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Interactive introduction to sustainable development

How do you teach a subject of values in an engineering programme? In this course module, Sustainable Development is approached as an academic subject as well as a subject of values. The module provides an overview introduction to the subject and students are invited to discuss and reflect on the difficulties that sustainability issues may impose in an engineering context.

Overview of the module

The subject is introduced broadly as the module commences, with definitions of terms, concepts and some of the most important issues. Connections between sustainability and technology/engineering are discussed throughout the module. A lot of time and focus is put on students’ own reflections and experiences, with discussions both in smaller groups and in the lecture theatre.

The course module consists of two lectures (three hours each) and three seminars (between three and three and a half hour each). At the seminars, students play several board games with teacher led briefings and debriefings around their experiences. There are also literature readings and homework assignments (one individual assignment and two group assignments). At the end of the module, there is a computerised knowledge test.

Module overview.
Lecture 1: "Introduction, systems, complexity & sustainability challenges",
Seminar: "Fish Banks", written assignment (ind)
Seminar: "Dilemma 1", written assignment (group)
Seminar: "Dilemma 2", written assignment (group)
Lecture 2: "sustainability and engineering, technology & society¨,
Computerised test
Module overview

Fully implemented, the course module is expected to demand about 40 hours from each student (18 hour in class, 3-6 hours in assignment work and about two full days of literature readings), which should correspond to the expected work load of 1,5 hp/ECTS.


The course module was initially developed within the process to integrate Sustainable Development into the Mechanical Engineering Programme at KTH, and was delivered for the first time in the autumn term of 2012. Since then, several other programmes have introduced the module and it is now delivered to about 600-800 students each year.

There is a continuous process to constantly analyse and improve the various parts of the module. The interactive and innovative use of games in particular, has so far led to two scientific publications and presentations at the series of EESD conferences (EESD – Engineering Education for Sustainable Development):

The paper is a comprehensive study performed in collaboration with the Centre for Sustainable Development at the University of Cambridge (UK) , where similar teaching activities are used. In that paper, experiences from the two institutions are compared.


The aim of the course module is to provide an academic introduction (definitions, concepts, historic context, insight of current problems and challenges, relevance in various engineering contexts, knowledge of useful tools, etc.) as well as to catalyse critical thinking among students by enforcing individual reflection and interpersonal discussion and debate. Sustainable development is to a large part a subject of values, which is one of the reasons for different individuals, organisations and various stakeholders to claim different opinions and viewpoint – sometimes radically different. People often disagree on which would be the most suitable strategy to achieve a sustainable development.

At the core of the module, from a pedagogic perspective, there is a series of discussion intensive, interactive learning activities: two lectures and three board game seminars. These classroom activities are complemented by literature readings and homework assignments to provide a solid foundation on sustainability issues. Drawing on that foundation, succeeding courses of the programme may then add more subject specific perspectives to provide a deeper understanding of the relationship between sustainable development and the engineering practice of the specific programme.

At the board game seminars, two board games are played: Fishbanks and Dilemma.

Fishbanks Game board with a coastal area and boat-shaped game pieces, a paper with a role description
Dilemma Game board with blueprint and gear patterns, game pieces and two types of playing cards: "step by step" and "dilemma".


Fishbanks is a simulation game developed by Dennis Meadows (co-author to “Limits to Growth”) and provides a demonstration of the concept of the tragedy of the commons. In the game, participants play in groups taking on the role of fishing companies. The objective of the game is for teams to maximise the growth of their respective company value by managing their fleet of fishing boats and their relationship with the other teams in a strategic manner. The task demands decision making with limited access to information, management of a renewable resource in a complex system, and interplay with other stakeholders including competition, negotiation and cooperation. In connection with the game session, there is a comprehensive debriefing where the students’ own experiences during the session are discussed. There is also an individual homework assignment connected to the Fishbanks seminar.


Dilemmais a quiz-like board game for 3-5 players developed by Jon-Erik Dahlin. The game is a fun way to learn about sustainable development. It also encourages participants to reflect, to debate and to think critically about sustainability dilemmas, which often have both moral and ethical dimensions. The game includes knowledge questions and dilemmas.

The knowledge questions are written on cards together with clues, and they offer a learning activity in themselves as well as a knowledge check-up before the written test. There is one deck with ‘easy questions’ and one with ‘difficult questions’.

The dilemma challenges are also written on cards, together with two opposing viewpoints for each dilemma. Players should put forward arguments for one of those viewpoints (and they may very well have to argue for a viewpoint which they do not actually agree with!), and another player should put forward arguments for the opposing viewpoint. There are three decks of dilemma-cards: (1) on sustainable development as a concept, and various perspectives on sustainability; (2) on various sustainability challenges and opposing views on how to deal with those; (3) on the relationship between sustainable development and technology/engineering. It is possible to play the Dilemma game with the same student group at up to three separate occasions, where a new deck with dilemma cards is chosen each time.

Debriefings, assignments and repetitivity

Dilemma was developed to be used in classroom exercises or seminars, as a fun and interactive learning method for students. It is also a great tool for teachers, who can use the ‘dilemmas’ found in the box as a starting point for discussions, assignments or case studies. In the introduction course module, the game is used in association with debriefings, assignments, and using the beneficial effects of repetivity:

  • Debriefings: rather than playing the game with students as an isolated event, it is extremely powerful to end each game session with a well prepared debriefing. At least 45 minutes should be set aside for the debriefing. It is valuable for the students’ learning to discuss for example (i) their experiences during discussions, (ii) how game session discussions may be similar in some senses and different in others to the public media debate, (iii) bring up a few of the dilemmas encountered during the game session and discuss those in the class with teacher moderation.
  • Assignments: during a Dilemma game session students have the chance to formulate discussion arguments themselves. During debriefing some discussion points may be brought up for a more thorough debate with teacher moderation. As a third tier, it is powerful to give students a group assignment, to choose one of the dilemmas encountered during the game session – to study the particular subject further and to formulate more well though trough arguments that they hand in as a written assignment task.
  • Repetitivity: the board game Dilemma is designed to be played repetitively by the same student group up to three times. There are three decks of Dilemma cards and a new theme of dilemmas is used each time.

Course literature

The literature used within this module is the text book: ”Hållbar Utveckling – en introduktion för ingenjörer” (  (Dahlin 2014, ISBN: 9789144092669); together with references to reports, journal papers, and preparatory material for the seminars.


KTH Sustainability Office for more information: