Teaching and Learning
A Holistic Education for the Decision-Makers of the Future
In light of the global challenges of our time, universities have a duty to provide a holistic education for their students to help prepare them for their role as future decision-makers in the transformation toward sustainability. This is why the members of RWTH have committed to the following in the Sustainability Mission Statement:
This section provides insights into our teaching strategy, Sustainability focus in teaching, student engagement, and concrete projects designed to drive forward sustainable development in our teaching.
We are proud to say that we see passionate engagement and a great openness toward sustainable development in teaching at RWTH across all university groups. As an educational institution, RWTH has a duty to provide its students not only with an academic education but also with every opportunity for them to develop into individuals who can think holistically. This particularly applies to using a reflective and level-headed approach when addressing complex and urgent questions relating to sustainability, which is also what students are demanding from the University.
On the one hand, we need to discuss and reflect where we are already acting in a sustainable manner. The traditional names of our degree programs mean, for example, that prospective students do not always know exactly how they would be contributing to solving global problems by studying the degree in question. That is why we plan to provide explicit explanations about this in the degree program descriptions.
On the other hand, we need to work together to initiate changes that allow for sustainable study. Students learn about the responsibility they carry toward future generations and how they can develop solutions to global problems in their respective disciplines by way of technical and non-technical solutions. Sustainability aspects will furthermore be integrated into existing curricula.
The aim is to use incentives to promote this process and create space for a dialogue at the University and beyond in order to support necessary collective action.
At a recent German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU) event, President of Germany Frank Walter Steinmeier spoke of a “transformation of society of immense proportions” in relation to the climate crisis. We are committed to preparing our students for this transformation by developing holistic curricula, i.e. curricula with aspects relating to sustainability.
We have set the stage, but we still have a lot to do if we want to live up to this commitment in a permanent and sustainable way.
Sustainability is a guiding theme of the teaching strategy at RWTH. Guiding themes set out principles for specific teaching goals and competency profiles as we improve existing degree programs and introduce new ones. They also form the basis of curricula design. In light of our responsibility toward society and as we have already established in the General Examination Regulations for Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree Programs, we aim to focus on integrating interdisciplinary engagement into our degree programs even more strongly in the future:
The course of study should teach students specialist knowledge, skills, and methods, taking into account the requirements of and changes to the world of work and interdisciplinary matters. […] Ethics and sustainability are also taken into account here.
RWTH’s Guidelines for Teaching and Learning stipulate that excellent graduates shall act in a socially responsible manner. RWTH pursues the vision of permanently guaranteeing excellent research-oriented teaching and learning that focuses on students in all their diversity. RWTH’s Institutional Strategy and Excellent Teaching and Learning Strategy both aim at improving undergraduate teaching. The strategically diversified measures focus on student needs and allow for participation in the teaching and learning processes.
Students should be given the tools to analyze and participate in transformation processes and questions relating to sustainability in their degree program but also in their future careers, whether these end up being in research or industry. Both aspects – sustainability and social transformation – require a fusion of theory and practice from the various disciplines.
The research-led interdisciplinary teaching approach also thrives on digitalization and an international alignment in order to optimally develop and promote students’ skills. The digitalization strategy comprises both the integration of the topic into the degree programs as well as the provision of digitalized formats in order to make studies more flexible. This applies in particular to students with disabilities, students from abroad, and students with family obligations.
A coherent and holistic quality management system for teaching and learning has been implemented in order to ensure that the strategic targets of the Institutional Strategy are met, which in turn guarantees an improvement in the study conditions and teaching quality. This system allows the faculties to strategically develop and raise the profile of their degree programs and check that sustainability aspects are integrated into degree programs and modules during regularly scheduled evaluations.
Furthermore, by creating the Center for Teaching and Learning Services (CLS), RWTH has established permanent structures where a wide range of services can be pooled to provide academic institutions and employees with the best possible support so they can design courses with an eye to the future, raise the skill levels of teaching staff, and develop innovative teaching, learning, and examination concepts. The various products and services offered by Excellent Academic Teaching (ExAcT), Media for Teaching (MfL), the Learning Platform Management (LPM), the Self-Assessment (SAM), the Aachen Mentoring Model (AMM), and the Student Lifecycle Support (SLB) are closely coordinated, interconnected, and have been designed in close collaboration.
Sustainability is a permanently integrated feature of our teaching strategy. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) offers a starting point here to incorporate sustainability into university teaching even more. In order to specifically address this issue at RWTH, we established the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) Hub as part of our proposal in the Universities of Excellence competition. The RRI Hub is part of Measure 5 (“Collaborate in Living Labs”) of the Excellence Strategy. As a driving force and platform for joint action and to help us fulfill our responsibility to society in our role as a University of Excellence, the RRI Hub promotes the societal and sustainable alignment of research, innovation, and teaching at RWTH at the interface of science and society.
