Laura Riuttanen is working for the sustainability transformation in Una Europa and beyond

Laura Riuttanen (photo: Esko Jämsä, kirkko ja kaupunki)

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that sustainability is at the core of our strategy and our values. We aim to provide our knowledge for the betterment of the world. With the launch of the Una Europa micro-credential in sustainability, Laura Riuttanen has even bigger ambitions.

Laura Riuttanen is a university lecturer in atmospheric sciences at the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research (INAR). From her very early days as a PhD candidate and researcher she was interested in climate change and understanding how pollutants travel in the air and affect the climate. While research is still an important part of her work, in later years she has increasingly focused her attention on climate change education and educating the change-makers we need for a more sustainable future. She has done this especially through her involvement in the Climate University network, which she is now leading. While teaching is of course an essential part of our university activities, Laura is more passionate than most. So how does she explain this passion she has for climate change education?

“I think it’s the sense of urgency of these topics. We really need the change in our societies now. Research is of course very important; it’s important we have trustworthy knowledge and create new knowledges, but I find that teaching is really the way to transform our societies. In our universities, we teach thousands of students every year. If we combine the knowledge that comes from universities and the power of educating these thousands of students, I believe universities could really be the engine of the sustainability transformation.”

Not society, but societies. Because while Laura has spent years working with Finnish networks and colleagues across higher education, she has recently expanded her reach and collaboration to colleagues far beyond our borders.

A global ambition

International partnerships and networks are a central part of our university’s operations. Often it can be hard to see the real-life impact of these alliances on a concrete and tangible level, visible to students and staff. This is slowly shifting with The University of Helsinki’s participation in the Una Europa alliance, one of 41 European University Alliances. The aim is to build the university of the future and to connect and co-create new, innovative educational formats in interdisciplinary and international ways.

This year we are finally seeing the fruition of many of the ambitious, joint formats, including our micro-credential in sustainability, which is launching today. But what is a micro-credential and who is behind it?

“A micro-credential is a new format of continuous education, it’s currently being developed across the EU. There are still different understandings on what the exact definition is, but the idea is that in a world that is changing fast we all need to be continuous learners. It’s not enough that you study for a degree in your 20s and then work the same way until you retire. We all need to update our knowledge and the micro-credentials provides a flexible way to learn on the way,” says Laura.

The Una Europa micro-credential consists of five MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which combined becomes a 10 credit micro-credential. It is developed and delivered within the collaboration of the Una Europa Alliance, where Laura and other colleagues from across University of Helsinki have worked closely with colleagues at the University of Bologna and the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. This is a very new and different way of working, since the academics involved have collaboratively developed the scope, idea and content of the whole micro-credential, it’s not just a combination of existing courses.

Enabling a generation of sustainability change-makers

Through the Una Europa collaboration Laura has been able to expand her scope and vision for sustainability education. The micro-credential offers a wide and innovative view on sustainability by combining an introductory course on sustainability with perspectives coming from biodiversity, climate change, political economy and the arts. The courses are filled with additional examples and perspectives from other Una Europa partners such as Complutense University of Madrid and University of Edinburgh. Additionally, Laura has also engaged with colleagues from across Finland through the Climate University, the Biodiversity Education Network, and countless other colleagues. With this kind of scope and breadth of collaboration what does Laura envision for this effort?

“These challenges we are facing are so big that no country alone can solve the sustainability crisis and climate change. We need to put our forces together to work on these topics, but we also need basic knowledge, which is what the MOOCs can provide. I think that in all fields of society, we need to update our knowledge on climate change, biodiversity loss and sustainability issues. These MOOCs provide a flexible way to update your knowledge, get a status check of what the situation is and what needs to be done.”

This offering allows any student regardless of their field to get a grasp of the issues of sustainability and how we all need to engage. Una Europa has been at the frontlines of developing co-teaching between universities and institutions and has also been a leader in defining the micro-credential on a European level as an essential part of continuous learning.

If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together

In many ways the University of Helsinki is leading the work on open education, online learning and co-teaching, in addition to climate and sustainability education. That is not only in Finland but in a global context. Laura argues that this is an even more important reason to engage in an alliance such as Una Europa, as an opportunity to multiply the impact.

