Creative and critical inquiry leads change: the Sustainability Integration Program for Students (SIPS)

The University of Tasmania Sustainability Integration Program for Students (SIPS) is a best-practice example of place-based student engagement and sustainability education in the tertiary education sector. Since 2010, the program has involved thousands of students in real-world sustainability challenges and created opportunities for student leadership. SIPS provides meaningful, authentic learning experiences for students via the collaborative design of focused learning programs that address on-campus operational priorities.

To date, 203 projects have involved over 2,235 students and 104 staff from 12 academic and professional areas and all Tasmanian campuses. Students undertaking curricular and co-curricular research projects have delivered significant measurable sustainability improvements to campus life, services and infrastructure. The program provides engaging student experiences by inviting and guiding participation in real-life challenges. Through SIPS, students take advantage of, or create their own, opportunities to further develop and use their disciplinary skills to highlight the positive sustainability impacts of their learning.

>  The initiative

As the only university on the island state of Tasmania, known for both its scientific and arts communities, the University of Tasmania (UTAS) has an important role in exploring and addressing sustainability challenges. Our Sustainability Integration Program for Students (SIPS) exemplifies sustainability in action through student and staff engagement and partnership at UTAS and in our communities.

Previously known as Academic Operations Sustainability Integration Program (AOSIP), SIPS is celebrating its tenth anniversary. For over ten years, SIPS has provided an empowering vehicle for both staff and students to engage in best practice in sustainability higher education. SIPS links operational sustainability outcomes with student education and experience, with two key aims. First, it provides valuable opportunities for students to apply their learning to real-world sustainability challenges (to be paid or gain course credit while doing so). Second, it assists UTAS to deliver positive impacts and to demonstrate leadership as a sustainable university. Uniquely, SIPS fuses interdisciplinary academic inquiry, valuing diverse expertise and passion, and a culture of continued learning to address complex sustainability challenges that allowes our students to make meaningful sustainability contributions.

SIPS is designed to meet strategic sustainability objectives for the University, while valuing the skills and passions of the participant students. Some examples include: a student with media experience coordinated the University’s ‘Sustainability @ UTAS’ podcast series; a marine ecology student with a passion for science communication created a marine Biodiversity Discovery Trail; another keen on composting researched University cafes’ food waste; and a passion for biodiversity citizen science led to creation of a Natural Values Scavenger Hunt Game.

Focusing on the university experience as a living lab, UTAS enables on-campus research and learning opportunities for a diverse range of students (and staff) able to be part of the program. In collaboration with academic and professional staff from across UTAS, SIPS provides students with mentoring, support and opportunity to bring their passions to life through leading tangible projects. Beyond staff support, these passionate students are not working alone. They are part of a team of students comprising paid interns, students studying for course credit and research candidates, as well as an increasing number of students participating in societies and clubs as collaborators, all bringing together expertise and skills from different areas of the University.

Opportunities for students: There are several different engagement avenues for students through SIPS:

  • An annual, competitive application round for paid student internships and fellowships. Internships are between 30-70 hours over one semester, depending on the students’ course requirements. Students who have completed an internship or placement with SIPS are then eligible to apply for a 70-140 hour fellowship over one to two semesters.
  • Students who enrol in a placement unit within their College can apply to conduct their placement with the Sustainability Team. Placements are designed to enable students to practice discipline specific skills in their project. Placements are offered through the College of Business and Economics (CoBE) Corporate Internship Program, the College of Science and Engineering (CoSE) Masters of Planning Professional Placement, and the College of Arts, Law and Education (CALE) Social Work Placement. Depending on the unit, placement hours range from 80-300 over one semester.
  • Students enrolled in a sustainability focused unit such as Environmental Management, Information and Communication Technology Project Unit or Design Thinking can undertake a group project in-class. The projects are scoped by the Sustainability Team and the Unit Coordinators, and the students are mentored by their Unit Coordinator.
  • SIPS provides a formal opportunity for Higher Degree Research (HDR) candidates including Honours, Masters and PhD candidates to be co-hosted by, and work collaboratively with, University operations. The collaborative approach to project design ensures that activities meet UTAS strategic needs, that data and resources are available and accessible within the students’ timeframes, and that the project is a positive experience and has meaningful outcomes for both students and mentors. Well considered project design and management is crucial to the ongoing success of the program and is demonstrated in the ongoing funding the program has received.