Social responsibility is a central element of RWTH’s teaching strategy in the areas of research, teaching, and innovation. Instructors are therefore urged to embed the issue of sustainability in their respective courses in a topic-specific manner.
In order to live up to its responsibility, RWTH encourages the recent activities to embed sustainability in teaching even more solidly at both a structural and an operational level. On the one hand, this includes supporting or providing incentives for structural developments such as in the Sustainability in Civil Engineering professorship, which was established with the support of the Strategy Fund. Another incentive structure is the Special Teaching Award for Sustainability.
On the other hand, internal processes are also continually reviewed and improved with regard to sustainability. This includes integrating sustainability figures and indicators into the quality management system for teaching, as well as into standard (student) surveys such as the course evaluations. Each periodic review of a degree program thus checks to which extent transferable skills are integrated into the program and how economic, social, ethical, political, environmental, intercultural, and gender-related issues are handled. They also analyze which courses motivate students to accept social responsibility and thus have a positive effect on society. The issue of sustainability is furthermore taken into account in the introduction of new degree programs and in communicating information to prospective students.
The clear relevance of sustainability means it is a regular topic in cross-university teaching committees and events, and is also communicated beyond these areas in order to promote visibility and networking.
All degree programs at RWTH are geared toward making a valuable contribution to society, with some programs explicitly dealing with the concept of sustainability in a holistic manner. Various discipline-specific modules such as Sustainable Management, Environmental Protection and Sustainability – a Behavioristic Perspective, or Sustainable Value Creation Networks, offer students the opportunity to specifically focus on sustainability. Sustainability aspects are also playing an increasing or even defining role in a growing number of degree programs.
ESD focuses not only on sustainability in university teaching, but also on ways in which universities can influence society and how ideas and knowledge are exchanged with external bodies with regard to this topic. Section Society - Internationalization - Social Initiatives looks at the possible features and design of this type of transfer from universities with regard to sustainable development.
The number of degree programs with a link to sustainability was recorded in spring 2021 in a survey conducted within the University – Sustainable Courses of Study. This survey was not based on any strict criteria, and the results are not representative and do not offer any comparability between the faculties or other universities.
With this request for the faculties to assess their educational offerings, RWTH aimed to get them to reflect on how sustainability aspects could be integrated in teaching and learning in all faculties. This also provided an initial impression of the content-related strengths, which created a solid basis for discussions relating to the future strategic development and more sustainable orientation.
The survey made it clear that courses of study at RWTH primarily address the environmental sustainability perspective, in particular through topics such as clean energy and climate-protection measures. An overview of the degree programs with integrated sustainability aspects that were recorded in the survey can be found online.
As the largest university group, students play a major part here, and they are also essential driving forces: whether in pushing for more integration of sustainability issues in teaching and learning or for sustainable campus operations. Their dedication plays a decisive role in the shaping of the University and the City of Aachen.
The sustainability initiatives at RWTH focus on a wide range of topics and tackle all three dimensions of sustainability. Students are engaged in founding charitable start-ups, or devote themselves to children’s rights, educational equality, diversity, renewable energies, health, environmentally friendly mobility, waste prevention and disposal, and the networking of initiatives in the field of sustainability. The commitment of these initiatives helps raise awareness of the issues among students and motivates them to reflect on their own actions and to strive for a fair and sustainable society.
Their work is supported by the Students' Committee (AStA) – the University-wide advocacy group for all students at RWTH.
Elections are held every year in the Student Parliament, making the representative student body an integral part of the University. As part of this role, the representative student body has embedded the topic of sustainability in its charter as a central area of development for the University and has set up a Department for Sustainability and Student Engagement in the AStA Students’ Committee.
The department provides interested parties with a direct point of contact and, by implementing sustainability-related projects, promotes awareness of and engagement with this topic among students and all other members of the University. The aim is to align everyday university life of students and all other members of the University with the issue of sustainability. Together with student initiatives and associations, AStA initiates projects on topics such as vegetarian and vegan nutrition, sustainable event management, and waste avoidance.
In regular sustainability weeks, interactive workshops and presentations in cooperation with the initiatives encourage discourse among students on the topic of sustainability. There are also projects relating to a more sustainable campus design, with the aim of promoting social interaction, participation, and wellbeing on campus. These include greening projects at Humboldt Haus and the creation of a campus garden. In a centrally-located open space, raised beds have been set up and have since been maintained by students. The greening projects are implemented and planned in collaboration with the grounds maintenance team and the Office for Assistance and Support with Student Initiatives at the University.
As part of the Fairtrade University project, AStA works with the Sustainability and University Governance Staff Unit to ensure that fair trade is more firmly embedded at RWTH, such as by expanding the range of fairly traded food products available on campus. As well as organizing events, these groups also have regular discussions with other Aachen universities and the steering group for Fairtrade City Aachen.
The staff unit regularly meets with representatives from the students sustainability initiatives in the Sustainability Round Table. Current developments, projects, and initiatives are presented and inspiration, ideas, and opportunities for collaboration discussed.