Education for Sustainable Development


This page contains definitions of Education for Sustainable Development, examples, and resources to help departments and individuals to embed it in their curricula.

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What is Education for Sustainable Development?

Education for Sustainable Development, or ESD, is defined by TUoS as:
“equipping our students, both within the formal curriculum and in their wider student experience, with the knowledge, skills, values and attributes needed to work and live in a way that will bring about solutions to the urgent, and ever-changing, environmental, economic and social challenges that we face, now and in the future”.

ESD is an important part of both the University’s Vision, and its Sustainability Strategy.

ESD takes a holistic definition of sustainability and aims to address key sustainable development issues by embedding them relevantly into our learning and teaching, producing conscious and informed global graduates. These issues include, among others:

  • climate change and climate justice
  • disaster risk reduction
  • biodiversity
  • poverty reduction
  • sustainable consumption
  • human rights
  • social equality
  • responsible citizenship.

You may find the UN Sustainable Development Goals useful in exploring the wider context of sustainability.

The way in which ESD is embedded into our learning and teaching is of equal importance to the topics studied. Participatory, innovative and engaged pedagogical methods that motivate and empower learners to take action for sustainable development are vital. Learning should be seen as an active process, explored jointly by students and staff, rather than a set of prescribed solutions. ESD promotes key competencies such as critical thinking, reflexive learning, future planning, conscious and informed decision making, as well as interdisciplinary and collaborative problem solving.

Many of the Sheffield Graduate Attributes are similar to these key competencies, and areas of the curriculum which support students to develop the SGAs may also be areas that could be classed as ESD.

The Five-Step Framework for embedding Education for Sustainable Development

Developed by Dr Caroline Hart in the School of Education, the Five-Step Framework offers a step-by-step guide for embedding Education for Sustainable Development across the institution.

Read the Five-Step Framework guide for ESD

Listen to her explain the model in the video below:

Resources for the Five Step Framework

Below you will find action log templates that are designed to help departments work towards each of the five steps. We recommend downloading the files and opening as word documents rather than google docs.

Step 1: Action log and notes

Step 2: Action log and notes

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What can Education for Sustainable Development look like?

ESD will look very different within diverse disciplinary contexts. Tackling the complex challenges of sustainable development in the future will need a variety of skills, knowledge and approaches, all brought together within interdisciplinary teams. You should engage students in conversations around their discipline’s contribution to sustainable development. ESD may be particularly prominent in specific units of study, but may also be threaded through a curriculum in a progressive manner. Below there are some examples from different departments within the University.

Mechanical Engineering - sustainability as an integrated theme

Our main approach to sustainability is to integrate it into the core curriculum as far as possible, to avoid sending messages to students that sustainability is a niche or specialist area.

In underpinning engineering science from Year 1, we help students make multiple connections between the knowledge and analysis they are learning and how this might inform more sustainable technology. This might include efficiency of thermodynamic and fluid transport phenomena, and how this can reduce energy requirements. It can be in materials choices, where students consider embodied energy as a factor in their design evaluation, lightweighting as a desirable outcome, or how to design products so they can be disassembled and recycled.

And finally we talk about sustainability factors as a positive innovation stimulus as much as it is a constraint. These connections are not discrete blocks of content (or even specific learning outcomes), but part of an ongoing conversation with students about what engineering is, and what its contribution to the world can be.

Given its potential in terms of careers, some students see sustainable energy and sustainable development as future career direction. For students exploring that path we offer a range of optional modules for the final year(s) of their study. These optional modules are anchored either in research strengths of the University and Department (such as Energy 2050), or opportunities for first-hand learning through links with the city. At this level we offer optional specialist 15 credit modules in, for example, carbon capture and storage, and sustainable transport include a case study on the development of the supertram system.

Mechanical Engineering - bite-size teaching

Sustainable development is in many ways integral to the practice of engineering, relevant to questions of weight, efficiency and power. However, the mechanical engineering curriculum also views sustainability as a question of values, and sustainable development as having multiple stakeholders who are often in conflict and where physical and commercial factors are not the only considerations. To this end, we also include sustainable development in our teaching of professional ethics.

Against a context of a full 10 credit module that introduces students to the trade-offs and dilemmas involved in engineering, we include a 2 hour session on sustainable development for final year engineering undergraduates and engineering postgraduates. The class is nominally c.340 students so we use TurningPoint polling to explore students’ views on a case study about mining in Greenland, and Greenland’s commitment to independence through economic development. Greenland is a location portrayed as part of a ‘global commons’ that seems to capture many students’ imaginations, and the session leader has previously been research-active on the topic.

