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Purpose This paper aims to determine whether high school students can become agents of change in their local communities by participating in a formal internship program implemented through a partnership between academia (high schools and universities), nonprofit organizations and key community stakeholders. Design/methodology/approach Pre- and post-assessments, activity journals and on-line interviews are used to measure the impact of internships on high school students’ sustainability leadership, using a train-the-trainer intervention led by university interns. A conceptual problem-solving framework is proposed and empirically tested to explore the linkages between complex problem constellations, sustainability transition strategies and sustainability visions. Findings The five core leadership competencies (systems thinking, strategic, anticipatory, normative and interpersonal) may not be as uniquely discrete as suggested in the literature. An effective learning experience depends on students’ developing competence in their ability to implement a strategic intervention, which is better acquired through hands-on experience rather than a classroom setting. Practical implications Students need experiential learning outside of the classroom to make sustainability come alive as a viable option for their communities. Social implications The principles of social responsivity, engagement, experiential learning, capacity-building and entrepreneurialism can be executed by transforming the campus into a learning lab, which includes the local community. Originality/value This study empirically demonstrates that students need involvement in strategic interventions to imagine and conceptualize sustainability visions. It also shows how academia can help fulfill the United Nations sustainable development goals.
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International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Strengthening sustainability leadership competencies through university
internships
Maria Margarita Meza Rios, Irene Marie Herremans, Jean E. Wallace, Norm Althouse, David
Lansdale, Manuel Preusser,
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Maria Margarita Meza Rios, Irene Marie Herremans, Jean E. Wallace, Norm Althouse, David
Lansdale, Manuel Preusser, (2018) "Strengthening sustainability leadership competencies
through university internships", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, https://
doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-06-2017-0097
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Strengthening sustainability
leadership competencies through
university internships
Maria Margarita Meza Rios and Irene Marie Herremans
Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada
Jean E. Wallace
Department of Sociology, University of Calgary Faculty of Arts, Calgary, Canada
Norm Althouse
Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada
David Lansdale
Beyond Chacay Foundation, Quito, Pichincha, Ecuador, and
Manuel Preusser
Humboldt Association in Quito, Quito, Pichincha, Ecuador
Abstract
Purpose This paper aims to determine whether high school students can become agents of change in
their local communities by participating in a formal internship program implemented through a
partnership between academia (high schools and universities), nonprot organizations and key
community stakeholders.
Design/methodology/approach Pre- and post-assessments, activity journals and on-line interviews
are used to measure the impact of internships on high school studentssustainability leadership, using a train-
the-trainer intervention led by university interns. A conceptual problem-solving framework is proposed and
empirically tested to explore the linkages between complex problem constellations, sustainability transition
strategies and sustainability visions.
Findings The ve core leadership competencies (systems thinking, strategic, anticipatory, normative and
interpersonal) may not be as uniquely discrete as suggested in the literature. An effective learning experience
depends on studentsdeveloping competence in their ability to implement a strategic intervention, which is
better acquired through hands-on experience rather than a classroom setting.
Practical implications Students need experiential learning outside of the classroom to make
sustainability come alive as a viable option for their communities.
Social implications The principles of social responsivity, engagement, experiential learning, capacity-
building and entrepreneurialism can be executed by transforming the campus into a learning lab, which
includes the local community.
We would like to acknowledge the ten students from the Sustainable Energy Development (SEDV)
Master of Science program at University of Calgary who participated in the program and made this
research possible. Alonso Alegre, Connor Bedard, JeCoombes, Jillian Kareema Haneiph, Margarita
Meza, Nic Ritchie, Namrata Sheth, Andria Panidisz, Cristina Vallejo and Kasondra Harbottle. We
would also like to thank the SEDV program, the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership at the
University of Calgary, and CPA Alberta, and University of Calgarys Teaching and Learning Centre
who provided nancial support either for the internships or the research.
University
internships
Received 29 June2017
Revised 9 November2017
29 January 2018
Accepted 5 February2018
International Journal of
Sustainability in Higher Education
© Emerald Publishing Limited
1467-6370
DOI 10.1108/IJSHE-06-2017-0097
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
www.emeraldinsight.com/1467-6370.htm
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Originality/value This study empirically demonstrates that students need involvement in strategic
interventions to imagine and conceptualize sustainability visions. It also shows how academia can help fulll
the United Nations sustainable development goals.
Keywords Education, Community, Experiential learning, Competencies, Systems thinking,
Sustainable actions
Paper type Research paper
Introduction
It is well documented that education provides a robust and durable foundation for
journeying toward more sustainable communities, whether at the local, regional, national or
global level (Barth et al.,2007;Dieleman and Huisingh, 2006;Brundiers and Wiek, 2013;
Juárez-Nájera et al., 2006). Furthermore, there is general agreement that declarative
knowledge (how sustainability works) is necessary but insufcient to attain the end
objective. To increase the probability that students of all ages will become to some extent
agents of change, other types of knowledge are also critical. Procedural knowledge (how to
take action) is important to support change. Furthermore, behavioral aspects of effecting
change are necessary at theimplementation stage. Therefore, effectiveness (how perceptions
and beliefs affect actions) and social (how social norms affect actions) are types of
knowledge which complete the knowledge set (Frisk and Larson, 2011). From these four
types of knowledge (declarative, procedural, effectiveness and social), various competencies
can be created to achieve sustainability goals, specically the 17 United Nations (UN)
sustainable development goals. Sipos et al. (2008) supported the concept of using different
types of learning and suggested balancing cognitive (head), psychomotor (hands) and
affective (heart) learning to realize truly transformative sustainability education.
