University: how to introduce sustainable development into training?


At the instigation of Delphine Batho, Cédric Villani and Matthieu Orphelin, 80 deputies have tabled a bill on the teaching of climate issues. Without waiting for this legislative initiative, it appears that many actions have already been launched in universities to integrate this dimension of “sustainability” into training.

Through this article, I want to draw some conclusions from a research experiment conducted in Grenoble – the NEED for IoT project – whose aim is to develop constituents of modern technological objects that would be more sustainable.

In this project, the research community develops and tests solutions for reducing or substituting critical materials found in our everyday objects – smartphones, Internet boxes, or connected cars.

If these materials are unavoidable in the manufacture of certain objects – for example indium for touch screens of smartphones – they pose multiple problems … Their extraction is extremely polluting, some, like cobalt, are rare, and come from countries ( China, Congo, Brazil) whose geopolitical and commercial contexts are uncertain …

The association of physics, microelectronics, management, sociology and industrial laboratories must therefore enable a research dynamic that takes into account the issue of “sustainability” as a whole.

Here are some lessons learned from this experience to better reflect on the conditions conducive to the introduction of environmental issues into higher education programs.

Interdisciplinarity obviously …

At the university, disciplinary fragmentation and extreme specialization are today obstacles to the construction of an offer of teaching dedicated to issues around climate and energy. And yet, as the Shift Project report recently pointed out , these issues must obviously be tackled in a multidisciplinary perspective.

Collaboration between social sciences and “hard” sciences is essential to teach these issues. And that means first of all exchanges between the teachers themselves.

Interdisciplinarity is an adventure that requires qualities of listening and understanding. It is through this effort that we will be able to offer students a vision that is both systemic – that is, a vision of the “problems” considered in their relationships and interactions – and that reflects the complexity of the phenomena.

Know the past to value the present

We will not be able to imagine innovative solutions to the problems of our time without enlightening young people on the intellectual capital they inherit in the disciplines that concern them. In other words, it seems illusory to want to train students in innovative “techniques” if they do not know what has been “thought” before them.

Hannah Arendt, in The Crisis of Education , did not hesitate to write that a so-called “progressive” education must be conservative and that “to preserve what is new and revolutionary in every child (it must)” ‘introduce as a new ferment in an already old world’.

Thus, paradoxically, the teaching of “transitions” must go through a learning of a past, a history, the thought of the disciplines involved in the hard sciences and social sciences to better understand the world as it is. today.

Without this we are condemned to be short-sighted: believing to constantly reinvent things that exist or have existed. It is the passage through the work forged by history that allows individuals to open their eyes to the world and to understand themselves.

The stakes of the practice

Throughout our work, a conviction has emerged: these sustainability issues can not be tackled alone, as such. In our opinion, it is useless to conceive of teaching or research whose sole content is “sustainable development” or “sustainability”. These themes must be tackled with the technological, sectoral content that is at stake.

Sustainability must be reflected with and not separately from the field concerned. Indeed, we must move from an explanation of the issues to a real practice of the issues, being rooted in the work activity. Addressing issues of sustainability at a macroscopic level tends to disempower, or even despair, the actors.

Indeed, the ordinary citizen is often deprived of great challenges – what can I do, simple, citizen? It is probably more delicate but also more effective to work in our daily practice: as future researcher, future engineer, I can have an action – admittedly, limited – but concrete.

Stakes … for whom?

Moreover, we also find that the issues can not be thought of independently of the actors who carry them. Indeed, in these major changes that will take into account the dimensions of sustainable development, we must not ignore that actors have things to win and others, things to lose.

If you want to design courses on these transition topics, you will need to teach students to identify the actors and understand the strategies that are or may be theirs. Because it is by understanding the stakeholders, identifying their arguments (points of blocking, “bread point”) that we can change situations.

Let’s discuss the issue of scientific controversies, imagine a pedagogy to address the issue of dilemmas. Through the teaching of scientific controversies, we can help students to “open the black box” that tends to become any accepted scientific content to show, upstream of this content, the game of concrete actors defending, in different arenas public or not, argued points of view.

Satisfactory solutions, not optimal

Finally, for the engineer, for the researcher, as for the student, we must not fall into the trap of finding an optimal solution to the various problems of transition, because this quest may well be “lost in advance “.

We are convinced that we will not suddenly find the solution, but that, in the face of such complex and multidisciplinary problems, we have, within our reach, satisfactory “just” solutions, provisional, each bringing with it an improvement to the previous one. This is not the decisive progress that must be sought but successive improvements in research that must accept that it will not stop.

Author Bio: Aurélie CATEL is a Lecturer in sociology at INP Grenoble, researcher at PACTE laboratory at the University Grenoble Alpes