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By 2030, the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) hope to ensure all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development. Yet, many countries’ roads to education for sustainable development (ESD) remain a challenge. While many universities are cultivating partnerships to promote sustainability on campuses and offer ESD courses, little attention has been put on immersing students in environmental and community-based problems through hands-on learning experiences. This research develops a design principle for creating a constructionist community-based approach to ESD that empowers students to tackle problems and provides the foundation for sustainable development.
The learning processes for ESD should empower students with transformative actions for sustainability (UNESCO Executive Board, 2019). ESD is not just adding sustainability as an extra topic to the curriculum but rather enabling learners to contribute to sustainable societies through critical thinking and active problem solving (Lambrechts & Hindson, 2016). Students should engage in analysis, reflection, and action for local and global citizenship and active participation while acknowledging the rapidly changing and interdependent world (Honan, 2005). Scholars in environmental education believe that knowledge and values on the environment shouldn't operate in isolation; learners should have the opportunities to connect with nature, environmental stewardship, and interest in learning and discovery (Cutter-Mackenzie &Edwards, 2013; Stern et al., 2008). Thus, cultivating active participants requires teaching methods that go beyond lecturing. ESD for 2030 suggests that learners must first step outside of their safety status quo and become critically aware of the world's existing problems and conditions. Finding opportunities to launch critical inquiries about society and being empathetic with others allows young learners to activate values and a lifestyle corresponding to their sense of identity.
The constructionist design paradigm shares many similarities with literature on the ESD learning process. Constructionists believe that learners learn best when designing and making personally and socially meaningful (Papert, 1993). Learning should be experiential and connected to the real world (Ackermann, 2001). It is also influenced by Dewey’s progressive education, which focuses on experiential learning and building connections to the real world (Blikstein, 2013). Through constructionist learning, learners can take an active role in their learning by creatively designing, building, and exploring their projects based on their personal and social interests. It liberates learners from being taught when they are empowered to connect everything they wonder, know, and feel about expanding themselves into learning new things (Blikstein, 2013). To bring constructionism and ESD into higher education, the instruction should allow students to see themselves as a part of the community. They believe that they can succeed and then make connections between their community and global communities. By doing things personally and socially meaningful to their communities, students can reflect on their achievements.
This study presents a design principle to better support authentic making in higher education by engaging students from various disciplines and the broader community. Constructionist Design for Sustainable Development (CDSD) should design: (1) For the learners to make connections with their peers and community members by working toward solving social and environmental problems of their interests; (2) to explore and experiment with novel ideas in working on personally and socially meaningful projects; (3) with high expectations of all students while supporting the integration of their prior knowledge and experiences; and (4) for the students to be reflective of their achievement and ability concerning the environment, their community, and beyond.
To provide empirical evidence supporting CDSD, a qualitative design-based research project was conducted with over 60 undergraduate and graduate-level students from Thailand and Japan. Each implementation is one semester-long. The course's learning goal is to empower the students to be designers and create inventions to solve social and environmental challenges. Students' projects covered but weren't limited to sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, and global citizenship. They followed the design thinking process by empathizing with community problems, constructing problem statements, and brainstorming to achieve the goal. Then they will create a prototype to help them think, learn, and gain feedback from the community and iterate on their designs. Students were encouraged to use digital fabrication equipment such as 3D printers and laser engravers to make their innovations. Towards the end of each course, the students presented their projects and shared knowledge with community members.
The results show how CDSD takes shape as a (1) way of establishing making as a part of connecting students, environment, and community, (2) space for students to work together and collaborate with peers, and (3) form for the students to connect with the problem that they once thought couldn’t be solved by themselves. Students showcased their creative and innovative nature in tackling everyday environmental and social problems. For example, a group of pharmaceutical science and economics students made “BraceMed”—a handmade bracelet with a 3D printed pillbox—for a member's grandmother to remember to take medication. The team came up with the idea after learning about the grandmother’s high blood pressure due to missing medicine (See Figure 1). Making and designing a bracelet together also serves as a joyous family activity. Another group experimented with different methods to create the most durable shopping bag using zero-waste and 100% degradable materials (See Figure 2). They even went to a local print shop to help recycle their paper waste. Finally, students reflect on their accomplishments and their parts in achieving the SDGs- doing useful solutions with a creative spirit and drive for innovation. CDSD is possible when students develop connections to the problems and people within their community. Additionally, the learning environment must encourage the students to design and experiment with new ideas. Students can be empowered by collaboratively designing solutions that impact their community and themselves.
Engaging in a hands-on constructionist class that addresses ESD challenges, students propose and design solutions for the betterment of the community as a tool for engendering change for the environment. The research contributes to the global intellectual community by creating design principles supported by empirical evidence, especially designing environmental education by innovating for their community and environment.