Furthermore, there is general agreement from the literature that these competencies are best
acquired in a context that incorporates some form of experiential learning (Orr, 1991;
Sterling, 2010;Wiek et al., 2015;Brundiers and Wiek, 2013;Senge, 2014), such as
community-based, applied learning experiences (Sipos et al., 2008).
Even though the 17 UN sustainability goals are not mutually exclusive (as achieving one
goal often helps to achieve another, at least in part), this research addresses two of the
sustainable development goals: Goal 4, Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and
promote lifelong learningand Goal 17, Strengthen the means of implementation and
revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development(United Nations, 2015). Goal 4
includes ten targets; however, Goal 4.7 related to sustainable development education
specically pertains to this research:
By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable
development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and
sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-
violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of cultures contribution to
sustainable development (United Nations, 2015, p. 17).
Goal 17 can work in tandem with Goal 4 by creating international partnerships to build
capacity in developing countries to ensure education in sustainable development. Goal 17.9
is stated as follows:
Enhance international support for implementing eective and targeted capacity-building in
developing countries to support national plans to implement all the sustainable development
goals, including through North-South, South-South and triangular cooperation (United Nations,
2015, p. 27).
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Furthermore, UNESCO leads efforts to ensure education for sustainable development (ESD)
occurs in all countries in the world (UNESCO, 2016). ESD prepares learners to make well-
informed decisions that lead to responsible sustainable actions for current and future generations.
ESD is not only limited to formal education but also includes education through organized, non-
formal learning settings; experiences related to daily activities such as work, home and leisure;
and various types of training (UNESCO, 2014). UNESCOs ESD, in part, also calls for systems
thinking, applied learning, critical thinking, values clarication and futuristic thinking.
This study takes these concepts and provides insight into how these can be incorporated
in an internship experience developed under the umbrella of an inter-disciplinary graduate-
level sustainable energy program offered at University of Calgary. The internship program
was developed through a partnership with two non-for prot organizations in Ecuador, the
Beyond Chacay Foundation and the Centro de Competencia Educativa para Espacios
Comunitarios (Center for Educational Competence in Ecuadorian Communities). The main
objective of the internships was to prepare the high school students to become agents of
change in their communities with the intent of improving their sustainable practices.
The internship program
In 2016, ten student interns from the Master of Science graduate program in Sustainable
Energy Development (SEDV) participated in an internship in Ecuador after completion of
their 16-month course-based program, just prior to their graduation approximately one
month later. The SEDV program is an inter-disciplinary program in which Master of Science
students take courses in engineering, business, environmental design and law with energy
and the environment as a focus of each course, culminating in a nal capstone project. This
program of study is offered by the University of Calgary, which is guided by six principles
identied in its institutional sustainability strategy: social responsibility, engagement,
experiential learning, capacity-building, diversity and entrepreneurialism. To apply these
six principles, faculty and staff create experiential learning opportunities by using the
campus as a learning laboratory with the intent to develop competencies similar to the
UNESCO ESD program and, ideally, extend these for practical application at the community
level. Six foundational competencies are the focus for sustainability education at the
University of Calgary (University of Calgary, 2018, p. 33):
(1) anticipatory thinking and long-term foresightedness;
(2) empathy and understanding of different worldviews and relationships;
(3) capacities for stakeholder engagement and group collaboration;
(4) action-oriented leadership skills and change agency skills;
(5) critical thinking and decision-making capacity within complexity; and
(6) systems thinking and an understanding of connectedness.
To experience campus as a learning lab, the ten interns spent the month of September 2016
at three separate locations in Ecuador where they supported local sustainability initiatives
related to eco-tourism, energy efciency, water use and renewable energy. Groups of three to
four SEDV interns worked on community-specic projects in Mindo (cloud forest),
Archidona/Santa Rita (Amazon region) and the Galapagos Islands (1,000 km offshore of the
mainland). Each group had predetermined project-specic goals and timelines, but they also
had exibility to engage with local stakeholders to rene and customize these goals and
develop implementation plans over the course of the project. In addition to working with the
communities, the SEDV interns provided local high school students with workshops in
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sustainability resulting in a nal public presentation by the high school students of a project
that could then be implemented to make their community more sustainable.
The Archidona/Santa Rita Project groups goal was to evaluate the potential for
implementing sustainable energy technologies to enhance local livelihood, reduce
greenhouse gas emissions and improve waste management at a cacao and tea cooperative
located at Archidona that employed many individuals from the indigenous community of
Santa Rita, in addition to 36 indigenous Kichwa communities. The Mindo and Galapagos
groupsgoals were similar. They performed energy and water audits and waste creation
assessments for small hotels in each community. On the basis of these assessments,
recommendations were made that were economically viable and environmentally less
impacting.
