Decarbonising the Computing Science curriculum

Decarbonising the Computing Science curriculum

In this post I’d like to explain how we have embedded sustainability and decarbonisation learning outcomes in our undergradudate Computing Science and Software Engineering degree programmes.

The ambitious goal

I am a professor in the School of Computing Science of the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. In 2021, I started the Low Carbon and Sustainable Computing research activity in our School (Glasgow has Schools and Colleges where other univs have Departments and Faculties). One of my aims is to get sustainability and decarbonisation learning outcomes embedded in all degree programmes of the University.

Our students are the generation that will be affected strongly by climate change. Therefore, they should learn about the need for decarbonisation, sustainability and sustainable development, the reasons for the current crisis and the ways in which change can be achieved. Through the curriculum, students should be equipped with knowledge, skills, attributes and values to act in their personal and professional lives, spread awareness and help create systemic solutions.

The current state of affairs

From next academic year (2024-25), all undergradudate degree programmes in Computing Science and Software Engineering will have sustainability and decarbonisation learning outcomes embedded in such a way that they must be assessed, in other words teaching sustainability is now a non-optional part of these programmes. I think this is a success, even though there is a long way to go yet.

The approach

In 2022 I wrote a position paper on the need to embed sustainability and decarbonisation in our programmes, and shared it with some key people. My key point was that to realise this goal, Schools needed dedicated support. A lot of academics are willing to teach about sustainability and decarbonisation, but they don’t know where to start and are usually overworked as well. So I proposed to create a new role, that of “Sustainability Subject Advisor”. This person would have the know-how and the time to advise staff on embedding Sustainability and Decarbonisation in their courses and programmes. (The terminology was the subject of much debate, every single word of it — such is academia. Also, it turned out that, while “sustainability” is not controversial, the term “decarbonisation” can be).

The Vice-Principal for Learning and Teaching agreed to sponsor a grassroots initiative in my College. I would have preferred if the University Learning and Teaching Committee had agreed to approve the role at universit level, but at least it meant I had the authority to push for the creation of this new role in my College. The Dean for Learning and Teaching of the College championed the proposal in the College Senior Management Committee, which is made up of all Heads of School. So the role became official in every School.

The implementation

So we went ahead. The Sustainability Subject Advisor my colleague Dr. Lauritz Thamsen and I analysed the programmes and created programme-level Aims and Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs), which are the core of a programme specification. It is tempting to simply create a new course that will meet the aims, but our experience with other topics such as ethics etc has been that this does not work well, as students consider it “not real computing”. Also, in the Glasgow BSc Honours degrees, 1st and 2nd year do not count towards the degree classification, so our choice was to embed the material throughout the programme in existing courses, and preferentially in 3rd-year ones.

As agreed with the VP, we started with a pilot programme. We analysed the courses and identified suitable courses with coordinators that were willing to support the initiative, and worked with them to define the sustainability Aims and ILOs. When we got approval for the pilot programme (a lengthy process), we repeated the exercise for all our undergraduate programmes. Because they share a common core of mandatory courses, in the end the number of courses with additional sustainability Aims and ILOs was small. Last month, we obtained approval for all these changes, so they can now be rolled out.

This focus on relatively few courses does not mean that we only teach sustainability in those courses. But in those selected courses, these learning outcomes are not optional, so the material must be taught and assessed, whereas in the other courses, it is optional. In this way we ensure that teaching of sustainability is embedded as an essential component of the programmes.

Lessons learned

What we have learned from this initiative is that having a dedicated person like our Sustainability Subject Advisors is a necessary requirement; another key requirement is buy-in from the local stakeholders (lecturers and members of the teaching committee) for the required change. Once you have the buy-in, people will help you to achieve the change. However, to extend this initiative to the whole university, buy-in from high-level management is required, because that is what is needed to ensure that the role can be created in every School in the university, and that the Heads of School will support the initiative locally.

What’s next

I intend to keep working on two fronts: one, to keep on trying to get sustainability embedded in Glasgow’s degree programmes, first in our College, then more widely; and the other, to try and convince departments at other universities to follow suit, by giving talks, and writing articles like this one. So if you’d like me to give a talk to your department on this, please get in touch.