Awareness of the local and global impact of sustainability is a key skill for modern graduates, as they enter the workforce to take on the world’s biggest challenges. International project-based learning is one way leading institutions are preparing graduates to be just as impactful, as they are employable.

UNSW Employability’s Global Practice of Work course exists to give students a global and real-world understanding of their future career prospects and impact potential. With placements at leading partner institutions around the world, students are given the opportunity to test their skills outside the classroom, with real business problems to solve. Head of Employability at UNSW, Nigel Smith says this aspect of the program plays a vital role in equipping students for success in today’s globalised environment.

UNSW student enrolled in CDEV3300 at TEDI-London in London, UK during Summer Term (January 2024).

“Being conscious of and addressing UN Sustainable Development Goals is fundamental to the future of work. By engaging with industry partners, academic experts and professionals from around the world, and peers from various disciplines, students gain valuable insights into project management and problem solving from multiple perspectives,” he says.

Developing globally minded problem-solvers

One of the placements for the Global Practice of Work program takes place at TEDI-London, a leading engineering institute that focuses on tackling global challenges and fostering socially conscious problem-solvers with a global perspective. TEDI-London was co-founded by UNSW as part of the PLuS Alliance, along with Arizona State University and King’s College London.

Dr Matt Thompson during TEDI London Winter School, which is our Summer Term in January 2024.

Teaching Fellow and Academic Lead for Residentials at TEDI-London, Dr Matt Thompson, says the institute firmly believes in the power of bringing a diverse group of students together to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges.

“The world is calling out for a new type of engineer, a socially responsible leader who is aware of the global challenges and is prepared to tackle them head on,” Dr Thompson says.

“Students’ experience at TEDI-London is a great chance for them to showcase those skills and get involved in making real changes to the way industry thinks and delivers projects.”

UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education & Student Experience, Professor Sarah Maddison visits UNSW students at TEDI-London in January 2024.

And both Dr Thompson and Course Convenor and UNSW lecturer Suzanne Schibeci agree that project-based learning is vital to this approach. Ideas can be discussed in lecture halls and tutorials, but this doesn’t give students the experience or skills to implement them in industry.

“In a classroom environment teachers will give students a task because they know what works. The students solve a problem using a process as instructed, and if followed correctly, they will end up with the expected answer. This is completely different to what our cohort are tackling at TEDI,” Schibeci says.

UNSW students working in teams on a sustainability project solution for Yes Make, as a part of CDEV3300 Global Practice of Work.

By giving students the chance to participate in innovative project-based learning experiences, they are made aware of the many complexities that arise when bringing their solutions to life.

“They’re given this task, the problem. They can solve it any way they like. There's no right or wrong answer necessarily, and this forces students to really explore, collaborate, iterate and ultimately solve that problem in some useful and creative way,” Schibeci adds.

Schibeci spent the 2024 TEDI-London Winter School session with the students in London, seeing how students from different disciplines including science, engineering, business and commerce work together to come up with solutions for client and local sustainable building company and community place maker, Yes Make.

Turning real problems into real sustainable solutions

Yes Make salvages some of the 5,000 – 10,000 trees that are felled in London each year because of things like disease, storm damage and urban development. Rather than being turned into woodchip or incinerated, Yes Make is working toward the creation of a circular economy by using this timber to build public spaces and community projects that uplift, educate and inspire.

But cutting, processing and preparing timber in an urban environment presents certain challenges, so Yes Make’s Creative Director, Joel De Mowbray, called on students to help them improve production issues and reduce waste.

Yes Make’s Creative Director Joel De Mowbray with UNSW students in London.

“Being part of giving students practical and hands-on experience in our field was a brilliant opportunity to start training up a new generation and give them a real-world working reference for a circular economy business model,” De Mowbray says.

UNSW students presenting their project solutions to Yes Make Creative Director Joel De Mowbray and other government and industry guests.

Impressive ideas with impact

Split into four teams, the students had to ideate, iterate, create and build their solutions to Yes Make’s problems, and present them in a Showcase to De Mowbray and other government and industry guests at the end of the three-week program. Here’s what they came up with.

  • One of Yes Make’s problems is racking and accessing timber easily in their small urban workshop. The team behind Swiftrack BTS designed a prototype with a rotational storage system to create a vertical carousel rack that brings the material to the user.

  • After processing urban timber there’s still a lot of waste. Yes Make wanted to reuse rather than throw excess woodchip and sawdust away. The team behind Sawn Off Structures took up the challenge by creating a prototype of a wood board inspired MDF timber but designed to be more sustainable.

  • When working with urban or second-hand timber, undetected nails and metal shrapnel can damage cutting blades, wasting money and time. To solve this issue, the team behind Pocket Probe has created a prototype of a cost-effective and portable metal detector, which can be used to spot any hidden pieces of metal before starting to saw it.

  • The time consuming and inconsistent process of air-drying timber causes a bottleneck in Yes Make’s production process. To solve this problem, students created a prototype vacuum kiln to speed up and give more control to the drying process, for more consistent results. Their prototype also had a control system coded on Arduino, which would allow the user to check the temperature and moisture within the kiln.

UNSW student working on a real-world sustainability project for Yes Make in London.

leaving a lasting impact

De Mowbray was so impressed with the students’ engagement and dedication when it came to solving Yes Make’s problems, they have scheduled full scale production of The Vacuum Kiln and Swiftrack BTS.

“It was fantastic to see that in just three weeks the students came up with not one but two solutions which we plan to build and implement in our business right away. These will help Yes Make provide even greater impact on the community and environment,” he said.

CDEV3300 TEDI-London Winter School (Summer Term, January 2024) cohort.

Experiences like the Winter School at TEDI-London broaden students’ understanding of how they can make an impact, while building a career with purpose. By having the opportunity to solve problems creatively and collaboratively, students are building vital understanding that the world’s biggest problems extend beyond their own backyard – and they can play a part in making a difference.

This article was brought to you by UNSW Employability.