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Assessing the “Wicked Sustainability Problem” – Literacy in Engineering Education

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Environmental Engineering Pedagogy and Innovation

Tagged Division

Environmental Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.255.1 - 26.255.13



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Paper Authors


Johanna Lönngren Chalmers University of Technology

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Johanna Lönngren is a PhD student in the Engineering Education Research group at Chalmers University of Technology. She holds an MSc degree in Engineering Nanoscience from the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University in Sweden. Her main research interest is engineering education for sustainable development, particularly students’ approaches to wicked sustainability problems.

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Magdalena Svanström Chalmers University of Technology

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Magdalena Svanström is an Associate Professor in Chemical Environmental Science at Chalmers University of Technology. Her research interests are in sustainability assessment, in particular environmental assessment of technologies under development, and in education for sustainable development, especially competences in engineering education. She was a member of the UNECE expert group on educator competences for education for sustainable development and she has written a textbook for engineers on sustainable development.

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Assessing “Wicked Sustainability Problem”-Literacy in Engineering EducationEnvironmental and sustainability problems are commonly called “wicked sustainabilityproblems” (WSPs). They are called “wicked” because they are highly complex, contested, andlack single right solutions. Students in environmental engineering need to learn how to deal withWSPs in accordance with the principles of sustainability, i.e. they need WSP-literacy. Scholarsin the field of environmental and sustainability education (ESE) stress that traditional approachesto assessing ESE competences, such as WSP-literacy, are inadequate. However, the literaturedoes not yet provide a rigorous, empirically based discussion about what could be more adequateapproaches. In this paper, we address this gap by providing an instrument for assessing WSP-literacy in engineering education.The instrument is developed through an action research approach that involves three iterationswith different groups of engineering educators. The first two iterations consist of two workshopsheld with ESE practitioners. In these workshops, literature on WSPs and WSP-literacy isintroduced as a theoretical basis for discussions. Participates are then engaged in 1. Discussingthe purpose of assessment in ESE in general; 2. Formulating concrete learning outcomes that canbe used to operationalize WSP-literacy in the context of engineering education; and 3.Discussing possible ways of assessing these learning outcomes. The role of the researchers in theworkshops is to guide the discussions with a focus on constructive alignment between desiredlearning outcomes and assessment approaches.The workshops are held in November 2013 and January 2014. The second workshop is expectedto build on the results of the first workshop, but it involves a different group of participants. Bothworkshops are audio-recorded and provide a basis for the researchers to develop a pilot versionof a comprehensive assessment instrument. The third iteration involves practical testing of thepilot instrument in several ESE courses and further refining it in collaboration with the teachersin those courses. We expect the resulting assessment instrument, which will be presented at theASEE 2015 conference, to be rigorously grounded in previous research, practical experience,and direct testing in a real educational context. We further expect the instrument to be directlyapplicable by engineering educators who need to assess WSP-literacy.

Lönngren, J., & Svanström, M. (2015, June), Assessing the “Wicked Sustainability Problem” – Literacy in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23585

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