Originally featured on the KU Leuven Science, engineering and technology group website: https://set.kuleuven.be/en/news/prize-of-the-education-council-1819

This year, the Prize of Education Council went to the course “Sustainable Development Living Lab and Project” of the ICP Master in Sustainable Development. We visited the programme directors, and were warmly welcomed in the Geogarden next to the Earth and Environmental Sciences department. After our conversation we were treated to a tour of the garden.

“A place like this simply invites interdisciplinary conversation and creativity,” says Prof. Anton Van Rompaey. “We have to get rid of that old style of collaboration.” It could also have been a summary of the interview we had just wrapped up.

Let’s first situate the course. What is the Master in Sustainable Development?

Prof. Anton Van Rompaey: “The Master in Sustainable Development was introduced in 2017, and is aimed at students from both the natural and social sciences who are willing to delve into both the ecological and social aspects of interdisciplinary sustainability issues. It is a very multicultural, multi-disciplinary group. “

Klara Claessens: “We currently have students from over 20 countries with backgrounds in biology, ecology, geography, spatial planning, architecture and bio-engineering sciences, but also in economics, political science, sociology and even history.”

Prof. Constanza Parra: “The programme is a collaboration between the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Department of Biology. Students can choose between two specializations, ‘Space and society’ and ‘Ecology’, but all students receive the course for which we have won the prize. ”

What does that course entail, and what makes it so special?

Klara Claessens: “The Sustainability Living Lab is the most important platform with which the vision and goals of this master’s programme are tested and implemented in a real world environment. All of the learning material and activities in the master are linked to the Lab’s priorities. The course is in principle taught in the second master year, but the preparation already starts in the first year. “

Prof. Anton Van Rompaey: “It consists of three different phases. The first is the preparatory phase in which the students are divided into groups of approximately 4 (always composed of students from both tracks). They are assigned a broad development problem in a specific region of the Global South. The region varies depending on the location of the Lab. In a second phase, the students go to the region and do fieldwork. Back in Leuven, the students write a development plan for that area in a third and final phase. ”

Klara Claessens: “The strength of the course is that it has an interdisciplinary structure at its core – something that we pursue with the master’s programme as a whole. For example, someone with a background in sociology will also have to do water measurements and ecological observations, and a biologist will be asked to organise focus groups and interviews. Sustainability is one of those themes that require a truly multidisciplinary view, and we want to prepare our students for that. “

Prof. Luc Brendonck: “It’s also important to underline that we don’t just go to the South to do our thing. We arrive very prepared and deem it crucial to also respond to local needs and tensions. We therefore organise the activities in collaboration with local partners who have a great understanding of the local communities and customs. Finally, we also work intensively with the partner university and the researchers on the ground.”

Klara Claessens: “Even the local students are involved.”

In that sense, the project not only has educational but also societal objectives. Is that a difficult balance at times?

Klara Claessens: “For some local communities, the concept of research remains somewhat abstract. It’s therefore important to explain well in advance in the negotiations what can and cannot be expected of the project. We’ve already taken many steps forward in that regard, but it’s important to state that this is of course still a learning process for us.”

Prof. Constanza Parra: “That’s why it’s called a Living Lab: it’s a dynamic concept, and we’ll make adjustments whenever we deem it necessary.”

Klara Claessens: “We’ve already learned a lot from each other, from our students, and from local partners. It’s important that we continue to work with the same open attitude.”

Annelies Verstraelen: “We also notice among our students that this experience is particularly instructive for the development of all kinds of social skills and personal attitudes. How do you approach a local community, how do you communicate, how do you work together, how do you incorporate leadership in such an environment? These are competencies that will prove useful in future projects in their professional lives.”

Prof. Constanza Parra: “We can’t expect students to become experts in everything. It’s therefore important to give them a broad basis and to prepare them to be a team player. Only then will we be able to come up with appropriate solutions for the complex challenge that sustainability poses us.”

Prof. Luc Brendonck: “All PIs in this programme also have rich experience with other VLIR-UOS instruments where multidisciplinarity in research and education is often a requirement. Thanks to this Living Lab, we now have the opportunity to transfer this approach to our students.”

Are there already plans for any changes or improvements?

Prof. Anton Van Rompaey: “The Living Lab is of course also a research project. There are also Master’s students who stay on site to do their Master’s thesis research there. In the long term, we hope to open up the project as a source of research and to be able to devote papers to it.”

Should more programmes and universities have to embrace a truly multidisciplinary approach?

Prof. Anton Van Rompaey: “If we look at the educational landscape in Belgium or even Europe today, that’s certainly something that is missing. There are a lot of masters who highlight either the ecological or the social perspective, but with such an approach I believe you deliver graduates with a focus that’s too narrow.”

Prof. Luc Brendonck: “I think we should avoid any strict division between ecology and the more social-scientific components. As ecologists, we always emphasize that ecosystems are not just about the interaction of plants and animals with their immediate environment, but also about ecosystem services – services for the direct and indirect benefit and well-being of humans that is. The two simply cannot be detached. That’s the great strength of a programme like this.”

Do you also see room for that project-based, socially committed component of the course in other programmes?

Prof. Anton Van Rompaey: “I think there’s certainly room for that, but I also see that it’s already being worked on, including within our faculties. But this approach is of course still in its infancy. Collaboration is really needed in that regard, because it requires a great commitment from the teaching and administrative staff to set up such a thing – that’s what experience tells us anyway. (laughs)”

Prof. Anton Van Rompaey: “You need motivated people who don’t see it as an obligation, but believe in it at its core and are prepared to delve in deep. Good teamworkis therefore essential. Nobody is exclusively occupied with the course. It’s all internal motivation. “

Prof. Luc Brendonck: “We also have to succeed in getting our departments fully involved in this story. After all, the course floats between different research groups, and that certainly makes it not obvious administratively speaking. ”

Prof. Constanza Parra: “In that context, it’s also very important to speak to the talent that’s in our student group. They are all very committed people, and we have a responsibility to fuel that fire within them. If we succeed in doing so, that enthusiasm may also spread to other PIs and faculties. ”

Prof. Luc Brendonck: “By the way, this way of working would not have been possible without all the support we received, both from the faculty, the Interfaculty Council for Development Cooperation and its Global Minds programme, and from VLIR-UOS.”

Prof. Constanza Parra: “And certainly not without the International Office, our financial support staff and all other colleagues who have contributed to this project. All those nationalities means a great deal of administrative complexity, and without them we would certainly not be able to stand where we are now.”

There is also a financial injection associated with this prize. Any idea as to what you would like to do with it yet?

Prof. Anton Van Rompaey: “We haven’t decided that yet. But we think about it a lot! (General hilarity ensues, ed.). ”

Klara Claessens: “I think it’s a welcome bonus given the rapidly growing number of students. It might not go to the core business of the Living Lab, but to the creative side projects that arise within the Lab.”

Prof. Anton Van Rompaey: “In the long term, we would also like to materialise part of the output that we generate with the Living Lab locally. Whether we could do that with a book, information panels or, for example, local school visits, remains to be seen. But first we’re going to celebrate! ”