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Sustainability Challenge - How our Students Live and Experience Sustainability

For the first time HSBA MSc Digital Transformation & Sustainability students faced the Sustainability Challenge. An experience they will not forget for the rest of their lives.

Mixing concrete in Nepal? Scrubbing shower cabins? Doesn’t sound like the content of an accredited degree progarmme at a business school, does it? In the part-time (“berufsbegleitend”) postgraduate degree MSc Digital Transformation & Sustainability, learning is largely project-based and includes challenging oneself and leaving one's comfort zone. Part of the curriculum of the fourth semester includes the module "Sustainability Challenge" where students experience a change in perspective and show commitment: for the society we live in. The class of 2018 has recently experienced this for the first time. We spoke to Johanna Schnurr, the module head.   

Studierende des Studiengangs DTS an der HSBA
Photo: Jana Tolle

Dear Ms. Schnurr, how does the Sustainability Challenge, ultimately a kind of sustainable internship, fit into the context of a  business school, offering degree courses paired with work experience? 

It does fit very well; not just  for the university context but it’s also a great experience for the companies. The Sustainability Challenge gives the student another perspective of sustainability: students have the chance to experience themselves in a completely different context for the duration of their Challenge and thereby learn skills that’re difficult to teach in a classroom setting. And, everyone benefits. Normally, the students move between a business and a science context in their normal student life, here they have the chance to "get into action". The question of how to create a more sustainable economy and society is an issue that runs through the entire course and is also addressed in the project work. The project work focusses on practically: students discover what makes NGOs or social businesses tick; they learn that work is not only gainful employment; they get to know that there is more than just money avaible as a reward:  gratitude, humanity, joy. They basically leave their "bubble" for a limited period of time. The Patriotic Society in Hamburg, for example, which offers a change of perspective for managers, follows exactly this approach. 
At the same time, however, the module's autonomy also conveys that commitment to sustainability is not something that can be achieved "on top". Rather, it is about getting involved from within your own everyday life. What’s the core business in companies is, in this case, the part-time postgraduate programme. 
What exactly is this module about, what is its goal, what content do the students learn about?

The core of the module is that the students make a contribution to sustainable development. This contribution includes at least 40 hours of activity donation, additional preparation, follow-up and reflection. The Sustainability Challenge is also about challenging oneself. 

On an individual level, we discuss two things: First, the commitment to sustainability: Which Sustainable Development Goad is particularly important to me? Where do I want to make a contribution to bring about change? On the other hand, it's about acquiring competences: What are my goals? What am I already good at and what is my scope for growth? Students should also step out of their comfort zone taking their hobby, their social commitment with them. For example, someone who has been involved in football as a referee for a long time might now donate their time to a homeless aid organisation. So anyone who has paid attention to fair play before is now learning to overcome their own prejudices.  

But how far you go concretely is an individual decision. Not everyone can work in animal rescue or a drug help centre, for example. It is about challenging oneself, not about taking on too much.
This module run for the first time. How did the student accept the Challenge?  

Really positively. Already in the preliminary discussion it became clear that the students wanted to get and that they were ready to experience learning in a different way. Many of them had concrete ideas at the beginning in what area they wanted to get involved in; others saw the added value of doing something they had not dared to do before. It makes a difference whether I consider getting involved with street dogs that are virtually "innocent" or young people who have committed a crime. 
At the same time, running the module was an organisational challenge. Unlike all other modules, SC does not take place in a regular classroom setting or at specific times. Naturally, as not every activity fits into a rigid time window  like"Monday morning from 9 to 12". As a result, the actual coursework takes place in the so-called self-study time and the students have to juggle this time with their free time. But that is exactly how it was possible to take on Challenges in Nepal or in an agriculture setting. And, by the way, the timing was sometimes difficult due to the wishes of the companies. Not all were ready to accept our time model. 
Flexibility became a huge issue just after the start of the module. Along came Corona and the restrictions actually brought all Challenges to a standstill. 

And then flexibility was demanded of us all even more. Because the corona restrictions at the beginning of the semester actually brought all challenges to a standstill. In most cases, it was not foreseeable when the students’ places of work would resume their activities and some students had to look for a new Challenge. Others worked more digitally than originally planned. It makes me very happy that neither the motivation nor the commitment amongst the students decreased during that time. It is already apparent that some of them are already committed far beyond the required level or are supporting "their initiative" in the long term. If the student and the project fit together so well, it is really brilliant, of course.  
All in all, I can say that the students have really taken up their Sustainability Challenge and I am deeply impressed hearing their experiences.  There's really a lot of passion and heart and soul in it!   

On their blog Digistainable the students present their projects in detail: