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Championing green education: UAE University weaves mandatory sustainability course into curriculum

Championing green education: UAE University weaves mandatory sustainability course into curriculum
30 Jan 2024 17:40


Following the Paris climate agreement in 2019, the staff at the Al Ain-based United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) felt a responsibility to prepare their students for the age to come. In what was a bold decision at the time, the university made a specially designed course in sustainability mandatory to all its undergraduate students, a move which Geology Professor, Dr. Dalal Alshamsi, says was not without challenge.

"When we introduced the course, many of the students, especially those in medicine would say, we have so much work, why do we have to do sustainability?" she told Aletihad at a talk held on the sidelines of the World Environmental Education Congress in Abu Dhabi this week.

"I would tell them, you should know it, just like social studies and Islamic studies, you need to know it, because you are part of a society," she said.

For Dr. Alshamsi, understanding sustainability is not a voluntary matter but rather a necessary criterion for students who wish to be successful in the modern age.

"If you don't know sustainable development, you won't get a job in the UAE", she said. "It's like a programming language, it's the language of the future."

Now entering its fifth year, Dr. Alshamsi said the programme has become a raging success, with over 1,000 students choosing to sign up to take part in voluntary sustainable development projects on top of their mandatory courses.

She noted that the grassroots implementation of sustainability education at the undergraduate level had even matured, with many PHD students from the university taking part in COP28 climate conference where they came up with a legal framework that could help support the UAE in achieving its goals.

She believes many students were beginning to understand that sustainability credibility was necessary for employability. Sustainable development goals (SDGs) have become a staple of private and public economic institutions, with SDGs embedded in everything from auditing practices to economic outcomes.

Moreover, the professor believes that learning about sustainability is particularly important to the young Emiratis of today, which she said had come to take the abundance of water, power and food for granted.

"When I was younger, we moved to an area that still had barely any houses, there was no piping, we had to get our water pumped from a truck. The water would often cut off, some days my mum would use a plastic bottle to give me a bath," she recalled.

"I still live my life with this thought in my head, that the water might cut off at any moment, the young people today don't have this experience, so they need to learn, so that they can understand that the water can still cut off at any moment," she said.

"We need them to start thinking about their decisions, the clothes they wear, the shopping they do, they need to understand the impact," Alshamsi added.

Speaking to a room of academics from Canada, US and Oman, Alshamsi explained the process of building out the compulsory course, and the importance of making it accessible to all.

"It's a course that anyone can teach, although it is administered through the biology department, it is taught by lecturers from faculties across the university," the professor noted.

She said the university had chosen to make the course easier by making the exam worth only 25% of the final and instead basing much of the course around field trips and special projects. This included trips to recycling centres, and sites of inspiration like the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre in Al Ain.

The course is aimed at instilling a sense of personal responsibility towards conservation and environmentalism in undergraduates, a sense that they may carry with them in their academic, professional and personal lives.

When asked by Aletihad if she believed sustainable courses should be mandatory across UAE universities, Dr. Al Shamsi said in her experience it had been a worthwhile decision.

As for the motivation she gives her students, the professor said: "Individual effort matters, even if you are the only one that is doing it, it will matter." 

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