Vertically Integrated Projects for Sustainable Development



University of Strathclyde
Organizations/areas of the university involved

All faculties of the University


This case study shares the University of Strathclyde’s experience of embedding Research-Based Education for Sustainable Development in curricula, using an innovative RBE pedagogy called Vertically Integrated Projects for SDG-focused research.

The first of its kind in UK Higher Education, and winner of the 2020 International Green Gown Award for Student Engagement (in a large institution) and the AASHE Campus Sustainability Research Award, the University of Strathclyde’s Vertically Integrated Projects for Sustainable Development (VIP4SD) programme offers undergraduate students the opportunity to work together on interdisciplinary and credit bearing research projects. The VIP4SD programme utilises our unique access to the talent, enthusiasm and optimism of our undergraduate students to engage them in real-world research projects. In the words of Sir Jonathan Porritt, through this work they are “not only preparing for the world of work, but the work of the world”.

VIP4SD represents a reorientation of education and ESD to embed research-based education for sustainable development in our curricula. It offers students the opportunity to gain academic credits by working in partnership with their peers from different disciplines and year groups, and with experienced researchers and academics, on ambitious research projects that tackle the SDGs.

The vertically integrated nature of projects means that students can remain involved in these projects throughout their time at University, returning each year and helping to grow the project. This gives them the time and space to develop deeper levels of understanding of the issues and research challenges underpinning the SDGs which their project addresses. This also provides the continuity required for projects to take on long-term, bold and ambitious research challenges.

The VIP4SD programme currently involves approx. 200 students working across 20 projects, and Strathclyde is in the process of mainstreaming and scaling up the programme. We are working to embed it in the formal curricula of all four of our faculties, and plan to develop a comprehensive and impactful portfolio of student-centred SDG-focused research teams and projects. The programme leaders at Strathclyde are already working with other HEIs internationally (UK, Sweden, US and Kenya) to replicate this model and develop a global network of VIP4SD programmes, and are also exploring opportunities for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) to connect sites and students with complementary SDG-focused research objectives.


Results and impact measured or expected

Student testimonies have been captured over multiple years from numerous VIP4SD projects; however, given recent scaling up and mainstreaming of the programme, and its planned growth, the learner population size is reaching levels from which discernible trends and measures of programme efficacy and student sustainability awareness, literacy and competency development can be measured and analysed. We have recently developed and administered a VIP4SD and ESD student survey, where non-VIP4SD and non-ESD students will form the control group. The survey is based on the competencies outlined in UNESCO ‘Education for the SDGs – Learning Objectives’, the QAA/Advance HE ‘Guidelines for ESD in HE’, and also the World Economic Forum’s ‘The Future of Jobs’ report, and will also seek to establish the compatibility and alignment between ESD and future employability competencies.

Connection with the SDG framework

VIP4SD programme connections to Education for the SDGs:

•        Interdisciplinary research projects – platform for students to apply disciplinary knowledge within interdisciplinary settings, involving students not only from different year groups, but also different disciplines. Students are afforded time to make effective transition from knowledge consumers to knowledge producers, and opportunity to ‘make a difference’, which works to inspire students to deeper levels of learning.

•        Programme forms a PhD pipeline for new research and PGR students and staff.

•        Action-oriented – platform for students to jointly tackle real-world SDG research and deliver tangible impact.

•        21st Century Competencies – currently developing framework and tools for learners to track ESD competency development (how, when and where these are developed throughout VIP4SD journey).

•        Partnerships and community – Cohesive research programme with diverse research portfolio, and common overarching aim of progressing Agenda 2030, developing SDG staff/student partnership and community.

•        Scalable and replicable approach to integrating RBESD within formal curricula.


Barriers and follow up

The main challenges exist around:
• Institutional promotion and acceptance (buy-in): Value proposition centred on nexus around innovative teaching, ESD and research support – leading to enhanced student experience
• By thinking big, but starting small, a proof of concept pilot supported the building of case for programme mainstreaming.
• Academic regulations, curriculum changes and credit structures: ‘Container classes’ (i.e. project-based classes with comparable learning outcomes), electives and also extra credit options were used to create vertically integrated pathways through degree curricula.
• Degree accreditation requirements: Important to advocate for change outside the institution too in order to effect change inside. This is particularly true for changes required to degree accreditation criteria and the explicit inclusion of elements of ESD.
• Staff resourcing and student engagement and recruitment: Staff provided modest seed funding for projects and brokerage events where project leads pitch to students and then students enter application process for selection onto VIP4SD research teams.
• Assessment and supervision: Presentations, demonstrations, reports.

Transferability of the initiative

This programme has been replicated in other HEIs. This opens up an opportunity to build an international and collaborative network of VIP4SD programmes, working jointly on SDG-related research and teaching. This presents inter-cultural learning opportunities for students, and opportunities for virtual and physical student/staff teaching/research exchange. An International VIP Consortium of over 40 HEIs already exists. While many don’t explicitly align their programmes with the SDGs, following Strathclyde’s lead (as a founding member of this consortium), some have now begun to map projects to SDGs. Strathclyde is leading discussions around the formation of a consortium COIL network, connecting programmes’ research focusing on complementary areas of student-centred, SDG-focused teaching/research. Strathclyde is working with HEIs in UK, Sweden, US and Kenya – some of which are actively considering setting up similar programmes with consortium support. Other institutions (including Strathmore University, Kenya) are in the process of either starting up or expanding their programmes.