“We should continue to put our efforts into leading the world towards sustainable futures and towards learning about possible sustainable futures. Una Europa brought us together with new colleagues and in that way, we have been able to for example get these interviews from different parts of Europe getting a wider perspective to for example climate change and how it affects different parts of Europe differently.”

This is a unique opportunity, which Laura is aware would not have been possible without Una Europa. Una Europa allows her and her colleagues to provide learners with an international and comprehensive understanding of sustainability issues, that is not only presented from one cultural or disciplinary perspective. Students get to learn from experts from across Europe and in addition get to study virtually in Krakow and Bologna in addition to Helsinki. But while the micro-credential is finally being launched today, this is only the beginning. How does Laura imagine the universities participating in this work?

“I would like to see universities as active parts of the sustainability transformation, not only teaching these skills and knowledges but also doing and learning by doing. We shouldn’t be on the sidelines of society on these issues, but really at the core where things are happening. My goal would be to see us actively working together while studying and while teaching.”

Una Europa PhD Slam: Carolina’s story of overcoming adversity and putting yourself out there

Behind every PhD candidate is a story and Carolina Buendia Sarmiento is no different. While only being a PhD student for a few months in the Doctoral Programme in Political, Societal and Regional Change, she has already participated in Una Europa’s first PhD Slam, where she competed against seven other PhD students from across Una Europa universities researching topics related to sustainability. While her preparation was impeccable, the challenges of technology can be unpredictable. So how did it go? You’ll have to read on to find out!

Before we share Carolina’s roller-coaster experience with the PhD Slam, what sparked her interest in women’s empowerment, gender equality, development cooperation and understanding the complex dynamics and intersection of these topics?

While still back at home in Colombia she worked on implementation of a project on women, peace, and security issues. The project aimed to enhance women’s capabilities to participate in peace-building processes and enable them to support women facing gender-based violence. This project put Carolina on the path to Finland where she has lived since 2018. She came here for her master’s degree at Åbo Akademi in Peace, Mediation and Conflict. In Finland, she has also done consultancy work in different capacities on the topics of development cooperation and gender equality. But for Carolina applying for a PhD was always the goal and she was clear on her interests.

“After a lot of reading and research, I came across this interesting intersection of how development cooperation has been transforming itself. It is no longer only NGOs and governmental agencies that are involved in this process. Increasingly private sector is playing an important role. That sparked my interest, and I became certain that I wanted to do my PhD on this intersection of gender equality and women’s empowerment in particular, but trying to better understand the role of the private sector and what impact it has on women in the end.”

The University of Helsinki turned out to have the program that she believed was the best fit for her. She wanted to be in an environment where the research was focused on providing a critical perspective on the topic.

“I’m interested in the critical view on the dynamics that are shaping collaboration between the Global North and the Global South. I wanted to study in a place and collaborate with people who are interested in this critical perspective and not only going by the mainstream discourse that it’s positive that private sector put money into development cooperation but challenge that and be critical of what that means. That’s the reason I choose the University of Helsinki.”

While Carolina has only been a PhD student for a few months and the complexity of the pandemic has limited the opportunities for meeting and connecting with students and faculty, she is very happy with her decision and constantly gaining new perspectives and points of view.

“I recently took this course on gender and sexuality in regional studies. It was interesting how we were able to think together about how we analyse gender and how we can include it in our respective research. I was studying with people who are looking at gender in different contexts and that brings so much richness to the discussion. My understanding of gender is very much related to my work in development cooperation and the topics of gender equality, political participation, these societal phenomena, but gender is transversal, part of every single sphere of life and sector of society. Having the opportunity to discuss with people working on such different topics got me thinking; how can we apply the gender perspective in any research? It sparks ideas for how I can look at my own subject, my own interactions with gender in a different way.”

She realized that while the topics and fields of research are different, many of the questions her and her fellow students were asking were similar. What are the relations and dynamics that should be considered? In that manner she can learn from other’s experiences and ideas.