Students are polled for demographic data (eg the country they call ‘home’), then as the case study unfolds through the eyes of different stakeholders, they are asked whether they think mining offers more benefit than risk, and who they think should make the decision as to whether mining licenses should be granted. These questions can be ‘sliced’ in Turningpoint.


What does Education for Sustainable Development mean in Archaeology?

‘Sustainability’ has multiple meanings within the discipline of archaeology. Archaeologists must consider:

  • the environmental impact of their own profession.
  • the preservation and conservation of the archaeological record.
  • the part the discipline plays in local and global communities and education.
  • how the archaeological, environmental and geological record from the past might inform our approach to future challenges.

In the course of their studies, undergraduates in the Department of Archaeology have the opportunity to develop and build upon skills that will help them tackle the challenges and questions outlined above. In the first year, students develop the skills needed to discover and interpret the archaeological record through:

  • lectures
  • practical workshops
  • lab sessions
  • fieldwork.

These skills include:

  • critical analysis
  • personal reflection
  • collaborative and cross-disciplinary working
  • project management
  • communication
  • ethical practice

Through participation in collaborative authentic projects, graduates leave the department with the skills needed to tackle the wider sustainable development challenges faced by society, whether they enter the archaeology profession, or any other.

In their second year, students study on the core module, Archaeology Matters (AAP234). Students work alongside local community groups to develop their research skills and understanding of the cultural, ethical and professional contexts of archaeological research and heritage conservation, through a collaborative, authentic field project. Previous projects include working on an excavation strategy for the site of Sheffield Castle, and working alongside community groups in Parkwood Springs to explore lost buildings and vanished communities. Whilst learning the professional skills to record and preserve the historical and archaeological record, students also learn about the value of heritage in building and maintaining thriving local communities. As part of the module, students reflect on the skills they have developed, and how they might use them in their futures.

The skills students develop over the first two years help them to delve even deeper into more specialised subjects in the third year. Optional modules include ‘Catastrophe and Climate Change’ (AAP3003), which examines the responses of past cultures to natural catastrophes and periods of dramatic climate change. It is offered across all degree programmes and provides students with the intellectual context to reflect on their academic experiences and bring that expertise to classroom discussion of key contemporary societal questions about the past, present and future of humanity.

Throughout the three year degree, students also have the opportunity to work within professional contexts and undertake workplace learning, directly experiencing and reflecting upon the impact of sustainable practice on the profession, and playing a direct part in the conservation and preservation of archaeological remains.

ESD in the Archeology Department inspires and enables students to be thoughtful and articulate ambassadors for the value of learning from the past to find future solutions to today’s problems.

Landscape Architecture

This video shows Landscape Architecture students designing landscapes in response to climate-related erosion, and shows how the discipline is uniquely placed to work towards some of the biggest challenges we face.

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Where do we begin in embedding ESD into our curriculum?

Engage the student voice.

  • Many students feel passionately about sustainable development issues, and can offer a new perspective on their curricula. You may find it useful to create a dedicated space and time to work with the students to explore what ESD means in your disciplinary context - for example by holding a focus group or drop in.
  • For more information, see these webpages about student engagement.

Reflect upon your current curriculum and departmental context.

It is probable that there are parts of the taught curriculum that already go some way to addressing ESD, in content or skills developed. The aims and learning outcomes of modules are a good place to start.

  • Are there any instances of modules or parts of modules that address any of the specific topics above?
  • Are there any parts of the curriculum that help students to develop key competencies which might empower students to take action for sustainable development? Examples might include parts of the curriculum where:
    • students work on authentic challenges or wicked/knotty problems with complex solutions (even if the topic itself is not obviously related to sustainable development)
    • students are invited to consider the ethical responsibilities of their discipline and likely future profession
    • students work in interdisciplinary groups to look at challenges from multiple perspectives
    • students have the opportunity to develop skills of critical enquiry, analysis and evaluation, reflective practice, communication, problem-solving, decision-making and collaboration
  • Are students supported to reflect on their skills development and articulate its value?
  • Are there any areas of research in the department which could be drawn upon to inform and develop ESD in the curriculum?

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Further resources and information

Through the Library, we have access to the Sustainable Development Goals Online collection. This is a carefully curated interdisciplinary collection of digital content mapped to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDG Online collection includes book chapters and journal articles in an online library covering all 17 SDGs. 

Sustainable Development Goals Online collection

This Wakelet contains links to various web resources that you may find useful. It will be regularly updated.

ESD Wakelet

Links and downloads

Internal Links:

External Links:

Further reading
  • QAA Education for Sustainable Development: Guidance for UK HE Providers
    includes helpful definitions of ESD, along with a list of potential learning outcomes that could be adapted for your context
  • The HEA Future Fit Framework provides a good list of examples of what ESD might look like in different disciplines and includes ‘Simple Change Tools’