SIPS fosters interdisciplinarity by bringing together students from different backgrounds to work on the same challenge. For example, to support drafting the 2021 University sustainable food principles, ten SIPS projects in 2020-21 have been completed by eight individual students, one in-class project and two group projects each with six students:

Paid internships Curricular placements and in-class projects
Masters of Planning student – interview proponents and map current food gardens on each Tasmanian campus Environmental Management students – food gardens on campus
>Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture PhD candidate – create a foodscape map of the Newnham campus PhD candidate – community-based participatory action research for food justice for students at UTAS
Bachelor of Natural and Wilderness student – draft an emergency food relief guide for students Social work placement group – design student led focus groups exploring students’ food insecurity
Bachelor of Health and Nutrition student – internationally benchmark university food strategies to support drafting the University’s first ‘Food on campus strategy’ Social work placement group – pilot ‘food on campus’ survey toolkit for Deakin University
Masters of Social Work students – benchmarked vegetable box programs for students at UTAS and other Australian and New Zealand universities Social work research placement – map community food gardens and the role of student social workers and student volunteers in food gardens on and off campus

Concurrent to several students contributing to one theme area, there are a diversity of projects completed across sustainability themes each semester. Projects in 2021, for instance, align with eight theme areas: 1) reducing waste to landfill, 2) biodiversity citizen science, 3) food insecurity, 4) climate change resilience, 5) student sustainability governance, 6) energy management, 7) active transport, and 8) equity and diversity. Feedback received from a staff member attending the most recent SIPS presentations: “I really enjoyed the breadth of diversity of projects that were presented”.

Opportunities for staff mentoring: Valuing the professional expertise of staff mentors from the Division of the Chief Operating Officer (COO) has expanded the range of projects and the number of staff who are either directly mentoring projects or providing data and resources compared to a few years ago. Within the COO Division, staff from the following areas have mentored student projects: Infrastructure, Services and Development (Campus Services Executive Office, Energy Management, Safety and Security, Residential and Accommodation Services, Waste Management and Sustainability), Procurement, IT Services, Finance and Legal. Examples of the range of COO staff mentored projects include: food insecurity for students at the University of Tasmania as covered above; a survey with staff of sources of single-use plastics on campus; a Masters thesis on organic food waste; energy and waste audits; night lighting for safety and security; IT laptop donation program; bike locker management; benchmarking Modern Slavery statements; and sustainable procurement.

Challenge response: The structure of SIPS allows UTAS to efficiently and effectively respond to new challenges affecting students as they arise. For example:

  • A SIPS student worked with the Procurement team to benchmark for the University’s Modern Slavery statement.
  • When research into UTAS students’ experience of food insecurity undertaken prior to COVID-19 lockdowns demonstrated higher rates of insecurity than expected, a SIPS student researched and wrote a guide for students in Tasmania to access emergency food relief. The guide has been widely shared by community groups across the state.
  • UTAS was chosen as the pilot university for Deakin University’s inaugural ‘food on campus’ survey tool in 2020 as we were able to involve six SIPS students to pilot the tool on Northern and Southern campuses.
  • SIPS students were involved in energy auditing and assessing PV solar capacity on campus for the TUU Repower project.

Strategic Contributions: Completed SIPS projects to date have contributed to strategic decision making for sustainability policies, resource allocations, infrastructure provision and operational activities. Accordingly, SIPS students and mentors have significantly contributed to UTAS strategic direction and governance of sustainability. Some examples are:

  • Student vision for a carbon neutral UTAS, with strong society support, and holding major public event on campus
  • Data collection and analysis for the biannual Travel Behaviour Survey contributing to the Sustainable Transport Strategy
  • Data analysis of student responses to the biannual Sustainability Survey
  • Benchmarking research for the University’s Waste Minimisation Action Plan
  • Discussion Papers on Natural Environment and Water Management leading to a draft Natural Environment Action Plan
  • SIPS interns facilitate the UN SDG Tasmania network, a network of now over 100 Tasmanian organisations
  • SIPS students contribute to and participate in the several Sustainability Committee working groups, including: Plastics Minimisation, Education for Sustainability (EfS) Community of Practice, Students for Sustainability.

Students and staff demonstrate strong leadership and advocacy and are regularly acknowledged with awards including the UTAS Vice Chancellors’ Leadership Award and several Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS) Student Excellence Awards and Green Impact Australasian Student Champion Awards over the past few years.

Quantitative Measurement: SIPS is one of the top three most popular paid student jobs on campus, all of which receive equivalent application numbers. SIPS received 141 applications in 2020 for 19 positions available in 2021.

SIPS students have consistently provided positive feedback about their experience at the end of their projects:

  • 97% enjoyed their SIPS experience and 98.4% would recommend SIPS to others
  • 98.5% either strongly agree or agree that they felt supported by supervisors
  • 82.6% either strongly agree or agree that they felt like a valuable member of a team
  • 85.7% strongly agree or agree that they would be able to apply skills learned at University and the same proportion believe the experience will help them to get a job.

Qualitative Measurement: SIPS students and mentors have consistently provided positive feedback about their experiences. In feedback on the program, students identified benefits including the opportunity for networking, flexibility, feeling supported, meaningfulness of the project, and learning new skills and knowledge. A selection of quotes is provided below for student responses when asked what they enjoyed most about the SIPS experience:

  • “(…) I got to learn a lot about sustainability at UTAS and all of the stuff going on behind the scenes (…). I got to connect with students and the student sustainability community. (…) I loved that I had independence in my project but support whenever I needed it. I also loved how I got to create an event which brought the UTAS community together.”
  • (…) Not only did I have my supervisor, but I also was able to receive feedback from two economics lecturers, a corporate finance analyst from Hydro, and various people at the University who were specialists in the University’s electricity, or sustainability matters. I asked each of them throughout the project for help and found it really useful.”
  • “(…) the internship really pushed me and I feel much more prepared to enter the professional engineering world.”
  • “The best part about the internship was getting to work with the incredible team at SIPS and really get to do something meaningful on campus. I also loved that it opened my eyes to sustainability and taught me numerous life lessons (…).”