Although broad goals for each internship were predetermined, each project group had to
assess current community needs and interests in their specic location and then to
collaborate, educate and work with the communities to help them fulll their long-term
planning goals. Key to success was helping to empower individuals of all ages to develop
smart communities for the future. The SEDV interns helped provide resources, training and
guidance to develop leadership within the communities.
Not only was the goal of the internships to develop leadership capabilities in the
Ecuadorian communities but also to develop leadership capabilities in the University of
Calgary SEDV interns by applying their knowledge acquired in their courses before
transitioning into leaders in their own careers. The results of the internspersonal leadership
development will be presented in a separate article. The focus of the current article is to
examine the extent to which the Ecuadorian high school students, who were mentored by
the university SEDV interns, developed sustainability leadership capabilities.
Theoretical framework
Capra (2007, p. 13) dened a sustainable community as one whose institutions and
practices co-operate with the processes by which nature sustains life.Building sustainable
communities starts with a strong theoretical foundation that is laid in the classroom, helping
students to comprehend the complexity of interrelated and interdependent systems. Capra
(2007,2009) suggested including a study of how systems and their interconnected elements
work. Therefore, comprehending networks, nested systems, interdependence, diversity,
development, cycles, ows, and dynamic balanceis essential (Capra, 2007, p. 13). According
to Hudson (2001), formal classroom education focuses on the harm we have done to our
planet and therefore is not visionary. Although this knowledge is an important rst step, it
should be coupled with learning outside the classroom in the community to take positive
steps forward: to envision a more sustainable future.
Because the objective of education for sustainability is sustainable communities, Orr
(1991) and Sterling (2010, p. 526) advocated for real world, action-oriented learning that is
accomplished through a variety of learning methods such as reective, experiential,
experimental, participative and iterativeto create a resilient learner. To aid in the
development of a new perspective of how we t in the world around us, service-based and/or
community learning is more conducive for tackling problems that are considerably more
complex than can be addressed in a formal education setting. The community setting lends
itself to learning at several levels: cognitive, affection and behavioral (Haigh, 2006;Pless
et al., 2011). As education becomes personalized, students may develop condence that
motivates new enthusiasm and energy for positive change (Haigh, 2006). Astin et al. (2000)
found that service learning can enhance understanding of theories through practical
application. Students appreciate that they are making a difference within communities,
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making them feel valued (Cadwallader et al.,2013). Community learning provides students
an opportunity to help address complex, sometimes ambiguous, problems within our
systems through the application of their classroom knowledge (Bringle and Hatcher, 1996).
Thus, education for sustainability that occurs in communities is more likely to build
sustainable communities.
Through formal classroom learning coupled with community-based projects, certain
competencies can be developed. Wiek et al. (2011, p. 204) synthesized the literature on
sustainability competencies and dened them specically as they apply to sustainability
learning in higher education as:
[...] functionally linked complexes of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable successful task
performance and problem solving with respect to real-world sustainability problems, challenges,
and opportunities.
They identied ve core competencies that may lead to the desired learning outcomes of
sustainability education: systems thinking, strategic, anticipatory, normative and
interpersonal. Based on the studies of Wiek et al. (2011,2015) and Savage et al. (2015),we
dene these core competencies as follows:
Systems thinking competence refers to the ability to analyze complex sustainability
problems from a holistic perspective.
Strategic competence is action oriented and refers to the ability to construct and
implement interventions that realize sustainability visions.
Anticipatory competence is future oriented and refers to the ability to create
scenarios about sustainability problems and problem-solving framework.
Normative competence is the ability to assess sustainability problems and
interventions in terms of justice, equity, socialecological integrity and ethics.
Interpersonal competence is the ability to work in close collaboration with those
from other disciplines as well as with different groups of stakeholders.
It is noted that to better understand the social issues, one must consider the interactions of
interdependent systems (Whiteman et al.,2013). The complexity of these interdependent
systems requires a systems thinking approach (Gladwin et al.,1995;Marcus et al.,2010;
Roome, 2011). Gruenewald (2004) suggested that knowledge, especially in Western societies
that rely on a standardized curriculum, is highly fragmented into disciplines, which is not
conducive to the systems thinking that is essential in sustainability education, especially in
the context of emerging market economies. Therefore, Wiek et al.s (2011) work is
particularly useful. They offered a valuable overview and synthesis of the literature that is
vital to laying the groundwork for designing and evaluating sustainability programs. Their
later work in 2015 proposed how to operationalize the different competencies for use in
curricula and course design, delivery and assessment. They neither, however, explicitly
addressed how these key competencies, unique to sustainability education, are acquired nor
how to determine if they are acquired through a certain pedagogical approach. As Wiek
et al. concluded in this later paper, a needed area of inquiry is an assessment of competency
acquisition from participation in sustainability education programs.
Building on Wieks work, Savage et al. (2015) constructed a 15-item scale designed to
assess the change in and acquisition of the ve core sustainability leadership competencies.
They tested the scale using pre- and post-assessments completed by undergraduate
students who participated in an experiential learning program. The current research
extends the conceptual work of Wiek et al. and the empirical measurement work of Savage
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by developing and testing a model of key sustainability leadership competencies. First, the
underlying structure of Savage et al.s (2015) instrument is assessed using factor analysis.
