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Embedding Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in students’ research

Sustainability at University Centre South Devon (South Devon College) 

South Devon College is committed to continuously improving our sustainability approach, through the promotion of environmental awareness and responsibility, and embedding sustainability principles in our teaching. Sustainability leads are appointed within our governor and leadership teams to ensure that this remains a key focus.

The College Sustainability Curriculum Working Group and Sustainability Board meet on a regular basis to discuss cross-college activity, share ideas, consider current issues and the effects of our activities on, not just college, but all of our lives and futures.  

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or Global Goals are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” The SDGs were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030. 

In a recent conference organised by the EAUC (The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education), it has been highlighted the importance of embedding SDGs not only in our degrees, but also in students’ research projects. At UCSD, all students completing the final year of a Foundation or Bachelor’s degree are asked to conduct a research project on a topic of their choice. In the last academic year (2020-2021) they have been asked to indicate the SDGs covered by their project. 

The aim of this report is to present this baseline information and use it as a starting point to promote and enhance our sustainability strategy and planning for the future years to come. 

Response analysis 

Students have been asked to report the SDGs covered by their research project, and we received a total of 59 entries divided in 9 degrees (Fig. 1) 

Fig. 1 Number of research projects covering SDGs at UCSD during the 2020-2021 academic year 

The number of reported projects were equally distributed between L5 (n=31) and L6 (n=29; p=0.897 with a Binomial test), and different degrees (p=0.151 with a Chi-square test goodness of fit test) with no particular category prevailing over the others.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) analysis 

This section provides information about the number and nature of SDGs covered in each project. Students could indicate the total number of goals covered by their project, indicating the first 3 goals in decreasing order of relevance. The average number of SDGs per project was similar between L5 and L6 (1.71 and 2.14 respectively) with no statistical difference between the two levels of study (p=0.113 with Mann Whitney U test); the highest number reported was 5 SDGs covered in a L5 project and 7 in a L6 project. There was a statistical difference in number of SDGs reported among different degrees (p=0.004 with 1-Way Anova + Tukey post hoc test), with more goals per project in “Tourism, hospitality and event management” compared to “Bioscience”, “Coaching”, “Psychology and Sociology”, and “Teaching and Learning” (Fig. 2). 

Fig. 2 Average number of SDGs per research project in UCSD degrees. Statistical difference (p<0.05) is indicated by different letters. 

In terms of cumulative reporting of type of goal, the results were not equally distributed (p<0.001 with a Chi-square test goodness of fit test, Fig. 3); in particular the most reported SDGs were “Goal 4. Quality Education” (n=34) and “Goal 3. Good health and well-being” (n=26), followed by “Goal 15 Life on land” (n=12) and “Goal 10 Reduce inequalities” (n=7). In the reported research projects, “Goal 1 No poverty”, “Goal 2 No hunger” and “Goal 6 Clean water and sanitation” were cited only once, whereas “Goal 7 Sustainable energy”, “Goal 12 Responsible consumption” and “Goal 17 Partnership for the goals” received no citations (n=0). 

Fig. 3 Cumulative number of most relevant (3 levels) SDGs reported by UCSD degree students 

Discussion and conclusion 

The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations continues to promote the inclusion of SDGs in every aspect of our society. As it has been reported in the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) 2019: The Future is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development: 

“Despite considerable efforts these past four years, we are not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. We must dramatically step up the pace of implementation as we enter a decisive decade for people and the planet.” (GSDR, 2019) 

At University Centre South Devon, we have the great opportunity to contribute to the formation of future leaders, who will be the protagonist of enhancing sustainability in our society. Despite sustainability is an integral part of our college vision and it is routinely included in our teaching, students must think and acknowledge how to include the 17 SDGs in our professional practice, therefore this first exercise has great importance for our students.  

Thanks to this, we now know to what extent our students include SDGs in their educational journey and which goals we could focus on for our future growth.  

The targets for next years are to obtain these information from all our degrees, and to increase the number of goals included in the final year research projects, in particular those with lowest scores (Goal 1, 2, 6, 7, 12, 17) 

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