UTAS senior management have also noted the positive value in direct feedback and in in emails. Reviewing the work of an engineering student who assessed the solar energy capacity of UTAS properties contributing to the student union’s move to 100% on-site renewable power, Executive Director for Infrastructure Services and Development Mike Hunnibell said: “we are very happy with the quality of the student’s work, it is exemplary.” After attending the semester 1, 2021 SIPS presentations, Mike Hunnibell provided feedback to say that “all presentations were directly linked to our work environment. The level of knowledge, motivation and ownership demonstrated by all SIPS students was impressive.”

>  Environmental and social benefits

Environmental benefits: Many SIPS projects have direct or indirect environmental and operational benefits, including resource efficiency (e.g., energy, water and waste), better data collection to help to identify problematic areas and sustainability opportunities (e.g., mobile apps tailored for UTAS data collection), and infrastructure design (e.g., bike hubs). SIPS projects have also involved on-campus biodiversity, such as developing the Natural Values Scavenger Game and Biodiversity Discovery Trail, and running the first UTAS BioBlitz on campus which identified 178 species.

Skills and leadership: SIPS students benefit from the opportunity to: i) practice discipline specific skills on projects they are passionate about, ii) make a tangible impact to sustainability outcomes, iii) experience leadership and change in action within their degree lifespan, and iv) network within and beyond UTAS. For example, one of the students provided feedback that they “(…) learned how to bring an idea from concept to action with the help of the team.”

Diversity and inclusion: Diversity and inclusion is at the heart of SIPS design. Through SIPS, students designed multi-lingual posters on campus (e.g., for  waste bin signage and sustainability posters). In 2021, a SIPS student translated the virtual sustainability tour into Arabic, to encourage students to explore the campus in their first language and discuss the meaning and translation of sustainability as a concept as well as sustainable features on campus.

>  Leadership and engagement

The most distinctive feature of SIPS is its scale and diversity. The program has continually supported thousands of students to meaningfully engage with sustainability in a manner that complements their academic learning and prepares them for implementing sustainability in their lives and future workplaces. Further, SIPS has involved hundreds of staff across academic and professional areas, facilitating personal and professional growth. In its absence, the same opportunities for students and staff to be engaged in progressing sustainability at the University in such an impactful way would not exist.

Another distinctive feature of SIPS is its impact on sustainability outcomes across the University. Results of SIPS projects genuinely inform operational practices across the University. For example, a recent SIPS project analysing waste data in residential accommodation on-campus has led to a collaborative initiative involving Heads of Residential Living to target waste reduction and divert waste from landfill during student move-in and move-out of accommodation.

SIPS is also distinctive in its design. Sustainability is a dynamic endeavour and requires the program to be flexible and responsive to institutional needs and student interests. Program outcomes are reviewed quarterly by the University Sustainability Committee, with collaborative feedback and evaluation used to strengthen the program pedagogically and operationally. Further, Sustainability staff assess and report on each specific project, analysing the delivery of unique and engagement student learning experiences and the achievement of sustainability outcomes.

The significance of the program for the University is its capacity to achieve measurable progress on sustainability outcomes on a comparatively small budget. Primary resources include staff time and costs associated with paid internships. The return on investment is substantial when considering gains in staff and student knowledge, changes in sustainability behaviours and practices, and the contributions of project findings to operational sustainability and capital works projects.

The success of SIPS as a transformational sustainability program has been recognised by various accolades including the UTAS Vice Chancellor’s Award for Programs that Enhance Learning (2013); the ACTS Award of Excellence (2013); the GGAA Facilities and Services (2014); and the Australian Bicycle Achievement Award (2013). SIPS also contributed to two GGAA highly commended awards: Teaching and Learning (2013) and Continuous Improvement/ Institutional Change (2012). A 2015 Commonwealth Office of Learning and Teaching award for Programs that Enhance Learning topped these off and led to additional support for program expansion and wider recognition of the program both within UTAS and the sector.

>  Wider societal impact

In 2020, SIPS extended its reach beyond on-campus sustainability outcomes when external funding was received for two student-led projects. A SIPS student now facilitates the Tasmanian UN SDG Network. The Network involves a bi-monthly event with a guest speaker and a newsletter with over 100 organisations in Tasmania on the mailing list. The second project has involved mapping of Local Government sustainability policies and strategies, to review alignment with the University’s own sustainability policy and plans.

Top 3 learnings
  • Dream big and design for collaboration, bring disciplines, professional-academic staff, industry, alumni and students together.

  • Value inclusion, diversity and differences. We are all learning and everyone is needed in sustainability.

  • Celebrate learning in place, it brings creativity and critical inquiry to complex challenges.

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