SDG badges for courses and students put sustainability at our core

Students want to learn more about sustainable development and feel prepared for the jobs of the future, says Jamie McGowan

April 19, 2021
University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus
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The University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UT) is charting new avenues to engage with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This has involved activities ranging from joining a global consortium of SDG-focused institutions of higher education to signing a declaration on university global engagement.

One of the more innovative ways we have sought to connect students and faculty to sustainability is through a new initiative mapping UT courses to the SDGs. The process began in fall 2020, when the UT Center for Global Engagement and vice provost for academic affairs R. J. Hinde asked faculty across the institution to badge courses that engage with one or more of the SDGs at some level. The fundamental goal was to provide students with insights into courses that would help them learn more about sustainable development and prepare them for addressing and solving current, real-world challenges.

We had an overwhelming response; faculty from 37 departments identified more than 225 courses with links to the SDGs. The list will be updated annually and the centre has developed an SDG website where students, faculty and advisors can search for SDG-related courses by goal or by department. The response signals that not only is there an appetite for this initiative among professors, but that the SDGs speak to curricular opportunities, research interests and, importantly, students’ interests.

Thus, in the coming year, with the support of an SDG faculty fellow housed within the Center for Global Engagement, we will create curricular avenues that allow students to earn badges tied to the SDGs. Students will be able to earn an SDG badge by pursuing coursework either in a particular discipline around any of the SDGs or in an array of disciplines based instead on a single SDG of interest. In this way, a student particularly committed to economics, for example, can earn a badge by enrolling in a relevant economics course, while a student interested in SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), for example, can earn a badge by deep-diving into relevant courses across a range of departments.

Furthermore, all students pursuing an SDG badge will take a core course on global sustainable development, which provides an introduction to all the SDGs. This course provides an important basis for understanding the goals and how these can be transformative to practice and policies across the world.

Beyond the coursework, we are committed to seeing students engage in some form of service learning tied to the SDGs, and this will be a requirement for gaining a badge. This could include a variety of opportunities, from local, UT-based activities to regional or international internships. Overall, the badging initiative will prepare students for 21st-century opportunities and challenges and the jobs of the future.

Our commitment to engaging with the SDGs and benchmarking this performance started with our participation in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings and it is being championed both at senior levels and among stakeholders across the entire institution, including within the Center for Global Engagement, the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment and the Office of Research and Engagement.

Fundamentally, UT’s mission includes contributing to the economic, social, human and environmental capacity of the state, the nation and the world, and tracking and knowing SDG engagement is one way to gauge our institution’s positive impact and improve this over time.

Jamie McGowan is director of the Global Research Office at The University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Center for Global Engagement.

The THE Impact Rankings 2021, based on the UN SDGs, will be published at noon (BST) on 21 April.

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