“It has been a very wonderful process; people are very open to discussing and willing to learn. You don’t see that too often and that is something, that is helpful when you are starting out. It gives you the confidence to speak with others about your research and ask questions. It is something I really value about the university and the people I have been connecting with.”

Finding opportunities and facing fears

Starting her PhD in the middle of a global pandemic has not been easy. Carolina was fortunate enough to have been recommended to sign up for a mailing list for PhD students and that’s where she heard about the Una Europa PhD Slam. A PhD Slam is where PhD candidates get 7 minutes to present their research. In Una Europa there are eight universities (since January 2022 there are nine partners), so eight PhD candidates would get the opportunity to present. Her first response was not applying since she’s very uncomfortable speaking in public. But she had been trying to challenge herself to take opportunities like this, even if it scares her. She had recently had a positive experience with ignite talks, where she had 5 minutes to present with the help of mostly visual slides changing every 15 seconds, so she thought that this could be the next step.

“This was the next level because it was an international audience, a larger scale and a more complicated issue because it would be on my research. But it was also more exciting because it was an opportunity to speak about something that I care about and connect with people interested in the broader discussion of sustainability. So, I decided that I wanted to apply. It took me a while to actually do the application, because I was quite nervous about it, but during the last day I finally submitted it.”

She felt good about applying and was excited when she got the news that she would be the PhD student representing the University of Helsinki. She did everything she could to prepare and practice and was excited and nervous when the day finally came. She was going to be the last one to present. Just when it was finally her turn, there was problems with the internet connection, which meant long minutes of stressful efforts to get the technology to work.

“During the presentation I had several difficulties, which really threw me off balance. It makes it difficult to get a grip of yourself and for one moment I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it, either because of the technical problems but also because I was much more nervous and affected than I would have been without the technical problems. I managed to do the presentation and after I finished, I just felt relieved that it was over, but also kind of sad and maybe a little disappointed that it didn’t go as I had pictured in my head.”

This kind of situation is probably a collective nightmare for all of us in these times of Zoom and online meetings. While this was not how Carolina had planned things to go, she still managed to turn the stressful experience into an opportunity for learning.

“After thinking about the process, I see that it was an opportunity for learning valuable lessons, about how to be able to let things go and not be so afraid of problems or difficulties and failing in general. I managed to give a presentation with all those problems. That was something that helped me afterwards, to think of it in a more positive light. The main thing is to accept that sometimes even if you think that you have thought of all the things that can go wrong, something unexpected can still happen and you need to be able to give your best in those situations.”

Being able to still move ahead in times of uncertainty and challenges is a valuable skill. Carolina managed to get everything together and deliver her presentation in a convincing manner and the jury noticed. After the voting, they announced the top three presenters and Carolina got the third place.

“I couldn’t believe it and for a moment I thought that I was hearing wrong. I started thinking, despite all the problems I must have given a good presentation and have be able to convince people to vote for me, so I was happy about the results, and felt like all that work had paid off.”

The value of Una Europa

To Carolina it is not rocket science how an alliance like Una Europa is valuable to PhD students. Being an alliance of now nine of the top research universities in Europe, it provides access to a large number of like-minded people, researchers, opportunities for collaboration, and resources.

“The Una Europa network gives each student the opportunity to be on a stage that can amplify their voice. Through this network you get connected to the networks of each university and the network of those students and researchers. It gives you more opportunities and more space to work collaboratively, to learn from others, but also to disseminate your research. I think it’s invaluable.”

Carolina believes that it’s a channel for more open collaboration and opens possibilities for doing projects in a more sustainable way by including different perspectives on the same problem. In her opinion that brings a lot of richness.

“I believe there are many positive outcomes of such initiatives, in terms of professional growth of PhD students but it also makes it easier to tap into common resources and provides a wider reach for the impact that you envision for your research.”

Especially in a pandemic Una Europa is tapping into that virtuality and aiming to create a meaningful space for PhD students to gather virtually and connect. In that way, Una Europa facilitates creating the network and space for meeting others, but also a sense of feeling supported. Carolina has already taken advantage of the Una Europa network and tapped into the potential of our virtual, European community. So, what’s next?

