How to teach from United Nations sustainable development goals (SDG)?

Building GreEn-ER in Grenoble France, of the engineer school focused on water, energy and environment ENSE3

The thermo-industrial civilization has produced remarkable teaching and learning methods in the service of its development on the basis of science and technology. Thus the success of the model of the Engineer and the related schools and universities.

Today, we must collectively build, on a planetary scale, a civilizational shift towards the abandonment of fossil fuels. Already, and even if it is very difficult, the university is producing educational experiments which seek to accompany students towards this threatening future.

Can we situate them in the long term and assess how they are a continuity or a break with respect to the models that were so successful for previous generations?

Engineering training in the footsteps of Sadi Carnot

In the 19th century, already before the time of Sadi Carnot, then when the thermo-industrial civilization begins a rise in power that will be increasingly rapid, the education system follows and comes to set up the associated training.

One does not study, one does not learn the same knowledge in a society based on agriculture, or in the society that was then established, first of all industrial and increasingly rooted in technical and scientific knowledge.

The figure of the engineer has settled with its engineering schools and engineering sciences. A century and a half later, my generation, that of the “baby boomers”, did almost no biology or earth sciences in high school in France. Unsurprisingly, science intensive program to enter engineering schools determine the necessary science education on the basis of mathematics, physics and chemistry.

In Grenoble (France), the various schools that will found the Institut National Polytechnique will be structured around the major issues related to energy and materials: electrical engineering, electrochemistry, metallurgy, hydraulics and mechanics.

Generations and thousands of engineers whose training has been magnificently inscribed in Sadi Carnot’s programme. Of course, nothing so specific to Grenoble and its university programs. We could multiply the examples in France or in most European countries that would reflect a very successful scaling up.

“A scientific-engineering approach”, the method of the thermo-industrial civilization

At the heart of this training is a method of working and also of learning. It is based on science and engineering. More compact in English: “A scientific-engineering approach. »  This description is a shortcut that is certainly a bit fast but: “to any well-posed problem, its rational, effective solution, for the good of all! »

The observation is there: according to the intuition of Sadi Carnot, with an immense production of energy in constant and rapid growth, the mastery of its distribution and implementation, a change of individual and collective life occurs, in fact a change of civilization, for an immense part of humanity, in a few decades.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2015).

This society organization is the basis for the implementation of scientific and technical knowledge, with the organization of work and the related collective and hierarchical modes of collaboration, in the service of this development.

Following the example of engineering schools, education in technique and science is structured around contents, training and working methods in line with this development and structuring of the thermo-industrial society. Of course, this broadly sketched picture is too caricatural and too rapid. But it seems to me to capture essential elements of this story.

Rebuilding the university around the objectives of sustainable development

Scientific knowledge about global warming and the collapse of biodiversity has been accumulating and refining year by year for decades. How can we use it to build the rapid and massive response now needed?

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly votes on a proposal “to build a better and sustainable future for all” based on a list of 17 global goals. The reflection on these Sustainable Development Goals, SDG in the academic world is underway. In France, the Conference of University Presidents and the Conference of Grandes Ecoles, together with a group of national actors, are putting online a 132-page book entitled :

Sustainable development goals, what contributions can be made by the professions of higher education and research in France? ».

Of course, based on Jean Jouzel’s article in The Conversation, we are clearly far from having led the transformation of the academic world that he calls for:

“Universities pride themselves on preparing their students for a bright future. But in the face of a climate of crisis, where disasters of “unprecedented scale and impact” are becoming the norm, what future can our students promise? In the face of environmental degradation and massive loss of biodiversity, universities and other educational institutions should make it a priority to adequately prepare their students and staff for increasingly difficult times. »

Clearly, that answer is not there today. We can assume it will come. Given the stakes and the urgency, it seems inevitable. And student pressure will certainly push us forward much faster. Thankfully. Many student initiatives are already underway. One example which received signatures of 30,000 students. But even with the scale of the threats, this campus revolution is very difficult to carry out in the time allotted.

