Eight thousand students – one grand challenge

When the fictional University of Millchester needed to build a sustainable campus it appointed probably the largest project team in history – 8,000 University of Manchester students – with a timeframe of just one day to deliver it.

In one of the largest projects ever undertaken by university students, thousands of first year students took part in our ‘Sustainability Challenge’ on campus as part of a drive to embed this way of thinking in the leaders of tomorrow and introduce new students to each other and University staff.

With every one of the University’s new students encouraged to take part, and divided into project teams across nine buildings on campus, the challenge was a complex one – working with people they’d never met before to deliver a huge new campus in the fictional city of Millchester, incorporating costs and energy efficiency, while paying attention to the needs of the local community.

Professor James Thompson, Associate Vice President for Social Responsibility over saw the gigantic logistical challenge. He said: “We don’t think any UK university has tried anything like this before, so to have the enthusiastic involvement of thousands of students shows that sustainability is a top issue for them.”

“On their second day at university these students have been asked to work on a complex project with strangers on a subject that many of them are unfamiliar with, so it’s testament to their intelligence and adaptability that they’ve been able to achieve such impressive results.”

“These students will be our doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs of the future and to begin preparing them as socially responsible leaders is a key part of what we do here at Manchester.”

Andrew, an engineering student was one of those who took part: “I’ve been really exciteing to meet new people as well as get an idea of the level of sustainability at Manchester. It’s good to see how much Manchester is trying to take a proper role in sustainability.”

The student teams were guided through the Challenge by staff and postgraduate facilitators, and a pre-recorded video that was simultaneously broadcast across nine buildings over the campus. The narrative of the Challenge unfolded through a series of films, as updates on changing government policies threw in a few unexpected twists which the students had to adapt to.

All of the activities were supported by resources designed by University of Manchester staff. One of the academic experts, Dr Maria Sharmina, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research said: “It was important that this scenario was as realistic as possible and we designed the resources with that in mind.”

“There is no one right way to address sustainability issues: it’s all about informed choices and I think that that’s something that these students have now come to appreciate.”

The Sustainability Challenge is the first step in students completing the University’s Ethical Grand Challenges programme which engages undergraduates with key global issues. Having covered sustainability in their first year, the students will move onto exploring social justice in their second year, and workplace ethics in their final year.

These activities are part of an overall Manchester Leadership Award made up of activities that enable graduates to show they have gone the extra mile at university and are learning new skills around leadership and social responsibility.

Hear more about the Sustainability Challenge.

Take a look at our Storify of the day to see pictures and reactions.