Staff from the Faculty of Sciences are working on educational quality assurance: feedback from students has led to a new learning track

(21-06-2021) Efforts to improve the quality of our education are ongoing. We must therefore be critical of our educational practice and spot opportunities for improvement.

In this series of stories, staff members of Ghent University talk about how this has been achieved. How can a programme strengthen the quality of education? Today: how student feedback has led to a new learning track focused on sustainability.

Geology and sustainability are inextricably linked, yet this academic year was the first time that sustainability was specifically highlighted in the Geology programme, with a new learning pathway on geology and sustainability.

One of the people behind the initiative is professor Stephen Louwye, also chair of the Study Programme Committee: “The sustainability aspect is certainly inherent to geology: a geologist searches for minerals, groundwater, alternative energy supplies, ... That’s our core business and it’s covered in various courses during the programme. However, there was no specific mention of ‘sustainability’.

In fact, it was the students who ended up getting the ball rolling: “The peerleer moment in May 2018 and student feedback on the programme revealed that there were plenty of opportunities to crystalise aspects relating to sustainability. Visibility was lacking. This feedback gave us a push in the right direction.” 

Gathering credits

Stephen Louwye (faculteit Wetenschappen)The Study Programme Committee wasted no time and soon launched a plan of action. Stephen Louwye: “In the Study Programme Committee, we discussed how we were keen to make sustainability more visible in the bachelor programme. You are limited to 180 credits, so if you introduce a course worth 4 credits, you have to cut back in other courses. We created room by offering a few as elective course units. In December 2019, we submitted an amended programme, which can automatically only apply in the next academic year. In the space of two years, we have considered and implemented the entire course.” 


Stijn Dewaele (faculteit Wetenschappen)Professor Stijn Dewaele was the one who shaped the new learning track. “I contacted other faculties to find out how they interpret and integrate sustainability. At Ghent University we also have the Centre of Sustainable Development, which has published a book on Sustainable Development Teaching, among other things. Furthermore, we attended some workshops on sustainability. After this immersion, it was up to me to apply all the input to our programme.” 

A new component in this learning track is the mandatory course ‘geology and sustainability’ in the third bachelor year. This complements other aspects on sustainable philosophy which are covered in other components throughout the programme. 

Students who acquire a taste for it can still choose a number of elective course units in the Master’s programme, such as ‘sustainability vision’, as a university-wide elective course unit, or ‘political issues in sustainability’.

Holistic approach

Something striking is the approach by four tutors in the new obligatory course. Stephen Louwye: “We teach the course together with our colleagues David Van Rooij and Thomas Hermans. This is a conscious decision. After all, each geologist has his or her own expertise. In this way, students can immediately see a wide range of perspectives. By adding a focus on the social and political-economic aspects you achieve a more holistic approach to the matter of sustainability. The third bachelor year is the ideal moment to choose such an approach.”

“The students already need a scientific foundation and some maturity to look beyond the boundaries of geology. By definition, a geologist naturally considers the world from many angles. However, in the first two years of the bachelor, the focus on scientific subjects is necessary to develop a proper basis to learn to think like a geologist,” according to Stijn Dewaele.

“As a geologist, you are involved in science and the new course makes students consider the context surrounding such science. Broadening your mind as a scientist is something I really like about this course and for me that is also the biggest bonus. Also, they are bound to be confronted with sustainability issues later on in their career.”

Faith in young people

It is still too early to evaluate this new approach to sustainability, however, Stephen Louwye and Stijn Dewaele are enthusiastic. Stephen Louwye: “We need to wait for the official course feedback from students, but I’ve already asked their opinion unofficially. They were all enthusiastic. I didn’t see a single eye roll (laughs). Stijn and I were also delighted with the level of their papers and presentations.”

“Not only that, I was pleased with the level of discussion in the final round of the group work. They were really engaged and involved in the story. I have faith in the future having seen these students at work”, says Stijn Dewaele.

New course? Go for active education

For the new course, tutors specifically chose an approach with active tools in a context of blended learning. Their intention? More focus on interaction, discussion and involvement. Stijn Dewaele explains why: “Scientists are sometimes less inclined to defend their point of view. With our interactive approach we wish to challenge the students to learn to weigh up the social debate. This explains the course’s dynamic structure: we provide the topic and the information required in developing it. Then, we set to work in groups. Then we come together again for feedback and discussion. It took our students a while to become accustomed to such freedom, but in a third  bachelor year, I think it’s fine to give them an extra challenge.”

Stephen Louwye: “We take them out of their comfort zone by expecting greater empowerment. We want them to learn how to form and express their own opinion, as if they must explain a geological problem in a debate, in order to transfer their knowledge to a wide audience in a socially responsible manner. That’s important, in my opinion.”

Keen to learn more about active education or the ACTIVO project at Ghent University? Read more via this link. 
Who is Stephen Louwye (Faculty of Sciences)?

As a full professor, I belong to the Research group paleontology and paleo-environments and I work mainly with very recent (micro) fossils from the Neogene and Quarternary eras (approximately 23 million years ago until recent times).
Who is Stijn Dewaele (Faculty of Sciences)?

As a tutor, I am associated with the research group Mineralogy and Petrology, where I conduct research into the mineralogical and geochemical properties of primary and secondary mineral resources, and the geological framework in which these raw materials were formed.

In recent years, Ghent University has taken the initiative to make e.g. its Campus Sterre greener and more attractive. Our department got involved by developing a Rock Garden. There is a path with various lumps of rock spread across the campus which the students can use to test their geology skills.