Business school students want to create sustainability impact. Here’s how educators can help students drive change.
By Sharon F. Ehasz and Maya Fischhoff
Universities and business schools are seeing growing student interest in sustainability. In a recent global poll, 92% of students saw sustainability as a priority issue in higher education. Students want to pursue careers — and lives — aligned with their values.
Faculty teaching business sustainability are eager to help their students create change. In a recent webinar, business school educators and students described what effective “teaching for impact” might look like. These insights provide direction for teachers and students.
The discussion was organized by the Impact Scholar Community, which supports early career academics who want their work to impact practice.
Faculty and students from three universities led the conversation. Faculty members present were Dr. Chris Laszlo (Case Western Reserve University), Dr. Steve Kennedy (Erasmus University), and Dr. Ruben Burga (University of Guelph). The student speakers were Sharon Ehasz (Case Western), Lina Vollrath (Erasmus) and Keshini Digamber (Guelph).
What Is Teaching for “Sustainability Impact”?
Most educators, whatever their field, aim for impact in their teaching. Teachers want their students to use the information taught. They want students to understand ideas and be able to apply them outside the classroom.
The same is true in business sustainability education. Impactful teaching needs to provide students with knowledge and skills, said Steve Kennedy (Erasmus University). In his courses, Kennedy tries to provide both theoretical understanding of how systems work and practical tools and techniques for change.
But addressing sustainability challenges requires more than theoretical concepts and practical tools, according to Kennedy and other speakers. “It’s not just about technical skills and vocational mastery,” says Chris Laszlo (Case Western Reserve).
That’s because being a sustainability change-maker poses some unique challenges.
Working on social and environmental issues can be discouraging. Progress is often slow on sustainability issues like climate change, poverty, and biodiversity loss. Students may become a lonely voice in companies – and communities — where these issues get relatively little attention.
“Teaching for impact” must prepare students for this experience. Speakers discussed ways to build students’ resilience and commitment to sustainability. These more psychological elements enable students’ capacity for change even in the face of discouragement.
Steve Kennedy tries to help students understand systemic problems, like climate change, from different viewpoints. This sense of responsibility builds their “ambition and attitude to generate change,” he says. In Kennedy’s course, “Climate Change Strategy Role-Play,” students are able to try out different roles – industry association, NGO, government official.
Kennedy also considers the emotions that students will experience in a business sustainability course. “In the first weeks, we might want them to feel a bit of surprise, or shock, or even anger,” he said. But by the end of the course, he wants them to feel hope for the future and empowerment. His teaching supports this evolution by moving from generating understanding of root causes of challenges to innovating solutions that may address them.
Chris Laszlo (Case Western Reserve University) tries to strengthen students’ underlying commitment to sustainability. He focuses on who students are – not just what they know or do. Education thus becomes a process of personal transformation.
In a course called “Quantum Leadership,” Laszlo helps students build a range of connections – to a personal sense of purpose, others, nature, and spiritual ideals. “When people feel these deeper connections, they are more likely to exhibit pro-social and pro-environmental behaviors,” said Laszlo.
3 Ways to Teach for Sustainability Impact
Three common themes emerged from the presentations and discussion. These are strategies for teaching – and learning – for sustainability impact.
1. Create a Warm Classroom Environment
Classroom relationships help students develop capacity for change, said student Sharon Ehasz (Case Western). When the classroom emphasizes connection, students feel valued, she said. They are then more open and self-aware of how they fit into broader sustainability topics and the broader system
Using humour can also help students feel comfortable, said Kennedy. “Comedy is an effective way to form relationships in the classroom, especially when we’re talking about sustainability, because there’s a lot of doom and gloom.” Humour helps students feel safe and build hope and warmth. For example, in teaching climate change, teachers can use (with permission) the extensive cartoon movement, such as the excellent Peter Ommundsen.
Laszlo’s classes explicitly prioritize personal wellbeing. He aims to lower students’ stress and build their trust and wellbeing. His classes include “direct intuitive experiences” such as mindfulness, breathing, yoga, music, body scans, and walking in nature, etc. The result: Students become better leaders and experience flourishing and happiness in their own lives, he said.
2. Respect Different Views
Sustainability can be controversial and students often have different views. There’s potential for conflict – but instructors and students reported positive interactions and mutual respect.
Early in his class, Kennedy tries to build understanding of different views by explaining sustainability as a spectrum ranging from “very strong” to “very weak” sustainability. This sense of alternatives enables students to consider their own perspective and relate their views to others’.
Vollrath, who took Kennedy’s course, recalled that “there was always that room for dialogue, discussion, and debate. (For example: “Is Elon Musk the solution?”) The instructors didn’t judge student views as right or wrong, said Vollrath, but helped guide them by “always providing the factual base.”
