Co-op students can play a bigger role in advancing United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

Friday, November 19, 2021

By: Namish Modi

Higher education institutions are looking to be allies for change and to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through teaching, work-integrated learning, research and partnerships. 

Both the institutions and students play a vital role in taking on global challenges and ensuring a sustainable future.  

In work placements and internships across 12 countries, a new study found that 13 per cent of students from the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment carried out work related to the development goals, also known as SDGs. They include zero hunger, quality education, and clean water and sanitation. 

Universities can play a role in developing students who are ready to take on global challenges and bring those skills to the future workforce. Employers can play a key role in engaging students during a critical moment in their young careers. 

The study, “Improving engagement of interns and employers with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals”, was recently published in the International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning. University of Waterloo researchers found that further engagement of co-op students (or interns) with the SDGs is required for them to be true agents of change in maintaining a sustainable world.

Norah McRae, Associate Provost of CEE at the University of Waterloo infront of the Tatham Centre

Norah McRae
Associate Provost, Co-operative and Experiential Education
University of Waterloo

Waterloo’s co-operative education program, the largest in the world, facilitates more than 21,000 co-op terms annually of which more than 3,000 are completed internationally across about 60 countries. The study showed that co-op terms contributed more than $300 million in labour income and $567 million towards GDP in a year. Due to the sheer economic impact co-op students provide to organizations, there is adequate evidence to examine the ways they may be contributing to the SDGs.

“Our remarkable and talented students have the potential to play an instrumental role in ensuring a sustainable future for us all,” said Norah McRae, associate provost of Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) at Waterloo and co-author of the study. “It is imperative that we leverage our outstanding co-operative and experiential education programs to understand how we can further engage our students to work towards advancing the SDGs.”

McRae and co-author Shabnam Ivković, director of international strategic initiatives in CEE, assessed job descriptions, projects and responsibilities to determine relevance to the goals. The researchers collaborated with the University of Waterloo Sustainability Office, Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE) and Waterloo Global Science Initiatives (WGSI).

They considered factors like business model, stakeholders, organizational mission and student experience. To determine impact, Waterloo’s Sustainability Office used a qualitative approach while WISE and WGSI developed a rating system.

“Research indicates that there is a need to build further awareness of SDGs among employers and students,” Ivković said. “Our programs offer outstanding opportunities abroad, and we can use those opportunities to determine how students play a role in creating a more sustainable future.”   

As a result of the study, Waterloo put together a pilot program to further understand co-op student and employer perception of their engagement with the SDGs. Based on the approaches of the collaborators, the researchers implemented a self-guided exploration instrument in Spring 2021 across all international internships—whether done remotely or in-person abroad. Eventually, the goal is to extend the activity to domestic co-op terms.

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