Education and Capacity Building
The goal of a quality education is articulated through Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 (“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”). Education is critical to achieving the other SDGs, and educational institutions at all levels are powerfully positioned to operationalize sustainability across society. In addition, educational institutions have an important role to play in educating about the SDGs themselves.
Within the United States—whether within the federal government, media, educational systems, or other domains—public knowledge about the 2030 Agenda is limited, in terms of actions being taken both globally and domestically that align with the SDGs (Mendelson, 2022; World Economic Forum, 2019). Among the 193 United Nations (UN) member states, 187 countries have undertaken Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), which provide an intentional way to identify gaps and chart future action (UN, 2022e). The 6 countries that have not undertaken VNRs are Haiti, Iran, Myanmar, South Sudan, Yemen, and the United States (Sachs et al., 2022).1 When the SDGs are recognized in the United States, many people assume they are focused on environmental improvement and/or are intended for the Global South (Mendelson, 2022b).
Building sustainable mindsets begins at a young age, but there is little effort at the K-12 and university levels to apply inquiry-based learning to help students
1 In 2022, Brookings and the UN Foundation released The State of Sustainable Development Goals in the United States as a shadow VNR, calling for stronger U.S. leadership on the SDGs (Pipa et al., 2022).
learn about the SDGs and to develop partnerships of stakeholders to understand local needs and develop actionable steps toward progress. As one presenter posed, “What are we doing to educate our students to understand the complex global challenges of our time?” (O’Donnell, 2022). She pointed to SDG Target 4.7, which states that “by 2030, ensure all students acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development.” Achievement of this goal requires making complex subjects understandable, building mindsets for long-term engagement, changing abstract SDGs into locally relevant issues, and taking action for change—and engaging children at a young age.
CASE STUDIES AND SYNERGIES
The committee learned of promising initiatives that address these challenges in creative and implementable ways. Presenters described experiential learning and community partnerships that advance all the SDGs, while providing the “quality education” articulated in SDG 4. At the K-12 level, for example, the Smithsonian Science Education Center has created opportunities for students to learn about local issues to build global sustainability mindsets (Box 2-1; Figure 2-1). At the university level, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) launched a campus-wide, multidisciplinary Sustainability Initiative that resulted in, among other things, the first Voluntary University Review (VUR) to assess how education, research, and practice in a postsecondary educational setting align with the SDGs (Box 2-2). CMU has also supported the city of Pittsburgh in conducting a Voluntary Local Review and has involved students in capstone research and action projects in Pittsburgh and other cities.
Other examples discussed include a “Sustainability 101” course that all students at Arizona State University, regardless of major, will take; regional partnerships spearheaded by the University of Texas at Arlington to promote Education for Sustainable Development (Tare, 2022); student-led SDG projects in partnership with the City of Los Angeles (Apolitical, 2022a); and transformation of the university campus as a model for sustainability practices for the surrounding community, as done at Chiang Mai Rajabhat University in Thailand. Drawing on the concept of “glocal” or meso scale of communities, Marc McCaffrey (The Long Game) noted the multiplying impact of the “Powers of 10”: that is, the networks that an individual can tap into to create change over time (McCaffrey, 2022).
A number of studies examine key competencies for sustainability in higher education. Wiek et al. (2011) discuss five core competencies in sustainability education: a systems thinking competence, an anticipatory competence, a normative competence, a strategic competence, and an interpersonal competence. A Delphi study with 14 international experts in sustainability education extends this framework to propose two additional key sustainability competencies: an implementation competency and an intrapersonal competency or mindset (Brundiers et al., 2020).
KEY RESEARCH PRIORITIES FOR EDUCATION AND CAPACITY BUILDING
To operationalize sustainable development in areas relating to education and capacity building, the field could prioritize the following research activities:
- Conduct research investigations, case studies, and evaluations of effective efforts building partnerships and operationalizing the SDGs at the local and subnational levels that connect to national and global levels with special focus on K-12 and university education, public outreach, and capacity building.
- Identify effective ways to support K-12 education initiatives that assist students with defining, developing, and implementing their own frameworks for sustainable actions in their communities and in understanding the impacts beyond.
- Examine issues relating to ensuring diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in K-12 STEM education as well as leveling the playing field in access to K-12 education across school districts in the United States.
- Examine how sustainability education programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels can prepare all students, regardless of major, to contribute to advancing a post-2030 agenda for sustainable development, as well as identify best practices in field building for sustainable development at the undergraduate and graduate levels that will be important for research and education in moving that agenda forward.
POSSIBLE ACTIONABLE STEPS FOR EDUCATION AND CAPACITY BUILDING
Possible actionable steps for undertaking inquiry-based education initiatives and capacity-building partnerships essential to making progress on the SDGs at the local, national, and global levels are as follows:
- University leaders could undertake initiatives to assist faculty and students in developing VURs to evaluate needs and prioritization among
- SDGs based on an institutional mission, take actionable steps that advance progress on the SDGs at their universities, and ensure that every student regardless of major is exposed to the challenges and opportunities in sustainable development.
- University leaders and faculties could develop partnerships with local and national governments, universities, business communities, and civil society organizations to develop VURs to evaluate needs and take actionable steps that can advance progress toward the SDGs by their cities and local communities (Apolitical, 2022b).
- University leaders and faculties could elevate a focus on building the field of sustainability science as a discipline to prepare the next generation for a post-2030 agenda for sustainable development.
- Cities and school districts could initiate and support programs at the local K-12 level for students to undertake local investigations in their communities on the SDGs across diverse contexts; define and implement frameworks for sustainable development; and connect their local issues to global issues, such as the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals (O’Donnell, 2022).
- U.S. government and education leaders could engage the public to raise awareness of the SDGs. Examples include the National Climate Assemblies in many European countries, such as Austria, Denmark, Germany, Finland, France, Scotland, Spain, and the United Kingdom, that discuss the climate crisis with randomly selected citizens (Bürgerrat, 2022); global campaigns such as the World’s Largest Lesson (2022) and World’s To Do List (2022); São Paulo’s Municipal Agenda 2030 and its public policy councils (Open Government Partnership, 2022); and work with storytellers, such as Sony’s “Picture This” short film competition.
- Urban leaders and planners could engage students from universities, community colleges, and Minority-Serving Institutions (NASEM, 2020) to organize student projects in local communities and cities, such as the student-led research to help develop the City of Los Angeles’ Biodiversity Index (City of Los Angeles, 2022).
- Education leaders could provide teachers with peer mentor networks and a platform, such as developing and maintaining a website to host downloadable materials relating to sustainability, the SDGs, and climate change education.
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