Associate Provost, Co-operative and Experiential Education, Dr. Norah McRae (she/her) and Director of International Strategic Initiatives, Shabnam Ivković were awarded best paper at WACE’s 4th International Research Symposium on Cooperative and Work-Integrated Education in September, 2022. Their winning paper is titled Value and impact of an internship activity to increase awareness of and engagement with the UN’s SDGs.

The papers were evaluated for quality, empirical research and alignment with the theme of the symposium — contribution and expectations of co-operative and work-integrated education to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Describing a work-term activity in which students and employers engage in an SDG-awareness building activity, McRae and Ivković explored the efficacy of this activity in igniting action towards advancing the SDG targets in international work terms.

Norah and Shabnam holding award photo

While historically, co-op internships have been tightly associated with outcomes related to employability and economic benefits (Drewery, Pretti, et al., 2020; Pretti & McRae, 2021), current interest is in furthering the impact of these internships to include the goals stated in the SDGs. The desire is to graduate students who have the awareness, the skills and the motivations to tackle significant global challenges (Boden & Nedeva, 2010; OECD, n.d.; WEF, 2020; United Nations, 2015). As a society, there is urgent need for graduates who can apply themselves to these complex global challenges.

McRae & Ivković, p. 54, 2022

What is the SDG work-term activity?

Our Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) unit at the University of Waterloo provides a framework of questions for co-op students (interns) and their supervisors to begin a conversation about the company’s sustainability direction and contributions as well as to explore opportunities for the student to engage. The unit also offers two lunch-and-learn opportunities during the semester to connect employers and students with the institution and dive deeper into the activity. At the end of the term, we survey both students and employers and students can participate in an experience debrief and articulation workshop for future job search success.

The goal of the activity is to increase awareness of the SDGs and how organizations can help to advance the goals. The activity also aims to increase motivation for both student and supervisors to engage with the SDGs after the work-term is complete.

What are the results from the SDG activity?

Early survey results show both parties (students and employers) report increased awareness and motivation to engage with the SDGs beyond the activity. Students reported a desire to apply the SDGs in their future coursework, engage in campus activities and seek future SDG-related internships. The top outcomes reported by employer/supervisors, were the learning value of the activity, deeper engagement with their students and developing future SDG best practices for their organization.

Bar graph showing comparison of supervisor and intern pre and post activity of SDG awareness. The post awareness is larger in each comparison.

Key survey results:

  • There was a significant increase in awareness among both supervisors and students about the SDGs after completing the activity.
  • Students had a lower awareness than supervisors prior to the activity.

CEE takes the responsibility of increasing the awareness building and motivation in future-ready talent very seriously. By encouraging application of the SDGs to their work terms, students will gain the skills to:

  • advocate for and operationalize sustainable futures,
  • tackle significant global challenges at individual, organizational and systems levels; and
  • understand their larger purpose and connect it with their work and studies.

If you’re interested in learning more about the SDG work-term activity, you can read the full paper in the 4th WACE International Research Symposium Proceedings.