Terry Sunderland offers insight on how the Sustainable Development Goals can provide a useful framework to guide students’ learning across multiple disciplines.

This article by Terry Sunderland was originally published by the Times Higher Education on April 21, 2021.

The course I teach, relating to forestry, has a strong focus on balancing conservation and sustainable development. I come from a background focused on integrating these two seemingly irreconcilable paradigms from an integrated landscape approach perspective.

We think of landscapes as systems whereby everything is connected in some way. The SDGs provide a fantastic framework to think about such an approach. No single SDG can be dealt with in isolation as they are all equally connected in some way; thus, only by addressing them all can true sustainable development be achieved.

The siloed approach to conservation, forestry, agriculture and other land uses has essentially failed us. We believe that getting emerging leaders to think about sustainable development in a holistic way is one way forward.

The SDGs underpin the course curriculum and are dealt with in a variety of ways – from mapping the connections between the SDGs and thinking about implementation and progress on targets, to thinking about forestry and agriculture as connected concerns, not in isolation, and considering what other SDGs could be added. The SDGs are the pillar of the learning activities throughout the course.

We refer to literature and studies that support such connections such as:

Moving online: what worked, what didn’t

When moving to online teaching, we kept our strong course framework in place while changing the mode of delivery.

We quickly discovered that long real-time lectures did not work online.

Instead, short, concise recorded presentations of up to 15 minutes long, posted on Canvas prior to a particular online class, enabled students to become familiar with a relevant topics before formal sessions, and they appreciated being able to watch them in their own time.

Having an online repository of such resources has also proven useful for revision purposes. Class discussions and assignments were structured around these background materials, which meant the course was constantly referring back to the SDG framework.

Rooting the course in the SDGs gives students exposure to real-world issues and problems that they can, and do, explore further.

The SDGs as a vehicle for learning

The real benefit of framing a course around the SDGs is that there are so many resources out there that students can explore to augment the classroom instruction and accompanying assignments.

Students were comfortable undertaking SDG-related assignments independently knowing that they have access to a wide repository of background information and detail.

The students seem to relate to the issues and complexities linked to the SDGs. Using an SDG lens when teaching brings wider issues of society, culture, economics, poverty and food security into students’ thinking about their core subject.

In the case of forestry, it helps them to understand just how complex a discipline it is when thinking about long-term sustainable and measurable development. But the SDGs could just as easily be used as a vehicle to pick apart the challenges and complexities of dozens of other disciplines, setting them in a real-world context, while also raising students’ awareness and knowledge of the most pressing issues we, as a planet, now face.

Terry Sunderland is a professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences.