the SDGs. We asked the question: ‘As an engineer, what is your role in contributing to the SDGs?’ I then mentored them through their projects, with weekly meetings to catch up on progress. These were freshmen in their introduction to engineering course, who didn’t even know what engineering was yet,” he explains. The projects had to meet three criteria: to have a physical outcome; to address at least one SDG; and to be entirely created and realised by students. 

The students’ efforts resulted in 10 outcomes that addressed 13 of the UN’s 17 goals. Many of them also considered issues local to Saudi Arabia or hyperlocal to the university campus or province, Elias points out. One such project was a two-in-one portable table extension, inspired by fact that most classrooms in the College of Engineering have small, one-seater chair and table set-ups that can be distracting and uncomfortable for students. The desks fail to accommodate the books, notes and electronic devices that students carry with them, so the team designed a portable, ergonomic table that could also serve as a bag. This not only helps students on campus, but also addresses three SDGs: quality education (SDG 4), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), and industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9).

SDG 3 – good health and well-being – was the focus of a number of projects. One student group looked at the issue of waste collection and disposal, identifying that the current approach taken by municipal authorities was time-consuming and inefficient. They came up with a smart waste disposal system equipped with sensors that would alert waste disposal vans when bins were full, providing an exact location over Bluetooth and GPS. This had the added benefit of addressing SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and SDG 13 (climate action).

Another group came up with an emergency solar-powered flashlight, aligning with SDG 15 – life on land. The torch not only provides light, but it also incorporates a compass and can send out a distress signal if campers or hikers get lost. A USB power bank is built into the torch to charge mobile phones and other devices. The students on this project were also supporting SDGs 7 (affordable and clean energy) and 13 (climate action).

One group of students sought to address financial and health inequality faced by those with mobility impairments and disabilities. They proposed an accessory that converts a manual wheelchair into a solar-powered one within two minutes. In this case, the students were all freshmen just commencing their engineering studies.

At the end of their projects, the solutions were presented at PSAU’s SDG Week. Elias remembers the event as having a carnival atmosphere, with students’ families invited and academics from within PSAU and beyond showing up to see the results. Posters explaining each of the SDGs ensured that a wider audience could understand their significance. “This was the first time any institution in the Kharj province had done anything like this, and was the culmination of all our hard work,” Elias adds.

Last year’s SDG Week was led by PSAU’s engineering faculty, but the 2023 event will involve university-wide disciplines. All of the departments will invite student teams and mentors to share their projects at SDG Week, and contributions will be judged and winners chosen. For some professors, this has been their first encounter with the SDGs, so spreading the concept of embedding the goals into practical learning outcomes is vital if the university is to meet its sustainability goals. 

The College of Engineering’s SDG project has become a beacon of sustainability at PSAU, which is making progress towards embedding the UN goals into both campus life and the academic programmes it offers. A sustainability committee is tasked with crafting policies and initiatives that cut carbon emissions on campus by reducing commuting and energy use.

At curriculum level, departments are looking at how current courses can be adjusted to promote the SDGs, or whether they could offer entirely new courses focused on the goals. While Elias is keen to further PSAU’s progress in THE­’s Impact Rankings, his main goal is to ensure the students are involved at every step. “This is how we convince the next generation that this is important,” he concludes. 

Read more about the outcomes of the 2022 SDG Week. 

Find out more about Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University.

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