Brave spaces of teaching and learning that effect change for Sustainable Development

by | Jan 16, 2023 | Student engagement

Dr Jen O’Brien (PFHEA) is Director of Undergraduate Studies and Senior Lecturer in Human Geography in the Faculty of Humanities, and is the University’s Academic Lead for Sustainability Teaching and Learning. Jen was also one of the Institute of Teaching and Learning’s inaugural Fellows and has developed the University Living Lab, an award-winning platform which builds partnerships between students and organisations for Sustainable Development and is open to all within the University and beyond.  In this piece Jen outlines the context in which the Living Lab was developed and how colleagues can use this with their students, and explores how creating brave spaces in teaching can channel the talents of our students and foster their power to effect change in the face of the critical challenges facing us all in sustainability.  


As I write, world leaders gather in Egypt for COP27. The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, warned that “we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”, a challenging message to consider, especially amidst war in Ukraine, energy shortages and dramatic inflation and austerity. Last week, I delivered the plenary for the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC) Annual Summit. At the Summit, many sector leaders spoke about the opportunity to effect change through partnership with students as future thinkers, leaders and decisions makers.  During the Summit break, many of us took a walk in the unseasonably warm 16 degree November sunshine.   

At times, the EAUC Summit was uncomfortable. Indeed, to adopt a truly transformative approach to, and through, learning we often need to have uncomfortable conversations (Boler, 1999; Winks, 2014).  The message that ‘the youth’ will save us is a heavy burden on narrow shoulders, as the updated research from Bath University – revealing that 45% of global students live with paralysing climate anxiety – will testify. Furthermore, many of us facilitating those uncomfortable discussions are not only acutely aware of the multiple socio-environmental crises that we face, but have lived with (climate) anxiety, and indeed anger, for decades.   

There was also a trumpeting elephant in the room.  Yes, we need to empower, inform and equip our students to disrupt, to challenge and to change.  But we need to do so in a – let’s be honest – marketised education system where students, especially if they international, are investing a lot into a degree on which they need a safe return.  Many colleagues have commented on increased questions about ‘the exam’, especially after the disruption of Covid.  Meanwhile, we complete increasing paperwork about ILOs, UEQs, and stepped marking criteria. At times, HE itself seems to be a barrier to pedagogic innovation, but safe spaces and comfortable conversations won’t change the world.  Cook-Sather (2016) suggests that instead of a pedagogy of discomfort, we should consider ‘brave spaces’ in which learners can, and will, face danger and take risks, in the knowledge that all involved are in conscious agreement about the nature of those risks and will support each other to engage with difficult and risky dialogue (Noddings, 2013).     

The University Living Lab and the impact of students’ research 

Our University Living Lab offers a brave space of authentic, co-produced assessment that is making impact for sustainable development.  We have over 150 projects set by around 50 external stakeholders, local to global.  Framed around the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, these projects are concept notes, or statements of a problem that organisations need to propel their work in and around sustainable development.  Some projects ask for case study, policy or data analysis; some ask for empirical data collection, or visualization. The broad research briefs can be used in two ways.  You could use this model as your course assessment and I have a lot of learning and resources that I am happy to share.  Or, you can direct your students to our database as a source of inspiration for an essay, a dissertation or an assignment. Students, individually or in groups, can adapt our broad projects to their/your assessment and undertake it as normal with the expected rigorous ethical frameworks. In both cases, the student work is marked by the course lead as normal.  If a student achieves 65% or more, they can send their research to our platform and we link it back to the organisation who set it.  Over time, we share with the student any evidence of impact that their research has made. With partners’ permission, we are hosting students’ work on our platform to the benefit of their profile, and to build an open source of iterative knowledge. Reflecting back on the uncomfortable EAUC discussion whilst yes, students will effect change for sustainable development when they graduate as leaders, thinkers, etc, the University Living Lab has also illustrated just how much ‘real world’ impact students can have now, and as a part of their core degree learning. 

Indeed, students’ research through the University Living Lab is driving impact. Student research on urban resilience was presented to the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. Student research has shaped food bank location and practice.  Students’ work has even shaped physical infrastructure with the inclusion of bubble beehives on the new BASE office block (as bees are the keystone of biodiversity and the symbol of Manchester, that may always be my favourite example!). The scale of potential impact is staggering.  There are 43,000 students at the University of Manchester.  If just half of them dedicated a quarter of their assessment time through the University Living Lab, we could channel 7.5million hours of research time to address the interlinking ‘wicked problems’ that we face. Imagine the global potential.  


Brave spaces and authentic assessment 

This is challenging assessment to begin with.  With support, however, students can be brave and undertake authentic assessment to effect positive change.  One student said: “The assessment style is the best I have had yet, it challenges 21st century challenges with the learning, and lets you interact with these challenges alongside a business – learning feels useful when it is put into real-world contexts”. This is also light touch exposure to industry, which, as part of existing degree assessment, is then accessible to all students; two students were employed by the organisations they researched for and many more attribute their employment to this experience.  The University Living Lab offers a powerful way to connect knowledge.  One of our projects was set by an Equity and Merit Alumni who established an NGO in Tanzania to rescue women and girls from forced marriages.  He literally cannot access the same level of resource that our students can through the library – in turn, as part of their degree learning, students can help shape a NGO strategy that will have major impact. At a local scale, the University Living Lab also helps to build meaningful partnerships to better understand our shared challenges as a Civic University.  Mark Duncan, Manchester City Council, said the University Living Lab: “helped to shift how we see the University as a partner, enabling us to work far more closely together to benefit from their expertise and capacity. I have seen value and impacts that will encourage me to continue to look for further collaboration opportunities with the University”. In a world of research-led teaching, the University Living Lab then also offers teaching-led research.  

I found some of the messages at the EAUC difficult because: I know.  As I am sure you do.  We know the injustices of the world that we live in.  I also know just how hard many of us – teachers and learners – are working, and in many cases have been for decades.  We need supportive brave spaces of learning to disrupt the norm of the world, and of education. It also reminded me of the importance of brave spaces of teaching, in which we value and care for each other, as we step up our urgent action, in a sustainable way.  The University Living Lab is an experiment. It was co-constructed with students and educators.  If you would like to use it, develop it or suggest projects for it, please don’t hesitate to get in touch to collectively build further brave spaces of teaching that effect change. 

To discuss the Living Lab or to explore other aspects of Sustainability Teaching and Learning, contact Jen on  There is also an animation that has been created to explain the University Living Lab to students, which is available to all.



Bowler, M., (1999) Feeling power: emotions and education. Psychology Press, UK 

Cook-Sather A (2016) Creating brave spaces within and through student-faculty pedagogical partnerships. Teach Learn Together High Educ 1:1 

Noddings, N., (2013) Caring: a relational approach to ethics and moral education. University of California Press 

Winks, L. (2018). Discomfort, Challenge and Brave Spaces in Higher Education. In: Leal Filho, W. (eds) Implementing Sustainability in the Curriculum of Universities. World Sustainability Series. Springer, Cham