“What I’m hoping for is more opportunities to speak about my research but also to connect with people working with similar questions. I’m eager and looking forward to challenge myself. I’m just starting, but I already have a lot of ideas and I’m looking forward to seeing this process as a journey, as an opportunity to be critical and self-assess my preconceptions and previous understandings of the work and changing them.”

Helsinki-Una Open Forum: Why do we need student engagement?

Student engagement is something we can all agree is great and important, at least in theory! But is it worth it when we need to put it into practice and how much should students be involved in? These are questions that we thought worth discussing and we will share some key insights from our last Helsinki-Una Open Forum right here.

At the Helsinki-Una Open Forums, we strive to bring up topics that connect our university with our broader network and involvement in the Una Europa alliance. 24th of November we had the fifth and last Open Forum of 2021 and we discussed the theme of student engagement.

We were lucky to have four great speakers and we got key insights as to why student engagement matters, how to do it well and what value it can contribute to our committees, international alliances, course development and building community in new programs.

If you want to watch the full talks, you can find them on UniTube.

Here we have gathered our main take-aways and reflections on how to strengthen involvement of students.

Teemu Turkki, student board member in Una Europa from the University of Helsinki.

Teemu has been a student board member in Una Europa since August and shared his experience working with fellow students in an international context, finding ways to include student voices and understanding the opportunities and challenges in a complex network such as Una Europa.

Teemu brought up many important points based on his experience in the student board:

  • The main goal of the student board (and other official bodies with students) is really to make sure the student voice is heard. That’s the essential and foundational role of these bodies. For students, it can feel difficult to really influence matters but they often have unique perspectives and suggestions that we can benefit from. The student board is crucial in facilitating that connection, and bridging bottom-up initiatives and ideas from students with the larger structures of networks such as Una Europa.
  • Student engagement happens on many different levels, from local to global and all of them matters when meaningfully engaging students. In Una Europa there is both the central Student board but also local task forces to engage local students and provide a flow of information both ways. While this is a great start, it is still challenging and an ongoing task to make sure that the centralised student board is transparent and shares the knowledge that is being gathered and discussed with all students to allow them to be informed and involved.
  • Finally, Teemu made a compelling argument for why student engagement is more important than ever. The world is increasingly complex, and we need the voices, ideas, and actions of many different people to solve the problems we are facing. It is not possible to solve problems alone. Decentralized decision-making and bottom-up engagement will be crucial to the success of Una Europa and in any kind of problem-solving in a global context, with challenges such as sustainability. For us to reach the ambitious goals of Una Europa and create the European university of the future, we truly need to engage students and make them our partners.
  1. Meri Mäkelä, university teacher and Rami Ratvio, university lecturer, and together coordinators of the SUST-001 course

Student engagement is not just about the students joining student associations and purely student driven initiatives. It is just as much about how we as staff are incorporating and including students in our work and giving them a seat at the table.

Meri and Rami understand very well the opportunities and benefits of being radically open, collaborative, and co-creating not just with students, but any member of the university community. They have been working on the university-wide sustainability course, SUST-001 that will be offered to all students. One of the main catalysts for this course was the university’s new strategic plan, where sustainability was positioned as a cross-cutting theme, to be present in all educational offerings. You can preview the course right here.

So, what have Meri and Rami learned from the ongoing process that has already lasted several years and included 160+ collaborators?

  • When planning a new initiative that will be university-wide and multidisciplinary it is beneficial to involve as stakeholders as possible. Meri and Rami are not only involving the students but also staff and other stakeholders within the university. In this kind of process, all perspectives and inputs can be valuable. It is hard to know where new insights might come from and the more people that are involved, the more insights and fresh thinking can happen. Especially initiatives related to complex topics such as sustainability benefits from a broad set of collaborators. If you want to be successful in creating a multidisciplinary course you need multidisciplinary approaches and points of view.
  • Students can take on many different roles and it is feasible to have them involved in all parts of the process. Students aren’t only included in the process of testing the course prototype, but they are involved in answering surveys, being test users, working on the content and pedagogical design, acting as facilitators in workshops and part of the steering group as equal members, in addition to being members of the working groups, and some are even working group leaders. Students were positioned as equals and encourage to contribute to the process at all stages with a full mandate together with staff.
  • Co-creative processes don’t have a clear start and end. When involving students and looking for feedback at all stages of the process, you need an iterative approach where feedback is integrated continuously. The course has been available in several iterations and changes have been made based on feedback from the students. If you want to engage students and do it well, you both need to make it clear how they can participate and show that you take the feedback seriously. There is nothing more discouraging that providing feedback and never seeing any changes being made. On the other hand, it is motivating to see your feedback put into practice.
  1. Alicia Lucendo Noriega, student in the master’s program Changing Education (CE)