Following this, the relationships among the competencies are empirically assessed using
multiple regression to predict relevant outcomes for the Ecuadorian high school students
who participated in the sustainability leadership program.
Figure 1 depicts the proposed conceptual model of the acquisition of key competencies in
sustainability leadership training for the current research. This model reects a more
parsimonious approach to Wiek et al.s (2011) conceptual competencies framework and is
grounded in this studys empirical results pertaining to Savage et al.s(2015)competencies
scale. In addition, this paper includes qualitative examples from the high school students
journals to illustrate their rst-hand experiences of these competencies in the leadership
training program.
The conceptual model proposed in Figure 1 from Wiek et al.s (2011) integrated
sustainability and problem-solving framework is modied in this paper for three reasons.
First, as shown in the results section below, factor analysis of the 15 items in Savage et al.s
(2015) sustainability leadership competencies scale did not yield a clean ve-factor pattern
matrix that corresponds to the ve core competencies that it was designed to measure. The
factor analysis results suggest that there is considerable overlap particularly in terms of
collaborative competence and normative competence items that loaded with systems
thinking, sustainability strategies and anticipatory outcomes items. As noted in Wiek et al.s
subsequent Figure 2 (p. 206), where they linked the ve core competencies to the problem-
solving framework, their model also suggests that there is considerable overlap in terms of
how interpersonal and normative competencies are linked to sustainability strategies,
dealing with complex problems and future scenarios/sustainability visions. For example,
they proposed that interpersonal competencies are related to all of the underlying concepts
of complex problems, strategies and future outcomes. Similarly, normative competencies are
related to both dealing with complex problems and anticipating future visions and
scenarios. Thus, the second reason for adopting Wieks more parsimoniousFigure 1 over the
more convoluted Figure 2 is that it offers a more realistic guiding framework for
Figure 1.
Conceptual model of
acquisition of key
competencies in
sustainability
leadership training*
Complex Problem
Constellations
Includes competencies
in: systems thinking,
and interpersonal and
normative skills
Sustainability
Sustainability
Transition Strategies
Includes competencies in:
strategic thinking, and
interpersonal skills
Includes competencies
in: anticipatory,
interpersonal and
normative skills
Sources: *Adapted from Wiek et al.’s (2011); Figure 1 (p. 205) and Figure 2 (p. 206)
Visions
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operationalizing the core sustainability leadership competencies in relation to one another.
Finally, the qualitative comments from the high school studentsexperiences offer strategic
illustrations of the learning and problem-solving process as depicted in Figure 1.
The proposed model includes three core organizing concepts:
(1) complex problem constellations;
(2) sustainability transition strategies; and
(3) sustainability visions.
Complex problem constellations refer to being able to analyze, assess and apply problem-
solving frameworks to complex sustainability problems. It involves a holistic, systems thinking
approach that may be cross-disciplinary and cut across different domains or sectors.
Sustainability transition strategies are grounded in strategic thinking in introducing
transformational sustainability actions and transition strategies (Wiek et al., 2015). It involves
assessing resources, designing sustainability plans or interventions and carrying them out.
Sustainability visions are the ability to anticipate and predict the outcomes of interventions
applied to sustainability problems that may require dealing with uncertainties.
As suggested by Figure 1, it is hypothesized that the extent to which students feel they
are competent in understanding complex sustainability problems is related to their
sustainability visions. This understanding that is primarily rooted in systems-thinking
competence refers to their ability to analyze complex situations and/or systems and
understand the linkages among structure and function and cause and effect. Much of this
competency, reected in this broader concept of complex problem constellation, was initially
acquired through the classroom component of the internship program. Over a period of one
month, the SEDV interns provided 12 two-hour workshops to the high school students on
the following topics: sustainable development; leadership and agents of change; types of
energy and energy conservation; waste management, water awareness and management;
and project management[1].
In addition, Figure 1 suggests that gaining rst-hand experience in implementing
sustainability strategies is also relevant in bringing about the desired anticipatory
sustainability outcomes. High school studentsinvolvement in the community-based
projects provided them the opportunity to put into action specic sustainability strategies
for their community by actively engaging in various activities, such as environment-related
scavenger hunts, demonstrations of land pollution and its impact on waterways, waste and
biodigester models, nursery eld trips and environmental impact reduction exercises.
At the end of the program, the high school students either presented or demonstrated a
project that could help improve the environmental health of their community to key
community stakeholders. Because improvement of the environmental condition of our
planet requires a joint effort, the high school students worked together in small groups to
develop their presentation or model project. It is proposed that competencies in
sustainability strategies depend on their ability to understand complex sustainability
problems. In addition, high school studentsapplied skills and experience in sustainability
strategies are expected to partially mediate the relationship between their textbook learning
and their sustainability visions for the future.
Mixed methods
Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected to determine the extent to which high
school students can potentially become agents of change in their local communities as a
result of participating in a formal internship program. The quantitative data were collected
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through a 15-item scale that provided a broad assessment of the overall impact of the
internships. The qualitative data were collected through journals and on-line interviews,
which added depth and insight to the quantitative results. The methods of data collection
are described in more detail below.
