Today it’s more important than ever to take concrete steps towards improving the health of our planet and life on Earth. The scientists, engineers and architects coming out of EPFL will be called on to address a growing number of climate and environmental challenges while taking ethical, societal and economic considerations into account. That’s why EPFL has decided to further incorporate sustainability into its degree programs starting in the 2024-2025 school year - also a key objective of the School’s 2030 Climate & Sustainability Strategy.
"Our graduates must become the drivers of lasting change towards a more sustainable society," says Pierre Dillenbourg, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Education and head of the Teach4Sustainability initiative. "Most of our students are familiar with some aspects of sustainability, but we want to give them the science and engineering know-how to play a transformative role."
EPFL introduced Teach4Sustainability in 2022 to meet both a growing need and demand from students for more training on sustainability-related issues. According to a survey carried out among EPFL alumni who graduated between 2014 and 2018, 60% of respondents believed they had poor skills in sustainable development and environmental issues, and 30% felt that sustainability was missing from their EPFL education. "We’re getting constant pressure from today’s students, who are acutely aware of the urgent need to act," says Jacopo Grazioli, who co-teaches an EPFL Global Issues class on climate change and is a co-coordinator of the Teach4Sustainability working group.
Three components of a sustainability education
EPFL’s Vice Presidency for Education worked with faculty members, students and members of the Vice Presidency for Responsible Transformation on the Teach4Sustainability initiative, which will add three new features to EPFL degree programs.
The first is a mandatory core class for all first-year students, designed to give them a solid foundation in the key principles of sustainable development, or "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This is the definition put forth in the 1987 Brundtland Report by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, and it’s still used as the benchmark today.
"A group of EPFL and UNIL professors worked together to develop the content for the core class," says Grazioli. "The main goals are to teach students about the basics of sustainability, encourage them to use systems thinking and illustrate how important it is to adopt a cross-disciplinary approach."
Most of our students are familiar with some aspects of sustainability, but we want to give them the science and engineering know-how to play a transformative role.
The second feature is the new Bachelor’s class and Master’s class that each department will introduce by fall 2024 at the latest. Here the focus will be on giving students sustainability skills they’ll be able to apply later in their careers.
And the third consists of adding more sustainability-related content to existing classes wherever it makes sense. A 2020 review of EPFL classes found that approximately 150 of the 1,400 classes taught at the School touch on sustainability.
"With this three-pronged approach, we hope to strike the right balance between the breadth of sustainability topics that students need to know about - like the climate, biodiversity, social justice, and more - and the depth of the education we provide for each one," says Dillenbourg. "Nobody can become an expert in everything. So our idea is start with general classes and then get more specific as students progress in their degree programs.
Support for taking the initiative forward
To help EPFL teachers identify where they can incorporate sustainability into their curricula, Grazioli and his colleague Mélanie Studer give workshops along with one-on-one coaching sessions. "We’ve seen that teachers have a lot of ideas and really want to address sustainability issues," says Grazioli. "But there are still some things holding them back. Teachers tell us they don’t have enough time, for example, and that they often don’t feel qualified to provide instruction on sustainability-specific topics."
EPFL’s Sustainability Unit has rolled out another program to speed the pace at which sustainability is incorporated into most of the students’ coursework. This program consists of pairing teachers up with student assistants. Siroune Der Sarkissian, an EPFL sustainability project officer and a co-coordinator of the Teach4Sustainability working group, explains: "On one side we have teachers who could really use a helping hand, and on the other side we have students who feel strongly about sustainability and want to be a force for change. So what we decided to do is pair them up, based on the interests of each individual, and to compensate the students for their work."
Working in tandem
Five pairs have been formed so far, including one between Tiffany Abitbol, a tenure track assistant professor and head of EPFL’s Sustainable Materials Laboratory, and Iléane Lefevre, an EPFL Master’s student in materials science and engineering. Together they developed a Bachelor’s class on sustainability and materials that was given for the first time this semester.
"Discussing with Iléane helped me to have a better landscape on the teaching of sustainability in this section. This was also useful to know more about students’ expectations on this topic, which is really important to them. I hope to show them areas of hope, to show them that all is not lost and that they can have a positive impact," says Abitbol. "On the other hand, I was hired in June 2022 and this is the first time I’m teaching a course like this, so the collaboration with Iléane was also very useful for me to familiarize myself with the EPFL environment and teaching style."
When I was a Bachelor’s student, I found it frustrating that so few classes at EPFL covered sustainability topics, whereas it’ll be a key element of our careers, especially for me as a materials scientist. So I wanted to do something that would help tomorrow’s undergraduates get the education I would have liked to have.
For Lefevre, working with Abitbol has given more depth to her studies. "Sustainability is an issue that’s really important to me," Lefevre explains. "I’ve been actively involved in student clubs and served as president of Ingénieur·e·s du Monde. When I was a Bachelor’s student, I found it frustrating that so few classes at EPFL covered sustainability topics, whereas it’ll be a key element of our careers, especially for me as a materials scientist. So I wanted to do something that would help tomorrow’s undergraduates get the education I would have liked to have."
Taking action can also be a way to alleviate the climate anxiety that some people may feel. For instance, EPFL now holds an annual Climate and Sustainability Action Week where students can work on cross-disciplinary projects related to sustainable development. One such project is MAKE project rebuiLT , in which students developed a method for reusing parts of a building slated for demolition. EPFL students can also sign up for coaching on sustainability and get advice on how to incorporate issues important to them into their degree programs, student clubs and entrepreneurial ventures. And EPFL’s Climate & Sustainability Strategy outlines a series of concrete steps that everyone in the School community can take to support sustainable development.