Alicia is part of the first cohort in the first English-language program in the Faculty of Educational Sciences, Changing Education. They are not only the first English-language program, but they also had the challenge of creating a community in the middle of a global pandemic. In her presentation Alicia unpacked how to build a community from scratch and how proactive and creative students can be when provided the environment and encouragement to engage and co-create with staff.

So, what lessons can we learn from Alicia’s experience?

  • Co-create a community that feels safe and inclusive to everyone. It is an important part of culture building to allow students to commonly share and discuss what kind of community they want to be part of and what is important for them to feel able to express themselves freely with fellow students. In Changing Education this process started at the beginning of the program and continued through the first period. It allowed students to have a conversation about the kind of community they wanted to be part of. It both create ownership and a sense of responsibility towards the community. As Alicia said, it creates a strong foundation for learning. It is a reference point for everyone to refer to when needed and it is a continuous process to collectively bring it to life.
  • Connect with each other as human beings. Sometimes we get caught up in our roles and titles, who is student and who is staff. Alicia shared the initiative of Monday cafes where all students and staff could meet online. One hour each week, everyone could join this café to connect, talk, and share how it was going.
  • Collect feedback and act on it. Several feedback mechanisms have been put in place in the program, both regarding courses, but also to share experiences of the whole program and other aspects on students’ minds. Seeing the feedback being considered and put into practice, no matter how small, is encouraging and motivating. Ongoing conversations and dialogue are essential and in the Changing Education program students also organise a Student Panel each semester for the students to meet and openly discuss feedback and come up with concrete ideas together. Additionally, this is a great opportunity for community strengthening, since students come together and discuss how they together can improve the community. This kind of space allow students to get connected, act and feel a sense of agency for the collective they are part of.
  • Finally, Alicia emphasized how her program is an example of how much students are capable of when giving the opportunity. While the program staff did a lot and initiated the close cooperation with the students, the students also started several initiatives completely independently. They started a multimedia website where they share a podcast, blogs, their writings from courses including thoughts and ideas on how to change education. Additionally, they also created the first English-language student association Osa Ry in the faculty of educational science. They wanted to engage with the wider community and faculty, and they found ways to do this. By creating a platform to share their thoughts, work, and ideas they are striving to be part of changing education in practice. By organizing themselves in an association they are organizing events, connecting with the broader faculty and community. All this came from the wish to contribute to changing education. They are truly accepting the potential and invitation posed by their program, to change education.

We hope these insights inspired you as much as they inspired us, and we encouraged you to watch the full talks on UniTube! Student engagement is the future, students are essential partners within our collective university community and there are so many ways we can benefit from their insights and passion. We hope this has given you some ideas on how to strengthen the involvement of students in your own initiatives and projects.

Helsinki-Una Open Forum will return in January 2022 and we hope to see you for another year of thought-provoking talks and discussions!

“Let’s do this big”: Sustainability transition by co-created learning objectives

One of the most powerful features of Una Europa, to me, is the combination of value-based shared goals and boldness to reach for new solutions. Commitment to sustainability is one of the fundamental values that the University of Helsinki and Una Europa share.

For the University of Helsinki, embedding aspects of the UN sustainable development goals in all our educational offerings​ is one of our strategic goals for this decade. A tangible measure toward this goal is our brand new sustainability course launched this spring and piloted as we speak.

