Imagining our world anew: Ruskin modules and Sustainable Development Goals

Victoria Tait

Faculty: Science and Engineering
Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

4 June 2021

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Anyone who has attended one of the Ruskin module CPD sessions I am running on the UN Sustainable Development Goals will recognise this quote from Indian activist and author, Arundhati Roy. Roy’s writings have always inspired me, but this quote felt particularly relevant in the context of the Ruskin modules. In the CPD sessions, I suggest that innovative approaches to learning and teaching, such as the Ruskin modules, have the potential to help us ‘imagine our world anew’, as Roy so eloquently puts it. We are facing a series of interconnected and complex challenges, and our current focus on siloed thinking and competition has so far proved inadequate in tackling these challenges. Instead, the creation of sustainable futures for all requires us to think in new ways, focusing on collaboration and systemic connections across and between disciplines; these principles are at the heart of ARU’s new Ruskin modules.

What role do the SDGs play in all this?

Interdisciplinarity is central to the Ruskin modules, but so too is the focus on real-world, authentic learning. This is where the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) come in. The SDGs are 17 Goals that 193 countries around the world, including the UK, have pledged to achieve by 2030. The Goals represent the world’s biggest challenges and include issues such as Climate Action (SDG13) and Gender Equality (SDG5).

The Goals reflect the fact that we have more data and information about the world’s problems than at any point in human history. To support colleagues to think about how their Ruskin Modules could be framed by the SDGs, I created a few mini ‘taster’ modules based on some of the global challenges we face. Research shows that Non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, respiratory diseases, and heart disease, are the number one cause of death in the world. These diseases are influenced by lifestyle and environmental factors, including air pollution and obesity. In response to this, I created a taster module which takes as its starting point SDG 3 - Good Health and Wellbeing and asks, ‘Is prevention better than a cure?’.

Through participation in this hypothetical module, students studying on courses such as Public Health, Town Planning, and Sport and Exercise Sciences, could work together, drawing on their disciplinary expertise, to explore how we increase equality of access to the green and blue spaces that are crucial for our mental health and physical wellbeing (SDG 5, 9, 10, 11). Students studying on courses such as Zoology and Nursing could draw on their disciplinary knowledge to think about what we eat, where our food comes from, and how we dispose of it (SDG 1, 2, 4, 12). The types of solutions they come up with are likely to also have an impact on carbon emissions and biodiversity loss (SDG 13, 14, 15) given that agriculture is the most wide-spread cause of land-use change in the world. By bringing together students from a variety of disciplines, the Ruskin modules offer a unique opportunity to conceptualise the world’s problems and their solutions in new and creative ways, whilst also meaningfully preparing our students for the world of work.

What are other organisations doing to meet the SDGs?

ARU isn’t the only institution that is thinking about the SDGs. Companies and education providers around the world are already taking steps to integrate them into their practices. One of the most prominent examples of this at an HE level is the Times Higher Education Impact rankings, which measures universities’ progress towards achieving the Goals. ARU entered the rankings for the first time this year and our results reflect the amazing work happening across the institution, and particularly in relation to SDG 3 where we were ranked second out of all participating institutions in the UK, and 36th worldwide.

If you would like to find out more about ARU’s work on sustainability or the SDGs, please feel free to get in touch:

1. ARU’s Global Sustainability Institute have in fact recently come up with 5 scenarios exploring what food systems of the future might look like, which you can watch here and read about here.


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