To foster a sustainability mindset among its students, HKUST is expanding its sustainability course offerings to equip them with the knowledge, understanding, and skills needed to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Having recently won the HKUST Common Core Teaching Excellence Award for Introduction to Sustainability (SUST1000), Prof. Arthur LAU Pui-Sang, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Education, explained to HKUST Year 1 Business student Esther LEE during an interview why sustainability education is so vital and how he and his team are making Sustainability such a stimulating subject.
E: Esther Lee
A: Prof. Arthur Lau
“Diversity meets diversity”
E: Congratulations on your recent Teaching Excellence Award! Friends of mine who’ve studied Sustainability with you tell me how fascinating it was. How did you manage to make such a seemingly dry subject so interesting and inspiring?
A: Thank you! Our students have also told us that the course earned lots of good comments on the “HKUST Secrets” Facebook page. Because the effects of Sustainability are becoming more and more apparent all around us, I like to normally start lessons with a real-life example. Take the T-shirt you’re wearing. It’s more than just an item of clothing that expresses your personality. It’s an accumulation of raw materials, production, sales and disposal processes that ultimately have enormous implications for both society and the environment.
HKUST launched its Sustainability course in 2016. When I took over its running in 2018, we re-engineered the topic with a bold new goal: “Diversity meets diversity.” We have now achieved a diverse profile of students from all Schools and examined a wide range of topics spanning the full spectrum of water usage and waste problems.
“Engaging students is tough!”
E: With each lesson lasting three hours, is it hard keeping students engaged?
A: It certainly is. The secret of good teaching is connecting with your students. Most of our classroom sessions are devoted to activities and discussions that will inspire everyone to be more creative when thinking about Sustainability. Water audits are an excellent example. Before the pandemic when everyone still studied on campus, we took our students to washrooms to measure just how much water was wasted as a result of infrared-sensing taps’ time lapses. The test results were subsequently shared with our University’s Campus Management Office with a view to resolving the problem. Knowing that their actions were likely to bring about meaningful changes, students became very highly motivated.
When classes moved online, we modified this activity and began auditing home shower water usage. Participants were amazed to learn that a 12-minute shower used up 100 to 144 liters of water!
In investigating climate change, we organized a mock United Nations conference with students developing and stating evidence-based cases for different countries to their classmates and teaching staff. After researching their assigned countries’ carbon peak usage and carbon neutral future plans, everyone came away with an excellent grasp of different policy tools and their pros and cons.
Many students’ end of year reflection papers note how astonished they were by how fast our three-hour classes flew by.
"A recognition for our team"
E: How did it feel to be awarded the Common Core Teaching Excellence Award?
A: The award is a wonderful validation of my team’s efforts in making Sustainability so relevant. In all, we have six instructors from different Schools teaching seven sessions. To ensure such diverse input is cohesive, everyone attends a two-hour pre-meeting to discuss each week’s teaching materials and activities in advance. By first testing theories and concepts amongst ourselves, we ensure students from every background will have no problem understanding the lessons we are trying to teach them.
“It’s who you are, not what major you study”
E: After teaching at HKUST for 11 years, what are the best tips you can give to your students?
A: I’ve always encouraged students to break out of their comfort zone and try something new. I believe what defines us is who we are, not what major we study, so we all must keep trying! Ultimately, by clearing up uncertainties, failure can sometimes be the best teacher of them all!
I then went on to ask myself: If I don’t practice what I preach by stepping out of my own comfort zone, how can I convince my students to take that leap for themselves? So in 2018 – the same year I took over this course – I joined Oxfam Trailwalker. I was so happy that I managed to complete the whole race the following year, for which I set myself a much faster finishing time. While the 2020 event was cancelled because of COVID, I did take part in the virtual replacement race and achieved another personal best!