In 2018, the Global Day to #act4SDGs, September 25th, marked the third anniversary of the Sustainable Development Goals where thousands of institutions, organizations and citizens across the world mobilised to take concrete actions for the SDGs. Events registered at http://www.act4sdgs.org took place in 143 countries involving over a million people. The University of Wollongong in Australia joined this collective by organizing an interfaculty student challenge event focused on coming up with local solutions to the SDGs. I spoke with Belinda Gibbons, coordinator of PRME activities at the University (as well as coordinator of the Australia and New Zealand PRME Chapter), about the event.
What was the interfaculty student challenge and how did it come about?
To realise the SDGs we need a cross-sector approach. This is also required in Universities where students from all faculties are given the opportunities to come together and learn, challenge and find innovative solutions to complex local and world challenges. The Faculty of Business at UOW have been engaging in SDG conversations with other faculties throughout 2018 and it seemed appropriate to pilot an interfaculty event on #ACT4SDGs day. We wanted to have an interdisciplinary event so that the challenges we face can be viewed and discussed through the many lenses upon which they impact. We involved Business, Law, Humanities & the Arts, Engineering and Information Sciences, Science, Medicine & Health and Social Sciences.
How was the day organised?
We pitched the pilot interfaculty challenge to Dean Scholar and Advanced Undergraduate students across the different faculties. Forty-one students registered and attended. Once registrations were closed, interdisciplinary tables were pre-organised and upon arrival students received a table number. During the two hour event students were invited to engage in two SDG challenges. Each challenge asked them to come up with an innovative solution specifically aimed at our local area. The winners were given specially made SDG badges and the opportunity to develop their idea further.
What were the challenges?
The first challenge asked students to discuss and innovate for SDG 13, climate action and the second challenge specifically focused on SDG 3, good health and well-being. Students then pitched their ideas to judges from both academia and industry with expertise in the challenge areas. Solutions/ideas revolved around an increased use of clean energies, education programmes, youth/elderly collaborations, health technologies and surprisingly simple ideas and everyday acts that can impact on a big scale.
How did you communicate the SDGs to an interdisciplinary audience?
The SDGs are by very nature interdisciplinary and they give us a common language through which to have a discussion about critical challenges facing all of us. Although, while a common language, each SDG means different things to different disciplines. So the students took SDG 13 and discussed it through their lens initially, each respecting the thoughts of everyone and time to speak. They then moved onto discussing solutions as common problem areas arose in their discussions.
What were some of the insights that came out in regard to working across disciplines?
It was clear when observing the interdisciplinary discussions, just how silo focused the initial ideas being discussed were and this is expected given the nature of higher education specialties. The more disciplines at a table, the longer it took for collaboration and agreement to occur (tables ranged from 6 – 9 students per table/approx. 6 disciplines per table). Feedback received reflected that students liked networking with like-minded peers, developing interdisciplinary skills and competence and being part of a global movement for change.
What lessons did you learn?
The event was very successful. It definitely sparked greater interest in holding more interfaculty events and more discussions around the SDGs. It was exciting to know that the students had been discussing the SDGs in their disciplines and so they had a good idea of what they were prior to attending. It was extremely interesting in analyzing feedback that students did not feel SDG 14 or SDG 15 were relevant to their study and minimally relevant to their future career which we can incorporate into our curriculum moving forward.
You mention that students have the opportunity to develop their ideas further. Could we add a bit about how and what you are hoping will happen?
One way for students to receive is recognition for their interfaculty workshop is through a UOW programe titled ‘UOWx’. Launched in 2015, UOWx is an initiative that recognises the valuable knowledge and skills that students gain by actively participating in the wide range of co-curricular activities that the University of Wollongong offers outside of a students academic coursework. UOWx aims to provide students who have engaged in co-curricular activities at the University of Wollongong with an advantage in the increasingly competitive workforce, by formally recognising their involvement upon graduation. Students undertaking #Act4SDGs workshops will have this officially recognized on their UOWx records and then eligible for a UOWx awards.
Another area that we are expanding discussions on is the potential to take winning pitches to UOW iAccelerate. iAccelerate is a University of Wollongong (UOW) business incubator program that is here to help you build and grow your business. iAccelerate is a business incubator designed to support UOW students, staff and the greater Illawarra Community. We are building a successful innovative economy for the future of the region.
Any advice for others thinking of doing something similar?
We would like to run this on a larger scale in the future. Feedback indicated that 100% of students want to attend future inter-faculty workshops geared at progressing the SDGs. If others are thinking of undertaking this event, I would recommend gaining executive support from each Faculty and having an interfaculty organising team. We also had interfaculty students on our organising team as this enabled them to have a voice on choosing which SDGs to focus on, type of food to be served, selection of room and overall run sheet for the event.