New course prepares students to shape the future of sustainability

In-depth look at UN Sustainable Development Goals helps students bring critical thinking and creative problem-solving into their careers.


SUST 202 instructors Maja Osmanagić (right) and Apryl Bergstrom say the new course helps students think critically about the complex challenges of sustainable development and contribute to big-picture solutions in their careers. (Photo: Hussain Al-Rikabi)

Lisa MacLeod remembers feeling appalled during an elementary school field trip to learn about waste disposal years ago.

Visiting a landfill site, she was dismayed by the piles of trash that poured in, even in the short time her class was there.

“It was awful; there was a big pit of garbage, and it bothered me that we accumulated this and have no way of making it go away again. We have to keep hiding these big masses of trash.”

That dawning awareness of troubles facing the planet was also reinforced by her father, who at the time was medical team lead for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti. His work helped MacLeod understand “how interconnected everything is. Sustainability isn’t just about insects and green spaces, but also about people.”

Both those childhood experiences stuck with MacLeod, and when the opportunity came along years later to learn more about sustainability — particularly the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — the University of Alberta Faculty of Science student jumped at the chance. 

After completing a new U of A course, SUST 202, MacLeod, who holds a bachelor of science in biological sciences, feels better equipped to pursue her long-term career goal of supporting sustainability in some way. 

“The complexity of people’s lives, the interconnectedness of sustainability challenges we all face and the need to be more inclusive when considering solutions are all concepts that I learned about and will take with me,” she says.

Lisa MacLeod
Science student Lisa MacLeod says the new SUST 202 course gave her a deeper understanding of the complex global challenges the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals aim to meet — and how she can be a part of inclusive solutions as she pursues a career. (Photo: Bev Betkowski)

One of a suite of courses developed by the U of A Sustainability Council and offered as an optional course in several faculties, SUST 202 offers an in-depth look at the SDGs and how they are intertwined with complex environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainable development issues.

That understanding can help students shape the future of the SDGs, which “offer potential for united action” on some of the world’s most pressing sustainability issues, says Maja Osmanagić, operations director of the Sustainability Council and one of the SUST 202 instructors. 

“We face some very daunting challenges today, like climate change, governance structures, inequity and other social challenges, that young learners will have to tackle as they move into their careers.”

Whether MacLeod becomes a UN worker like her father or a conservation and ecology manager — her top career choices — she believes SUST 202 helped her understand what’s needed for successful sustainable development.

One of the class highlights for her was listening to guest lecturer Bob Summers, academic director of the Sustainability Council, talk about his experience of helping plan water infrastructure for a village in a developing country.

“The water well they originally installed was too mechanical and not economically sustainable for the village to maintain, so they went back and simplified the design, but there were also social dynamics they hadn’t considered, which led to some hardships.”

The story demonstrated the various challenges involved with sustainable development, “and showed me that you have to be open-minded and learn from the people you are trying to help.

“It also made me excited to see people are trying things, what failed and how they keep on trying and keep on going,” she adds.

Shaping the future of sustainability

The course invites students to think about how they can help shape the SDGs, adds Apryl Bergstrom, academic sustainability co-ordinator for the Sustainability Council.

“There’s a need to critically ask questions about whether they are good goals to pursue, or whether there are goals that are missing,” notes Bergstrom, who co-instructs and helped develop the course with Osmanagić.

SUST 202 shows how the SDGs expand beyond the UN’s original Millennium Development Goals, which viewed sustainable development through a more “westernized lens,” MacLeod believes.

“I realized that lens could be different for different nations. The SDGs are more globally inclusive. That’s important, because when we think about making changes, they can’t be constructed in a western bubble. The UN was leaving out entire groups of people who didn’t seem to have enough of a voice in what was happening.

“You need to include everyone involved to get solutions.”

Thinking beyond disciplines

Also offered towards earning a U of A Certificate in Sustainability, SUST 202 explores various SDGs initiatives and resources, including the SDG Info Hub highlighting the university’s collaborative efforts to meet the UN’s goals. 

The course helps students become “well rounded” by thinking about sustainable development beyond their specific area of study, Bergstrom notes. 

“It’s a very multi-dimensional field, and there's a need to understand those different dimensions. If you’re just looking at the hard science of climate change, for example, there’s a whole other social dimension to consider too, that could help or hinder solutions to sustainability issues.

”There's no one-size-fits-all answer.”

By steering away from aspects of sustainability like conservation that she was already familiar with, MacLeod says she got a “more global view” of the issues.

“I gained a new understanding around equality, poverty, regional disparities, how cities are built, governance and more. Now I understand that sustainability isn’t just about focusing on our impact on the planet, but about the complex relationships among all of life’s factors, and how we need to consider all of them.”

Whatever discipline they’re studying, the students can use the information in SUST 202 “to offer multiple approaches to other work-related problems and solutions, both in and beyond academia,” Osmanagić adds.

With employers more concerned about sustainability, corporate social responsibility and reducing their ecological footprint, U of A students who take SUST 202 can benefit their future workplaces as critical thinkers, Bergstrom says.

“Employees familiar with sustainability have the ability to contribute to big-picture solutions, through nuanced thinking.”

MacLeod says her SUST 202 experience gave her “an improved ability to compromise to get to the next step and achieve results” in problem-solving.

“I learned about governance, working together and the long processes that have to occur to make big changes happen.”

Now studying for a master of science in ecology, MacLeod says her SUST 202 experience also gave her a toolbox of everyday workplace skills.

“The course taught me about leadership and showed how different organizations had to work with one another. It gave an understanding of professionalism and what it takes to get a project done. There needs to be the ability to be open-minded and to compromise. Those tools are important in any workforce.”