There is a unique opportunity before us to inspire and mobilize our students to engage with the world’s most pressing issues, as defined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs provide educators with a wonderful canvas to embed global issues that require collective expertise and solutions into our curriculum. In this article, I share my experience with incorporating the SDGs into one of my courses to help students realize their lifelong mission and career purpose. While the example I provide was used in a post-secondary setting as a career education framework, my intention is to inspire you to consider how you might incorporate a similar approach toward helping your K–12 students connect with these critical topics and relate them to their own career aspirations.
I teach a post-university transitions course at both the University of the Fraser Valley and Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. The main course objective is to ensure students are well prepared for their journey after post-secondary graduation. I elected to use the SDGs as a framework to help students consider three ambitious questions that can evoke personal values and their sense of purpose:
- What is the world that you want to live in?
- What are the global problems or opportunities that need your attention?
- What are your talents and experiences that may help address these problems, and in turn improve the condition of our world?
Rather than simply pose these questions in a single lecture, I elected to embed them in various capacities within assignments and activities throughout the term. In particular, I chose to structure these as “renewable assignments” that aim to provide value and impact beyond the course, as opposed to disposable assignments that students set aside once they are completed.
The results demonstrated immediate impact; students felt that the content was engaging and they immersed themselves into their assignments and activities. As one student noted:
“This course [and the SDG components] has me more focused on my dream of being more than a teacher… to ensure children are receiving more than a quality education… [and that they] do not go without food, have access to clean water, are healthy (mentally, physically, and emotionally), have equality, and gain skills to thrive in their community.”
Furthermore, a common insight that many students shared is articulated in this student’s comment about introducing the SDGs within the K–12 system:
“I found it surprising that the SDGs… (or the MDGs, which was the earlier version) were not introduced earlier in my undergrad, or even while I was in elementary and high school! Learning about them earlier on would have helped me better connect what I want to know and how I can help my community.”
I agree with this student that the SDGs can and should be introduced at a much earlier age. Three assignments that resonated particularly well with my students are described below, along with ideas for adapting them to suit the K–12 environment:
Incorporating SDGs into career education
In the course, students are asked to research labour market information related to their career aspirations, using search engines such as the Government of Canada’s National Occupation Code (National) and WorkBC’s Labour Market Information Office (Provincial). What skills, education, and experiences are required to enter the occupation? What might be their career outlook and prospects, provincially and nationally? Having conducted this research, students are asked to consider which of the 17 SDGs their chosen profession or field might help advance and how.
Applicability to K–12: This assignment and its activities are likely suitable to the more senior secondary school years to help students further their research literacy and critical thinking skills. Students may also use this opportunity to explore the types of work – both in terms of paid employment and unpaid volunteer/service pursuits – that directly support or are involved within one or more of the SDGs, to help expand their understanding of how diverse occupations might be.
In the information interview project, students speak with three individuals whom they believe can provide insight into a type of work they are considering, and then they reflect on these conversations. One of the reflective questions embedded in the project asks them to consider the common themes that emerged in their conversations, and how they believe these themes and individuals shed further insights into the SDGs.
Applicability to K–12: This assignment can be adapted to suit a particular grade level, from teachers providing a list of questions to ask in the lower grades, to empowering students to generate questions on their own in the higher levels. This assignment might be comparable to a career/occupation activity where teachers invite guest speakers to visit the class and talk about their profession, resulting in a group information interview where any students can pose questions. For example, a student interested in pursuing an occupation in trades might interview an electrician and learn that she is either explicitly or unknowingly supporting SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities by sourcing and using local materials in her projects, as well as SDG 5: Gender Equality through her advocacy work as a female in her trade association. If an obvious connection isn’t immediately made, the student and professional can engage in a conversation about how someone working in the profession could potentially align their work with one of the SDGs. This then becomes an interesting two-way instructional opportunity where the student can, in turn, help educate the professional about the SDGs.
Students develop their mission statement as part of an ePortfolio. During the development process, they consider: What is the work they want to pursue? Who are they doing this work for? And how might the SDGs be furthered as a result of their work? In the last question, they are able to again infuse the SDGs and talk about the overarching goal and connect it back to their ideal work and profession.
Applicability to K–12: Teachers can adjust the scope of this project based on the grade level to have students identify what they can do in their own life to help advance one or more of the SDGs; a charter of sorts. This may also align with a research project on how one can make a specific impact in their local (school or neighbourhood) community.
Ultimately, the SDGs as a career education framework can be used with students to generate ideas on occupations they’d like to pursue. Using the UN SDGs as a framework helps them expand their current career aspirations by asking, “Which of the SDGs do you think you can contribute to as you work in your chosen field, and how so?” By doing this they can better connect their work aspiration to a bigger purpose, and that purpose can also be a motivating factor in their coursework and post-secondary options. Additionally, the SDGs can help students who are unsure about their occupational goals answer the question: “What is a cause I am passionate about and how might I contribute to that cause, either through paid work or through volunteering?”
Getting started with the SDGs
I’d like to offer a few tips for educators who wish to incorporate the SDGs into their curriculum as a means to enhance their students’ career development:
- Start small and wherever it makes sense. Start by reviewing your course and program objectives.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to. There are some excellent resources to help you get started, such as the UNESCO Teachers Toolkit (UNESCO, 2020) and Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation’s global citizenship education modules (2021).
- Consider if there are particular SDGs that are a better fit, based on the nature of your course or program, and consider focusing on those.
- Conduct both formal and informal evaluations to evaluate whether students found that incorporating the SDGs was helpful to fulfilling your original objective. What would they do differently if they were the educator? How can we better help them think global, and act local?
In the case of my students, the response has been very positive. I’ve had students and graduates tell me they are incorporating the SDGs in their job and graduate school applications and even during job and admissions interviews.
This quote from one student reveals the seemingly lifelong impact that embedding the SDGs into my curriculum achieved:
“Something that I have learned about myself in relation to the UN SDG(s) that I have identified was that it is not easy to accomplish these goals right away, as it happens over time… The way I treat others and the actions I take always depend upon peace and justice as everyone should be treated equally and be able to have a second chance to grow from their mistakes.”
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, March 2021
Canadian Commission for UNESCO. (2020). Teacher’s toolkit: UNESCO Schools Network in Canada. UNESCO.
Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation (2021). Online global citizenship education resources.