Teaching the most boring module of a course is not a task that most lecturers relish.
Whether it is explaining the finer points of French grammar or actuarial algorithms or the minutiae of contract law, almost every subject has a dull but necessary area that academics do their best to avoid.
That is not the case, however, for Simon Kemp, principal teaching fellow in the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Engineering and the Environment, whose enthusiasm for teaching students how to carry out ISO 14001 environmental audits is palpable.
The postgraduate-level module – described by one of Mr Kemp’s former students as one of “the most boring and yet [professionally] vital…modules on offer in environmental science” – teaches students how to assess whether large firms are meeting certain environmental standards and how to help them to reduce power and water usage or increase their recycling.
Kemp, who has taught environmental science for nearly 20 years, is well aware that the course has the potential to be dull. But he has opted to take a lively, hands-on approach to the subject, which has won him several awards, including the Most Innovative Teacher of the Year honours at the 2013 Times Higher Education Awards in November.
“I wanted to teach environmental consultancy from a practical perspective, not from a textbook or an ivory tower,” he explains.
To this end, Kemp runs what he calls a “consultancy boot camp”, in which his students are dispatched to various large employers in and around Southampton to do their own environmental audits as they learn the various rules and regulations required by ISO 14001.
“I’m trying to teach them the theory, but I want to do it in a way that they can apply to real-life problems,” he says.
The insurance firm Skandia, Southampton General Hospital and WestQuay shopping centre in Southampton are among the large organisations that have not only welcomed Kemp’s students, but also benefited from the audits they prepared.
According to Kemp, WestQuay owners Hammerson have doubled their recycling rates, halved the amount of waste sent to landfill and cut energy and water consumption by 10 per cent at all of their shopping centres thanks to the student audits.
Everyone’s a winner
He says: “These audits would typically cost companies between £10,000 and £20,000, but I appreciate that these organisations spend a lot of time helping our students, so it doesn’t cost them anything.
“Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do the course in the way that I do now,” he adds.
But Kemp, who set up a consultancy during a sabbatical before selling it in 2006, also asks his employers to treat his students as they would a team of professionals, despite the safety net provided by his weekly monitoring of their work.
“Students are fully suited and booted on all their site visits to get them into the consultancy mindset,” he says.
The end-of-module presentations made to company directors are particularly useful to students, who often have no experience of talking publicly in a corporate setting.
“The fact that students might feel uncomfortable when giving these presentations is good because it helps them to learn,” Kemp says.
“You have to give students a good learning experience, but also provide them with the skills to get a job because they are now accumulating so much more debt than before,” he says.
His approach is clearly paying dividends, with several of his students setting up their own consultancies straight out of university, as well as taking roles in larger established firms.
But does Kemp’s approach to the subject – one that impressed the THE awards judges so much – not just amount to old-fashioned on-the-job training? He disagrees.
“We also do a lot of academic work where we assess whether the audits themselves are fit for purpose and whether the approaches we take are correct,” he says.
“It still teaches critical thinking skills, but it is taking that knowledge and applying everything through a practical lens,” he adds.
Conscious that the process of learning rules and regulations could become tedious, Kemp takes a different approach to the necessary classroom work that accompanies the field assignments.
Kemp was an early adopter of the “flipped classroom” method, and his students are asked to watch recorded lectures and swot up on theory, which frees contact hours for group discussions.
But he is also keen to keep the conversation going beyond the seminars and uses Twitter to do so. “You can post all manner of links, so that students can quickly access all the information,” he explains.
“If students are shy, they might not want to ask a question in class, but they can post something on Twitter, which allows me to open up the classroom discussion outside the seminar,” he adds.
Other unusual approaches to teaching include asking students to create short films on a topic, run their own conferences and participate in role playing exercises as, for example, a national policy adviser on sustainability.
Last year Kemp also won praise for organising a mock “world summit” on sustainable development, with students playing the role of countries negotiating the goals they wanted to achieve by 2015.
His results have now attracted the interest of those outside his field, which has led to his taking on extra roles within academia.
Kemp is now working part-time for the Higher Education Academy to improve the teaching of environmental sustainable development at other institutions, while he is encouraging students from other disciplines at Southampton to take an interest in the subject.
This initiative has led to law students assessing the corporate legal framework on environmental sustainability, geographers looking at how it applies to tribal societies in the Masai Mara in Kenya and scientists examining how their laboratories could become greener.
“By getting environmental scientists to work with those from the arts, humanities, social scientists or engineers, we’re seeing some amazingly interesting projects,” he says.
Listening to Kemp, it seems as though the world of environmental audits and related disciplines may not be quite so dull after all.