Una Europa, with sustainability as one of its five focus areas, is determined to address the sustainable development goals via dialogue between natural sciences, social sciences, health sciences, engineering, arts and humanities from all eight partner universities. The goal is to co-create innovative formats for education that enable a new holistic approach to sustainability teaching. All academics within the University of Helsinki are welcome to influence their shape and direction.

In concrete, the Una Europa community is working on both a joint bachelor’s degree and a master’s level micro-qualification in sustainability science. The bachelor’s programme in sustainability is a unique initiative as a step toward truly joint degrees: co-created by sustainability researchers from all universities, earning the students a degree recognised by all degree awarding universities. The micro-qualification in sustainability represents a new European opening designed to answer the needs of master’s students, individuals switching fields and life-long learners alike with a 20 ECTS module of four MOOCs.

What can these new approaches to sustainability teaching mean for us at University of Helsinki in practice? To find out, the second UH-Una Open Forum on 31 March set out to discuss our university community’s expectations for Una Europa collaboration. An active group of researchers, teachers, students and specialists sparked discussion circulating around expectations, benefits and needs for Una sustainability cooperation.

The following are my takeaways from the discussion – ideas I intend to keep at heart as we continue paving the way towards our shared goals.

High expectations 

Quality and collaboration were two keywords characterising the participants’ expectations for Una Europa collaboration. The level of ambition and excitement was epitomised in the output of one of the group discussions: “Let’s do this BIG – gather students & researchers & professionals all over Europe to join forces for the sustainability transition!”

Quality expectations were connected to the content and pedagogy of sustainability education but also to the process of creating the joint bachelor’s degree and the micro-qualification. Personally, I am inclined to see precisely the collaborative working method as a solution for increased quality in content. Genuinely co-created contents and methods for education will build on expertise and best practices from all eight universities. However, such a goal can pose needs for a kind of creation process we may not be used to.

Co-created goals to guide collaboration 

In the Open Forum discussion on the needs for successful collaboration, one need named was getting to know each other to create mutual understanding and ultimately shared goals. This is indeed a crucial starting point. It is also something that requires dialogue and proper time and patience given to the process.

Because we also want to advance at pace, the process needs guidance. Intercultural collaborative processes like this can get fuzzy as we come together from our different viewpoints to build something completely new. We easily get lost in mapping out our existing course offerings and figuring out how to best combine them into a new whole, or which practical obstacles to consider as permanent and justified limitations and which ones to work around.

A solution simplifying such decisions is putting our learning objectives to use as the guiding light for our co-creation process. For the micro-qualification, the learning objectives have been defined this spring and the process is well on its way for the Joint Bachelor as well.

Reminding ourselves of these objectives from time to time can solve many problems for us. When in doubt, ask which solution brings us closer to the objective of, say, students critically reflecting the sustainable development goals in different cultural contexts. This can tilt the balance for executing a given course as a joint online course to enable dialogue and participation from all universities.

Keeping learning objectives in mind as our core goals is both a way of keeping focused and building the joint degree and micro-qualification into something more than a reassembling of the courses we already offer – into more than just the sum of the parts, as called for in our Open Forum.

Keeping all on board 

Another insight form the Open Forum was the need for coordination. Fostering participation opportunities and bottom-up development of our sustainability education should be balanced with providing a clear framework supporting the stakeholders involved – students, teachers, administrative specialists, employers and others.

Regular follow up events and updates to keep everyone involved were concrete wishes we should live up to. Here are some of the ways already in use to distribute information and engage interested UH community members.

Updates and viewpoints on Una Europa collaboration are published regularly in this blog. The third UH-Una Open Forum on 19 May will discuss Una Europa seed funding with the aim of supporting the initiation of long-term collaborative activities between the partner universities.

The design of the micro-qualification was created in the leadership of prof. Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, advancing novel MOOC co-teaching within Una Europa. From May 2021 on the implementation of the MOOCs will be led by Laura Riuttanen.

Hands-on work shaping the Joint Bachelor in sustainability is about to get a boost from a new preparatory group with the task of coordinating teaching for the Una Europa joint bachelor’s degrees in sustainability and European studies. A call for members to the group will be open during the first two weeks of May – stay tuned for more information!

Jenna Sorjonen, planning officer for Una Europa’s 1Europe project