Quantitative data collection
Savage et al.s(2015)15-item Sustainability Leadership Certicate scale was used in pre- and
post-assessments completed by the Ecuadorian high school students before and after their
participation in the internship program. The items were translated into Spanish and the
statements were adjusted slightly to use wording that would be more understandable to
high school students while maintaining the same meaning of the original items. The high
school students were asked to respond to the 15 items with a 10-point response set. The
instructions stated: On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 representing not condentand 10
representing totally condent,how would you classify your condence with respect to
each statement?
Before their rst workshop, all high school students participating in two of the
communities (n= 80 students) were given the pre-assessment survey and asked to indicate
their condence in regard to the 15 items. Data were not collected in the third community
because of a slightly different design of the workshop in that community. However, this only
excluded potential responses from approximately ten high school students. At the end of the
experience, the same 15 items were given as a post-assessment survey to the same 80
students. The model presented in this paper is primarily based on the high school students
post-internship experiences.
Quantitative data analysis
First, paired sample mean difference tests were conducted on the 15-item pre- and post-
assessments completed by the high school students to determine whether they had changed
their understanding of the sustainability concepts before and after engaging in the
internship workshops. Then, the 15 items of Savage et al.s (2015) sustainability leadership
competencies scale were factor analyzed to determine whether they loaded on the ve core
competencies as set out in the sustainability literature and more specically based on Wiek
et al.s(2011)conceptualization. Once the best tting factor structure of the items was
determined, mediation analyses were performed to estimate the relationships among the
competences and how these relate to the outcome variable of interest. The Sobel (1982) test
was used to statistically assess the effect of the proposed mediator (sustainability transition
strategies) on the predictor (complex problem constellation) and outcome (sustainability
vision) relationship. The Sobel test is basically a specialized t-test that is used to determine
whether the reduction in the effect of the independent variable, after including the mediator
in the model, results in a signicant reduction and therefore whether the mediation effect is
statistically signicant. The results of these analyses are discussed in more detail below.
Qualitative data collection
During the month of the internship, the high school students were asked to periodically
reect on what they had learned and how their new knowledge impacted them in a
journaling format. The high school students also lled in an online or hard copy interview
with a few open-ended questions. Quotations from their journals are integrated into the
discussion to provide understanding and richness to the quantitative statistical analysis.
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Qualitative data analysis
The journal data were reviewed to obtain a general understanding of the high school
studentsimpressions of their experience. Their journal data were analyzed using a directed
content analysis approach (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005). The goal of a directed approach to
qualitative content analysis is to support and extend existing theory and research. Prior
research and theory on sustainability leadership competencies and sustainability
community-based internships were used to help determine the initial coding scheme for the
key concepts of interest as well as guide the discussion of the ndings. The broad guiding
coding themes of interest included references to systems thinking, sustainability actions and
strategies and sustainability visions.
Results
Factor analysis results
The 15 items from the sustainability scale were factor analyzed using maximum likelihood/
Oblimin with Kaiser normalization. Missing data were excluded with listwise deletion. The
factor analysis showed two distinct factors. Two items (8 and 12) were excluded from the
nal analysis because of their cross loadings on Factors 1 and 2. Items with loadings higher
than 0.5 were retained, as exhibited in Table I. These factors are identied as the complex
problem constellations (Factor 1) and the sustainability transition strategies (Factor 2) based
on Wiek et al.s conceptualization (2011 and 2015). The reliability analysis revealed
Cronbachs
a
of 0.90 for Factor 1 with six items and 0.85 for Factor 2 with ve items. All
items were summed and divided by the number of items to compute an overall mean score
for each variable.
The complex problem constellations measure includes items reecting aspects of
system thinking, and interpersonal and normative competencies, which is consistent
with Wiek et al.s (2011, p. 206) Figure 2 model. The high school students gave
numerous examples in their journals of their awareness of the complexity of
sustainability issues. They mentioned the importance and challenges, for example, of
reducing all types of pollution to protect the environment. They described how they
now understand how this may be done, and offered a wide range of ideas, such as
educating others, reducing pollution, introducing a good waste management plan and
Table I.
Results of
exploratory factor
analysis
a
Survey items Factor 1 Factor 2
Q1. Articulate a vision of a just and sustainable society 0.965 0.103
Q2. Account for individual and cumulative social, environmental and economic
implications of a decision or process 0.810 0.095
Q3. Analyze complex problems drawing from multiple disciplines 0.761 0.017
Q5. Collectively assess the current and future states of social-ecological systems 0.688 0.071
Q15. Work together across differences (e.g. discipline, sector, nations, perspectives and
professional/non-professional) 0.652 0.021
Q14. Understand your own strengths and weaknesses as a sustainability leader 0.549 0.280
Q13. Understand the future as open and something that we can help to shape 0.127 0.822
Q4. Assess the resources available and necessary for an action 0.125 0.743
Q9. Motivate positive change in others 0.037 0.705
Q11. Pursue collaborative approaches to problem-solving 0.207 0.571
Q7. Design integrated actions that draw on resources from across disciplines 0.261 0.512
Note:
a
Maximum likelihood/Oblimin with Kaiser normalization; the items in italics show which items load
on each factor
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learning more. They described how they personally were committed and understood
what changes they could make as well as changes that weas citizens can make. For
example, several high school students wrote the following:
We, the human beings, are destroying our planet; we contaminate the air, water and land. For this
reason, I now understand that we must take care, protect, and value what is around us. I must
take care of my body as we must take care of nature. I learned to take care of nature and not to
unjustiably pollute it. We must plant trees, take care of animals, not throw garbage into the
rivers, and conserve the environment for the future of our children.
