How students, teachers and society can learn from each other for a sustainable future

Society faces a multitude of complex sustainability challenges which require new ways of thinking and doing. This includes universities, which must adapt to and lead the way in tackling global change, inequality, and an uncertain future.

Part of this has been a shift from the traditional classroom to courses where students can apply knowledge learned during their studies in a real-world setting. For final year BSc Global Sustainability students at Utrecht University, The Consultancy Project is one such course. 

Here, groups of students explore and answer a question posed by a client from an organisation external to the university. In doing so, they learn how to make their academic knowledge relevant to address real sustainability challenges faced by companies, NGOs or local governments, explains course coordinator Brian Dermody, an assistant professor at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. It is also an important way we as an institution can build relations with society and remain alert to the types of sustainability challenges they are grappling with.

Map of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug. Credit: National Park Utrechtse Heuvelrug.

Meet the clients

Jeroen Heemsbergen is a program manager at non-profit National Park Utrechtse Heuvelrug, a unique collaboration between landowners, municipalities, Utrecht Province and others working together to make sure that the area’s unique nature, landscape and cultural heritage is preserved for future generations.

During the pandemic we experienced a drastic increase in visitors to the National Park, explains Heemsbergen. The majority come by car, and when designated parking areas are full this can lead to ‘wildparking’, putting pressure on the park’s delicate ecosystems. We also began to see more conflicts between visitors and park rangers. For the first time ever a section of the park had to be closed multiple times due to too many people arriving by car.

The organisation asked the students to explore how the Utrechtse Heuvelrug can transition towards sustainable visitor mobility. Visitors need to be drawn out of their cars and use more sustainable alternatives. We were really interested in how the current public transport network can be used more efficiently, and how local information provisioning can be improved.

Maacq Oase, a collaboration between design studios Omlab and Fillip Studios, is a circular solution to counteract the harmful effects of nitrogen deposition in nature. Constructed from Omlab’s eco-friendly 3D-printable calcium-rich paste made out of water purification waste, Maacq Oase objects are placed in nitrogen-acidified environments. Through natural erosion by wind and rain, they dissolve over time and slowly release calcium into the ground, thereby reducing acidity. Seeds are added to simultaneously increase biodiversity, and the structure itself tells passers-by a story about the influence of humans on nature.

Phases of MAACQ OASE. Credit: Omlab and Fillip Studios.

Before we install these objects in nature, we need to know more about their impact on the environment, explains Fillip Studios’ Lotte Holterman. This is why we asked the students to explore how and where Maacq Oase can be used most effectively to improve soil quality, promote biodiversity, and raise public awareness.

Then there is, an organisation that works together with farmers, nature associations, entrepreneurs and others to promote a healthy and resilient peat meadow landscape, where agriculture and nature come together in sustainable business models. Much of this work is about enabling farmers to test out new ideas in pilots and then helping them to deploy those pilots at a larger scale, explains Vincent de Leijster, coordinator of monitoring, evaluation and learning.

To do so they team up with Earthwatch, an environmental charity specialised in developing citizen science to monitor environmental change. Through working with our students the two organisations wanted to learn how participatory monitoring tools can be used to measure soil and water quality in the Dutch peat meadow area, and how the implementation should be organized to optimize the learning experience for farmers.

Working with students

So why do these diverse organisations want to work with students in the first place? In short: new perspectives, says Holterman. It is inspiring and fun to get fresh input from younger people with a different background than ours. De Leijster agrees. We were attracted to work with students for their diversity of interests and educational backgrounds, but above all their enthusiasm. This generation of students has a lot to deal with, Holterman continues. They have grown up in an incredibly complicated time with many different societal and ecological issues. We notice a high level of consciousness about these things and at the same time a lot of energy and persistence to do something about it. We think it is of great importance and of great value to involve this generation in the development of solutions to the issues we are facing.

Working with students leads to usable insights. Photo: Vincent de Leijster.

Achieving impact

So does working with students lead to usable insights? Definitely, says De Leijster. Being out in the field with the students and the farmers and sharing our insights from different points of view - I think everyone involved learnt new things

National Park Utrechtse Heuvelrug were advised by their group to develop an integrated starting point map, which encourages visitors to travel by other means than a car, or to park at designated areas outside nature. We are integrating this advice into an international EU-project proposal on sustainable mobility within natural areas, says Heemsbergen.

For Omlab and Fillip Studios, the students’ research has taken the project to a higher level, while also pointing out the complications they need to consider. We were able to make a solid multi-year plan to get Maacq Oase off the ground - or, actually, on the ground, says Holterman. The idea is to include a revolving fund where profits are used to finance even more scientific research and ecological projects.

From challenge to success

Between the successes there were also some perhaps to-be-expected challenges. At the beginning, we had to adjust our expectations a bit as to what the students were capable of in terms of available knowledge and time, continues Holterman. For National Park Utrechtse Heuvelrug’s Jeroen Heemsbergen, it’s about being patient and giving the students enough room to learn. It’s sometimes hard to let go of micro-managing, but most of the time the students do an awesome job when you give them the trust and space they need. 

Heemsbergen emphasises that students can add a lot of societal value if given the chance to work on real issues. And what’s really important, adds Holterman, is that there is a somewhat equal exchange between students and seniors. In traditional internships, students are simply 'put to work' and must learn from 'the experienced one who knows it all'. In reality, organisations have so much to learn from students. If you can keep this in mind, it's better for everyone. This resonates with De Leijster: We would love for some of the students to stay involved through a follow-up internship. 

In that sense, reflects coordinator Brian Dermody, students, societal stakeholders and teachers are all learning together. And ultimately, we want the work of the students to contribute in a meaningful way to helping our partners achieve their sustainability goals, and in doing so have real societal impact.

The consultancy project teaching team includes Josie Chambers, Brian Dermody, Ric Hoefnagels, Laura van Oers, Bianca de Souza Nagasawa, and Victor Trouw.