The online course taught by Burga and colleagues brought together students from Indonesia, Canada, and Spain. Students had different views: for example, some advocated carbon pricing and others electrification. But neither policy nor cultural differences prevented respectful conversation, said Burga. Students “recognized their different backgrounds and allowed others to talk.”
Professional work on sustainability will require students to engage with a range of perspectives, noted Vollrath. The classroom can be an important space for practice.
3. Tackle Practical Problems, Practically
Learning about sustainability needs to be concrete and grounded, said session participants. That grounding can take many forms. Courses can and should provide:
- Transferable skills. Sustainability education tends to emphasize abstract concepts, noted Kennedy. “We’ve been underplaying the skills aspect for a long time.” In each course, he aims to provide students with at least one skill: e.g. negotiation, systems analysis, or life cycle analysis.
- Engagement with practical problems. Sustainability issues affect us daily – but can seem oddly distant. Presenters advocated using case studies and role playing to show how issues play out and how students can affect them. Vollrath recalled an Erasmus course on the Dutch nitrogen crisis. Initially, the topic seemed obscure to her, but she and her fellow students became riveted, in part by hearing from diverse stakeholders, from farmers to NGOs.
- Interaction and experience. “Experiential learning” – action coupled with reflection – is a hallmark of good teaching. Similarly, most educators know that dialogue fosters learning. But creating such classroom experiences requires time and effort. It’s worth it, said the educators: “You’re going to get so much energy from it.”
Watch the Event
Watch the recording of the discussion, “Innovating Teaching for Impact” (May 2022).
About the Presenters
Dr. Ruben Burga is an Assistant Professor in the University of Guelph’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. During this event, Ruben represented two other colleagues also in attendance: Dr. Amelia Naim Indrajaya from IPMI International Business School in Jakarta, Indonesia and Dr. María Isabel Rodríguez Tejedo from the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. Together, these scholars created a 5-week undergraduate collaborative online international learning platform, encompassing three continents and 122 students. Students were placed into virtual teams to critically analyze innovative flourishing companies using Case Western Reserve University’s Aim to Flourish platform. Students worked synchronously each week in a free flowing format which enabled them to learn the course content while also experiencing each other.
Ruben invited one of the course’s former students, Keshini Digamber, to give her perspective of the experience. Keshini is an undergraduate student in her final year.
Dr. Steve Kennedy is an Associate Professor in Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management in Rotterdam, Netherlands, where he teaches sustainability courses including “Sustainability Leadership and Planetary Boundaries,” as well as executive education courses. As the former academic director for the School’s Master in Global Business and Sustainability program, Steve grew RSM’s program from approximately 30 to over 200 students. During this event, Steve presented information about his course “Climate Change Strategy Role-Play.” The course is a master-level elective course that is run concurrently across 10 business schools in Europe. It is an experiential course with the highlight being the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change where students role play the next Conference of Parties.
Steve invited Lina Vollrath, a graduate student who just completed the class, to give a student’s perspective. Lina is a graduate student in Masters in Global Business and Sustainability.
Dr. Chris Laszlo is a Professor in Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio, United States, where he teaches courses in embedded sustainability, flourishing enterprise, and quantum leadership. His embedded sustainability course looks at the rational empirical approach to why businesses should do good. His flourishing enterprise course is about making a positive impact (not just doing less harm) in how organizations conduct their activities. His quantum leadership class focuses on students transforming who they are being in order to transform the business model for increasing human well-being and solving global and social problems.
During this event, Chris presented information about his “Sustainability and Social Entrepreneurship” MBA course for which Sharon Ehasz was a teaching assistant. Sharon is a 3rd year Organizational Behavior PhD student.
About the Impact Scholar Community
The Impact Scholar Community was founded in 2019 by the Greening Team of the Organizations and the Natural Environment Division of the Academy of Management (AOM) with support from the AOM Special Projects Fund. The Community builds on existing efforts to create research impact, by groups including Responsible Research in Business and Management and NBS.
The particular focus is on providing the social and technical infrastructure that early-career researchers need to connect their rigorous research with practical and social impact. Management scholars at any stage are welcome to join the Community and support early-career researchers:
Connect with ISC via Twitter or email:
Find Out More about Teaching and Learning for Impact
The Impact Scholar Community hosted another teaching related event on “Creating Impact through Teaching and Learning,” in May 2021. The speakers were Sandra Waddock, Nadine DeGannes, and Oliver Laasch.
NBS has explored best practices for teaching sustainable business with our Sustainability Centres Community – a network of over 180 centres at business schools around the world. Explore teaching resources: https://nbs.net/teaching/2/