SUSTAINABILITY SKILLS IN HIGHER EDUCATION: ATTITUDES, BEHAVIOUR AND ETHICS OF ENGINEERING STUDENTS

Environmental concern and skills is a core or generic competency for the future engineers of the Technical University of Madrid. Students must have dynamic combination of knowledge, understanding, skills and abilities about environmental sensitivity, ethical foundation and understanding of natural and societal systems. In this sense, higher education is a key support condition in order to afford the challenge of sustainable development, which is a strategic theme for the European Union. Engineers are key elements in this challenge, since technology provide the technical means to fulfill eco-efficiency, through optimization, improvement and renewal of the existing systems in the transition path to sustainability goals.The implementation of that core competency was studied in the Agricultural Engineering Grade of the Undergraduate School of Agricultural Engineering of Madrid, coordinating the basic skills achieved by students during secondary and baccalaureate studies. A survey between the students was done. It had nine main framework subjects and a total of 59 items, that students should valued between 1 and 5 (being 1 very low importance and 5 very high importance of the questioned item, and 0 doesn’t know or doesn’t answer). The survey was done among the students of the first course of the Undergraduate School of Agricultural Engineering of the Technical University of Madrid, during the academic year 2008-2009. A total of 27 students filled correctly and completely the survey. The data form the survey were analysed by principal components analysis (PCA). The coordinates of the students in the principal components were analyzed by cluster analysis in order to obtain groups or clusters of students as a function of the dimensions studied in the survey. The students showed a high environmental concern and interest in news about environment. Environmental sensitivity of students was learned during secondary and baccalaureate studies, so agricultural engineering students should be predisposed towards the environment. They also appreciated learning core competencies in the university, being sustainability the most appreciated by them. The main important environmental impacts for the students were water pollution and climate change. The former is an impact traditionally valued in surveys, mainly in arid zones as Spain, and the last is an emerging global issue, with a high presence in media and controversy. Agriculture was not considered as a high polluting activity, while industry and building were considered as high impact sectors. The sustainable transition was studied using a Cultural Theory approach. Students were clustered in three different groups, according to four social patterns: egalitarian, fatalist, hierarchist and individualist, and two attitudes toward technology: low and high-tech. Ethical foundation of students was defined by considering nature as a source of goods or services, even cultural or aesthetical ones. The also valued the role of agricultural engineering in environmental issues and showed a high ethical behaviour in their future professional career. These results may be the basis for the future implementation of sustainability competency in the Grade, being important taking into account strengths and weaknesses in students’ previous knowledge, perceptions, values and skills.