The sustainability transition strategies include items that reect aspects of strategic and
interpersonal competencies also consistent with Wiek et al.s (2011) Figure 2. The high
school students gave examples of how they are now more aware and condent in
introducing potential strategic responses to sustainability issues. For example, some of their
comments highlight their recognition of the resources available that reect community
involvement and teamwork, and how essential education and dialogue are for making
things happen:
We need to teach the kids and adults not to throw garbage on the ground [...] in that way, we
learn to preserve the environment in which we live. I can reect and share my knowledge with my
community to preserve our rivers. The teamwork is the best. From that, we learned to create
conversation among our teammates and to give our opinions. We must tell everyone that we need
to work together to take care of our planet and protect the environment from pollution. We need to
work together to achieve great things.
Items 6 and 10 are both identied as indicators of anticipatory competency in Savage
et al.s (2015) study. Specically, these refer to studentsassessments of their condence
to deal with uncertainty and future predictionsand predict and consider possible
repercussions in our actions and decisions prior to their implementation.The two
items were combined to construct a single measure of sustainability visions, which is
consistent with Wiek et al.s (2011) conceptualization.Thetwoitemsweresummedand
averaged to compute a mean score of sustainability visions with a Cronbachs
a
of 0.78.
Comments from the high school studentsjournals illustrate their condence in
knowing what comes next. Their comments suggest that they are optimistic and have
the understanding and skills to implement sustainability strategies in the future. For
example:
We can change the world by doing good deeds to help not destroying the world. What I learned,
and this is crystal clear for me, is that we must preserve the water since it is vital for human
survival [...] now I know a lot of things that will be really useful for me. Reect and question
ourselves about how we can prevent the pollution of the environment andglobal warming. I feel
really satised and ready to participate.
Mean dierence tests
The results of the mean difference tests showed signicant differences in the pre- and post-
assessments of the Ecuadorian high school studentscondence in complex problem
constellations, sustainability transition strategies and sustainability visions.
The results indicate an improvement of 16, 11 and 18 per cent in the high school students
condence with regard to complex program constellation, sustainability transition
strategies and sustainability visions, respectively, as observed in Figure 2.
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Mediation analysis results
To test the relationships represented in Figure 1, a two-stage regression analysis was
carried out, and the results are summarized in Figure 3. First, the direct relationship
between complex problem constellations and sustainability visions was examined,
which is statistically signicant and positive (b = 0.882). The more condent the
students feel in understanding complex sustainability problems, the more competent
they feel in dealing with future sustainability situations. Next, whether sustainability
transition strategies mediate the relationship between complex problem constellations
Figure 2.
Mean differences in
pre- and post-
assessments
Complex Problem
Contellations
Sustainability
Transition
Strategies
Sustainability
Visions
7.10
7.54
6.65
Post-Survey
8.23
8.38
7.85
0.00
1.00
2.00
3.00
4.00
5.00
6.00
7.00
8.00
9.00
Factor Mean
Notes: n = 80; *All pre- and post-assessment differences are
statistically significant at the 0.05 level (two-tailed test)
Figure 3.
Mediation regression
results for
sustainability visions
Complex Problem
Constellations
Sustainability Visions
Sustainability
Transition Strategies
b = 0.565 p = 0.000
b = 0.494 p = 0.000
Complex Problem
Constellations
Sustainability Visions
b = 0.882 p = 0.000
b = 0.686 p = 0.000
Notes: (a) Direct path results; (b) mediated path results
(a)
(b)
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and sustainability visions was explored. The results in Figure 3 show that the
relationship between the complex problem constellations and the sustainability visions
is mediated by sustainability transition strategies. The results presented in Figure 3,as
well as the results of the Sobel test (z = 4.8167, p= 0.000), suggest that the association
between complex problem constellations and sustainability visions is partially
mediated by sustainability transition strategies. This suggests that not only having a
good sense of systems thinking and understanding of complex sustainability results in
more condent sustainability visions, but also the hands-on experiences and
applications obtained during the internship are signicant in understanding students
anticipatory condence in pursing their sustainability vision.
In practice, the model as shown in Figure 3 was reected in the classroom by the
transition that the high school students experienced from the rst day of the workshop to
the presentation of their nal projects, three weeks later. The pre-assessment results and the
eld experience showed that high school students were already aware of pressing
environmental issues in their communities and had a sense of the necessity for conservation.
However, the interconnections between the three pillars of sustainability and the different
elements of a system were not clear enough for them to propose holistic solutions. Similarly,
they were not able to propose transition strategies beyond conservation. In particular, waste
management, quality of drinking water and cooking gas supply were some of the concerns
of the local community.
The rst portion of the workshop provided them with the knowledge to understand
how waste management could affect or improve the quality of their drinking water and
at the same time that waste was a potential source of energy. The second part of the
workshop, which aimed to present tools for sustainability transition strategies, allowed
them to propose the use of a biodigester for the management of waste water and
biodegradable waste that could improve the quality of their drinking water and supply
a source of cooking gas. Beyond that point, high school students started seeing and
wondering about future scenarios, with and without sustainability transition
strategies. For instance, they asked how the reduction of consumption/waste could
affect their local economy and how a government project for electric stoves could be a
more efcient and reliable source of energy compared to propane. Their nal projects
proposed strategies to solve complex problems of the local community and promote
eco-tourism.
One of the nal projects aimed to reduce plastic waste and improve the local economy by
reintroducing an ancestral tradition from an Ecuadorian indigenous group, the Yumbo. The
project consisted of fabricating reusable bags from natural bers to be distributed around
the hotels, tourist services providers and convenient stores. The reusable bags would be
fabricated by local people who had the traditional knowledge, and they could be sold, rented
or lent as part of an eco-tourism program of the town. In this way, a tradition would be
reintroduced to create a local business, plastic waste would be reduced and tourists would
be educated to promote eco-tourism.
Discussion
The results of this paper offer ve key contributions:
(1) measurement analysis of Savage et al.s sustainability leadership competencies
scale;
(2) development and test of a model of sustainability leadership competencies;
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(3) practical development and implementation of internship programs in
sustainability leadership;
(4) identication of concrete benets of the program to high school students and their
communities; and
(5) an illustration of a role for educational institutions in fulllment of the UN
sustainable development goals.
Each of these contributions is discussed more thoroughly below.
Measuring and modeling sustainability leadership competencies
The results of this research support the concepts and model proposed by Wiek et al. (2011)
that they developed by integrating the sustainability research and problem-solving
framework. The process of learning is not simply one where perceived competence in
understanding complex problems results in condence in new visions or interventions;
rather, the latter also depends on believing in ones ability to implement a strategic
intervention which is a competency usually acquired through the internship experience
rather than the classroom setting.
The results of this study suggest that the ve core competencies (systems thinking,
strategic, anticipatory, normative and interpersonal) may not be as uniquely discrete as
suggested in the literature. For example, and consistent with Wiek et al.s (2011) integrative
model (Figure 2), the core competency of interpersonal skills underlies all four aspects of the
problem-solving framework (e.g. sustainability transition strategies, complex problem
constellations, future scenarios and sustainability visions). The factor analysis results of
this study show several items that reect interpersonal skills loaded highly on the other
factors. Thus, the journey toward sustainability necessitates collaborative efforts and
diverse, innovative points of view. Therefore, it is clear that interpersonal skills are essential
for achieving sustainability objectives.
The results of this study suggest that the measurement of key competencies in
sustainability and the modeling of their relationships are more complex than portrayed in
the literature but in other ways are more parsimonious. More research is required on this
topic to validate the learning model and provide greater insight. For example, more attention
should be devoted to assessing and developing measures of the core competencies concepts
in terms of their construct validity and multi-dimensionality. As well, additional
applications and tests of our proposed model of sustainability leadership competencies
could help to assess the validity and generalizability of our ndings.
Practical development and implementation of internship programs in sustainability
This paper provides a practical example of how an institution can carry out the principles
avowed in its Institutional Sustainability Strategy. The principles of social responsibility,
engagement, experiential learning, capacity-building, diversity, and entrepreneurialism can
be executed by transforming the campus into a learning lab. Students need experiential
learning outside the classroom to make sustainability come alive. Theoretical core
competencies identied by Wiek et al. (2015) were put into practice through an internship
program by connecting high school students with university interns who were earning a
Master of Science in SEDV. Systems thinking, partially mediated by hands-on sustainable
action plans, appears to help build anticipatory outcomes, such as dealing with uncertainty
and predicting consequences of todays decisions and their effect on the planet in the future.
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Concrete benets to high school students and their communities
The results of this research show that the high school students gained a greater
understanding of systems as well as sustainable actions by participating in the program.
What cannot be readily measured is the passion and energy that developed within the high
school students to become agents of change for their respective communities. As observed
through the sustainability scale analysis of pre- and post-experience assessment, these local
students became more condent to anticipate and embrace change in the future. However, it
is not clear whether their enthusiasm to be agents of change in their community will be
short-lived and fade after the SEDV interns leave or whether it will lead to long-term
continuous improvement within their communities. The following two quotes illustrate the
passion of the high school students who participated in the program that hopefully also
reect their long-term commitment to their sustainability visions and aspirations:
Nature is something really attractive and it is what gives us life; that is why we need to protect it
so much.
The environmental problems aect the wellbeing and quality of life of everyone. Therefore,
they should not depend upon the free will of people (whether people want to approach those
problemsornot).Citizensmustbemoreawareoftheproblems.Wemustdemandrespectfor
the environment. The individual contribution of the citizens can be really great in some
aspects.
Fulllment of the United Nations sustainable development goals
The results of this research has illustrated that institutions of advanced learning can play a
signicant role in the fulllment of the UN sustainable development goals, especially Goals
4 and 17. Goal 4 is to ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to
promote sustainable development(United Nations, 2015, p. 15). The internships through
community-based, experiential learning accomplished Goal 4 through the structure
suggested in Goal 17, by implementing effective and targeted capacity-building in
developing countries(United Nations, 2015, p. 27). By using their areas of strength,
universities can identify opportunities to build capacity in emerging market economy
countries. In this case, the opportunity presented itself through a NorthSouth partnership
through University of Calgary and nonprot organizations. However, many other
partnerships, alliances or cooperative arrangements are possible. Institutions as well need to
reach out and welcome non-conventional ways of learning to become agents of change
regarding sustainability education that will result in denitive outcomes.
Conclusions
This research has advanced knowledge by investigating the ways that university internships
can help achieve the UN sustainable development goals through partnerships that bring
education for sustainability to high school students in developing countries. By statistically
testing a model of leadership competencies, based on previous work, our research has shown
that both systems thinking that addresses complex problem constellations and sustainable
actions that evolve from sustainability transition strategies are essential to develop
anticipatory thinking for visions of a more sustainable planet in the future. This is consist
with the theoretical work of Capra (2007),Sterling (2010) and Orr (1991) and others that
advocate not only for a strong theoretical background in sustainability competencies but also
for action-oriented, community-based learning that is more closely tied to the development of
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sustainable communities. Our research offers empirical evidence for the necessity of both
approaches to education for sustainability.
Integrated within these competencies are the cultivation of interpersonal skills and
normative thinking. University internships provide opportunities not only for the high
school students that engage in the workshops but also for the university interns who
provide the workshops and who learn to recognize how classroom theories and concepts can
transform into practical, relevant projects that are appropriate for the local communities in
which they work. Although the sample under study was relatively small, the results support
the view that scholars of environmental education must be open to using a variety of
learning methods that are underpinned with experiential learning to shape the visions and
goals of the sustainability leaders of tomorrow. Moreover, while sustainable development is
a complex, multifaceted concept, we suggest that the process can be broken down into
realizable, measurable steps.
Although the opportunity for transformative change was evident in each of the
communities when the SEDV student interns left, a longitudinal study involving participants
in each of the communities would provide evidence to determine whether the extent to which
their commitment to community transformation will have a lasting effect. Will the high
school students be agents of change in each of their respective communities or willthe energy
wane shortly after the departure of the SEDV interns are important questions to be addressed
in future research. Mobilizing high school students, with university interns as mentors, is a
promising model for the future, especially where interdisciplinary and intercultural
opportunities, as presented in this paper, are addressed.
Note
1. Details of the Workshop can be provided by the authors on request.
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About the authors
Maria Margarita Meza is a Graduate of the Sustainable Energy Development Master of Science
program at University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She was a participant in the
international internship program and was located at Mindo, Ecuador.
Irene Marie Herremans Rios is a Professor in the Haskayne School of Business and in the inter-
disciplinary SEDV program, both at the University of Calgary. She coordinated the internships held
in Ecuador. Irene Marie Herremans is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: irene.
herremans@haskayne.ucalgary.ca
Jean E. Wallace is a Professor of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, University of Calgary. She was an
active participant in the research conducted on the internship program.
Norm Althouse is a Senior Instructor and Teaching Fellow in Haskayne School of Business. He
also teaches in the SEDV program at the University of Calgary. He was an active participant in the
research conducted on the internship program.
David Lansdale is Founder of the Beyond Chacay Foundation in Vermont, USA and coordinated the
internship program. He is a Retired Professor from University of San Francisco de Quito, Quito, Ecuador.
Manuel Preusser works with the Humboldt Association in Quito, Pichincha, Ecuador. He was a
Program Coordinator of the Chacay internship program in Mindo, Ecuador and is starting his PhD in
international studies soon.
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... Systems thinking can be best learnt through applying knowledge in real-life experiences (Meza et al., 2018;Sterling, 2010). Training students in the ability to analyse the interconnected systems between the different dimensions and scales of sustainability is a skill already being taught in several disciplines, such as subjects that teach about the circular economy (Bassi et al., 2021) and information systems (Checkland, 2000). ...
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... Then, I used the grouping of the competencies made by using this method to categorise the sustainability competencies as well. The competencies collected based on the literature , (Anderson, 2015), (Wiek, Withycombe, & Redman, 2011), (Wiek, és mtsai., 2016), (Weinreb, 2015), (Strandberg, 2015), (Knight, 2018), (Meza, Herremans, Wallace, & Althouse, 2018), (Redman & Larson, 2011), (Rieckmann, 2010) were also arranged in a table. ...
... 4. "Innovation" -In a changing world, new thinking enables sustainability 5. "Social connection" -Workplaces will be based on sharing and forming a community. (Meza, Herremans, Wallace, & Althouse, 2018) Six foundational competencies are the focus for sustainability education at the University of Calgary: ...
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Analysis of the university sustainability initiatives based on the researches at National University of Public Service, Hungary and on international comparison.
... Meza Rios et al. (2018) detailed the results of an internship program that partnered graduate students with high school students to promote sustainable outcomes. University of Calgary students were sent to three separate locations in Ecuador to support various sustainability initiatives being undertaken by local stakeholders, including workshops for high school students. ...
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