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Global problems, local actions: Leiden professors help teachers, students and citizens to engage with environmental issues

In 2021, Thijs Bosker and Paul Behrens — both Associate Professors in Environmental Sciences at Leiden University — received funding from the Leiden University Fund and the Gratama Foundation to develop tangible and practical exercises that help people to deal with environmental issues from a local perspective. Now, two years later, they've created a free online course and have reached over 1,000 students by incorporating their materials into existing courses. They tell us about the results so far and what's coming next.

What does your initiative aim to do?

Teachers often want to talk about challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss with their students but lack the time and confidence to integrate sustainability into their courses. Our project aims to make it easy for teachers to incorporate sustainability topics as part of their introductory courses.  

Why does this matter? 

The news is full of environmental crises: record breaking temperatures, tropical deforestation, forest fires, water shortages and plastic soups. The problems we face are overwhelming and even disempowering. For many there is a sense of defeatism and anxiety, especially among young people.  

 Yet, at a local level, changes are happening. Local cooperation and community norms often are capable of sustainably managing shared resources in the long term. It is vital that society move from ‘issue’ to ‘action’. By designing local actions and bringing them into the classroom, we can give people agency and ownership of environmental issues so that they feel empowered to make a difference. 

How are you making this happen? 

We're building a set of teaching tools to empower and educate learners and teachers. Students take local action on a sustainability issue and subsequently link this to concepts in different disciplines. For example, students do a plastic clean-up, get background on why this is an environmental issue, and link this to Psychology (framing) or Law (international treaties). Actions so far include a biodiversity stock take, a plastic cleanup, and climate conversations. 


Leiden University students and employees at a beach clean-up organised to mark the launch of the MOOC created by Thijs Bosker and Paul Behrens. Photo credit: Lidia E. Lewczuk.

What impact have you had so far?  

We have incorporated our Local Actions into several courses, reaching over 1000 students. The feedback has been very positive! Students were excited to do something hands-on and to subsequently link this to content during seminars.  

We've also been working with experts to identify links between environmental issues and key concepts within first-year foundational courses commonly taught at universities. Researchers from International Law, Psychology, Media Studies, and Communication Studies were invited to collaborate on producing easy to access materials.  

As a foundation for this work, we've used the background videos we created for a Massive Open Online Course: The Great Sustainability Transition (created with the help of the Leiden Learning & Innovation Centre and available on FutureLearn and Coursera). This MOOC covers the major sustainability challenges the world faces and provides the science behind these challenges. The MOOC has already been followed by thousands of global learners. 

Great Sustainability Transition: Global Challenges and Local Actions

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What's next?  

Our next step is to launch modular lesson plans in collaboration with experts from different disciplines. Lesson modules, background video content, and practical exercises will be provided to teachers, making it easy for busy instructors to incorporate sustainability into their own disciplines. These will be made freely available for teachers worldwide, to make it as easy as possible for them to include sustainability topics in their courses.  

Want to know more?

Please contact Thijs Bosker and Paul Behrens for information about the Local Actions project, and Tanja de Bie for information on Leiden University MOOCs. 

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