Learning differently in times of climate change:  organizing a student-led sustainability festival 

By Edwige Marty

students sitting in the old canteen in the economy building at NMBU
Photo: Siri Eriksen

On the 21st of November, the students from the NMBU master course Climate Change and Society (EDS355) took over the Economy building to organize the “Don’t be sus – be sustainable festival”. More than a hundred people attended the talks, listened to the music performance, and toured the stands on display. A unique opportunity for the students to engage at a deeper level with the multidimensional aspects of the climate emergency that were discussed in class, and to share some of the learnings – and communicate the need for climate action – with others.  

A different kind of groupwork 

Over sixty students in the master course Climate Change & Society have been preparing and organizing a festival as part of their semester-long group project. In small groups, students were given free reins to decide what aspects of the climate crisis they wanted to focus on and through which activities they were going to engage with their selected topic. The emphasis was put on daring to be creative and innovative to contribute to shifting established practices and mindsets towards sustainability, as well as to deepen the knowledge acquired through the course. 

The master course explores causes and socio-political responses to climate change. Covering mitigation, adaptation, and transformations towards sustainability, students are introduced to key concepts and issues and review recent evidence, including from the IPCC and empirical case studies. The course emphasizes the crucial connections between science, policy, practice, and the urgent need to transition to climate-resilient development pathways. 

The bottom-up interactive approach to organizing the festival had to some been intimidating at first but was highly appreciated by the students. 

"I liked the freedom we had for this group work. Seeing the different perspectives and concepts around sustainability being discussed in and out of the classroom was great. I don't think I would have considered working so passionately on climate communication, for instance, if I did not have the freedom to let my ideas take form."

Riya Pankaj Dani, part of the newsroom group who developed ideas to set up a student-led climate knowledge communication hub. 

The students also had an active role in the coordination and communication work of the festival. Students later reflected that the groupwork over the semester had made them realize their own abilities to enable transformations both individually and together on a societal scale.  

Fostering multidimensional experiences  

The festival drew both NMBU students and high school students from Ås, as well as university staff. During the festival, students presented ideas for deeper engagements around sustainability issues at NMBU and guest speakers addressed global sustainability challenges in flash talks. Many student groups had prepared interactive activities where visitors could calculate and paint their carbon footprint, visualize and listen to different scenarios of climate resilient development pathways, or choose to contribute to a climate fresk. 

Students group posing in front of the climate resilient development pathways illustrations they have put up on the walls
Photo: Siri Eriksen

"Our group created an amazing diagrammatical illustration of the IPCC´s model of the Climate Resilient development pathways, including up to 3 examples for each pathway. In collaboration with the carbon footprint group, we were able to exposit the urgency of the matter and the hope for more climate resilient development pathways."

Hashma Maryam Attique

Other groups showcased posters on sustainable food systems, the environmental impact of clothing choices, and deforestation trends. Some groups shared positive climate news and encouraged pledges for transformations, while others focused on the emotional aspects of living in the era of climate change.

The festival closed with a music performance expressing the emotional toll of biodiversity loss and planetary boundary crossing, coupled with a glimpse of hopeful change. Lauritz Isaksen, from the music group, used a recording from the Kauai O'o bird, The bird is calling to a potential mate but receives no responses, being the last of a species that is now declared extinct. The students used the performance, which combined live music and visuals, to break from regular forms of teaching and learning on climate change: 

"We initially thought was that we wanted to do "something else". We wanted to shift the focus away from the purely academic, to shed some light on the emotions that music and art can convey […] To learn and acquire knowledge about sustainability is not only about reading, but also about thinking in different ways of illustrating this big issue." Lauritz Isaksen, who composed and performed on the piano the song entitled “The Last Call Of A Dying Species"

“Nowadays we know many scientific facts about climate change and hear them all the time and everywhere, so it is sometimes hard to make them tangible and there is a risk that these facts can dull us and/or make us numb. […] We created a multi-dimensional experience through vision, hearing, and feeling to get the message across to everyone of issues related to biodiversity loss and human impacts on the environment.” Anna Badke, who performed alongside Lauritz on the flute. 

Teaching and learning sustainability in a climate emergency 

Living in an accelerating climate emergency raises new questions and responsibilities for universities. Ensuring that students not only acquire knowledge but also possess the tools to apply and take ownership of it for profound transformations is crucial. The festival, supported by the TOWARDS sustainability arena, aligns with broader educational renewal efforts in the face of a changing climate.  

NMBU’s Vice Rector for sustainability, noted in her introduction during the festival: 

"Our newly adopted strategy commits us all to the deep transformations the world has to go through in order to become sustainable and fair to all people and generations"

Astrid Sinnes

Other initiatives include TOWARDS’ interdisciplinary Master project where students and supervisors collaborate across faculties on theses addressing sustainability challenges in green technologies, social justice, health and living environments.

The AR6 IPCC Synthesis Report underscores the importance of inclusive transformations, involving diverse knowledge, values, and collaboration across sectors. Universities, as hubs for challenging current development pathways, can play a key role in fostering inclusive decision-making and collective action. Here, the sustainability festival provided valuable insights not only for the students, but also for the supporting staff. 

Published - Updated