First and foremost, water, energy and the environment

I will take an example of a successful first transformation right before my eyes. My colleagues in Grenoble have transformed two engineering schools on the basis of SDG. And this was before creation of SDG by UN…

Johan Rockström, in his speech “Beyond the Anthropocene” at the World Economic Forum in 2017, organizes these 17 sustainable development goals (SDG) into a pyramid.

The basis of pyramid is made up of Goal 15, which concerns terrestrial life, Goal 14, aquatic life, Goal 6, access to water, and Goal 13, global warming.

To this base I would add Goal 7, the base of energy, without which nothing can be done, even if it has to be decarbonized. The other 12 Goals are of extreme importance especially for our life together and are prerequisites for us to consider the 5 Goals thus detached. Goal 16 concerns justice and peace. Goal 4, education. Without peace and education for all on Earth, changing our civilization in the Anthropocene era will be very complicated. In fact, it will be a catastrophe.

Conversely, to remain at peace, perhaps even simply alive, without water and/or in a very degraded biosphere of which we are forever a part, subject to extreme phenomena linked to global warming, will prove to be just impossible.

These 5 SDG can come together as follows: «  water, energy, environment » . In Grenoble, this is exactly the title of the engineering school ENSE3 of Grenoble INP. It is the recent metamorphosis of the two engineering schools into Electrical, Hydraulic and Mechanical Engineering, at the heart of the classical Engineering Sciences.

The issues addressed by the previous courses have not disappeared. Electric motors and hydraulic machines are still being built, and even more so. Mechanics remains an essential skill for mankind. This school still displays this scientific and technical anchoring, but in a perspective that is no longer that of the thermo-industrial civilization.

Beyond the engineer and the researcher

It’s remarkable. It really is. But universities are on a different scale. A large university center brings together tens of thousands of students who will take their place anywhere in society. They’re all involved and they need to be prepared to be players collectively in these difficult times.

We must go beyond this training and education strategy, which is based solely on specialized skills and expertise, however important and valuable they may be, first and foremost in actions related to world transitions.

In France, 550 students in aeronautics remarkably pose the debate in the newspaper Le Monde of May 29, 2020: “Aeronautics: “The ecological transition imposes a profound transformation of our industry” . Introduction sets the tone:

“Technical progress will not be enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft, which is essential in the fight against global warming,” say more than 550 students from the aeronautics sector in an op-ed piece in Le Monde, who plead for industrial reconversions and a reduction in air traffic. »

Worthy successors to Carnot, a visionary at 27. Each one in his own time, of course. Dear students, thank you guys!

We find the arguments of this forum in this drawing by Valéry Pernot from the study “preparing the future of aviation” by the think tank The Shift Project. Valéry Pernot clearly underlines here the limits of engineering and technique. In the end, this brings us all back to much broader and more complex questions: Why do we want to? What is worthwhile in view of the climate threat?

SDG identify issues for humanity that are not reduced to questions of engineering, science, innovation or research. These global issues identified by the SDG are significant and complex. They cannot be defined by the established fields of knowledge, all academic disciplines combined, not only technical and scientific.

But at the heart of the civilization that we must install, they become a challenge for the university, which accompanies millions of students, actors of tomorrow’s world like the 550 signatories above. How then to respond to Jean Jouzel’s injunction: “Why universities must declare a state of ecological and climatic emergency. » ?

Published by JoelChevrier

a physics professor at the university passionate about contemporary art . Scientific curator of the Soulages Arts&Sciences exhibition « Noir, c’est noir ? » Lausanne Switzerland (2016-2017) . Collaboration with Giuseppe Penone for artwork Essere vento : we pushed sculpture on sand grain down the micrometer size. Exhibition Corps de Pierre 2017. . Collaboration with choreographer Yoann Bourgeois for exhibition at Pantheon Paris 2017 . Member of Strategic Council at ENSCI Les Ateliers Paris (2017-…). . PI of Descitech project (2014-2018): « Sciences, design and society: the factory of contemporary worlds » . Member of the Board at Ecole Supérieure d’Arts et de Design Grenoble/Valence (2015-...) . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Science Frugale” at science museum Espace Pierre Gilles de Gennes . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Luminopolis” at science museum Cap Sciences (Bordeaux 2017-2018).

%d bloggers like this: