Students earn digital badge for sustainability-focused activities in new program

May 1, 2023

By Mariah R. Lucas

UNIVERISTY PARK, Pa. — In 2015, the United Nations member states adopted a series of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address global challenges, such as poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. A new program in the Penn State College of Engineering seeks to highlight students’ skills and experiences addressing the SDGs by awarding digital badges to students who complete coursework and extracurriculars recognized as Sustainability Learning Experiences.

The SDG Badges for Sustainability Engineering program (SDG-BASE), managed by the Law, Policy, and Engineering initiative (LPE) within the School of Engineering Design and Innovation (SEDI) in collaboration with the Engineering Sustainability Council, was launched this spring. 

In the program, faculty register a course, research project or extracurricular activity related to sustainability with the SDG-BASE program, which is then evaluated and matched with a relevant micro-credential badge. By completing requirements identified by the instructor, students are awarded the digital badge through the Credly platform that they can then put on their resumes to share with future employers. The program is open to engineering faculty across the commonwealth, as well as non-engineering faculty who are teaching or advising engineering students. Any undergraduate or graduate student interested in sustainability, regardless of their major, can participate.

“We realized that a lot of students don’t know what the SDGs are, or when they hear the word sustainability, they think of recycling or the environment, and stop there,” said Sandra Allain, director of LPE and professor of practice in SEDI, who leads the program. “So, we felt there was a need to highlight curriculum offerings in the College of Engineering related to the SDGs, provide awareness of what the SDGs are, and acknowledge the extra-curricular work students and faculty are already doing across these areas through their involvement in clubs and outreach activities.” 

Unlike other micro-credentialing programs, which typically offer an online course or module that students complete on their own time, SDG-BASE emphasizes in-person learning experiences, such as mentored research, course components or student organization work that focuses on sustainability, like that of the Wind Energy Club or EnvironMentors

In its pilot program, SDG-BASE launched six digital badges that correspond to six of the 17 SDGs, each with three possible achievement levels: exploring, exposure or experience. Exploring “shows interest in gaining a foundational understanding” of one of the goals, according to the program website. Exposure shows civic engagement and leadership in raising awareness and taking action on a goal, while experience shows hands-on experience with stakeholders with designing, addressing or evaluating real-world problems at the level of understanding of a senior capstone project, a study abroad experience, or research project. 

Susan Stewart, associate professor of aerospace engineering, co-chair of the Engineering Sustainability Council and faculty adviser to the Wind Energy Club, saw an opportunity for her students to pursue a badge while doing their regular club activities. 

“As a part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Collegiate Wind Competition, which the club participates in, they are required to hold an event that raises awareness of wind energy in the local community,” Stewart said. “The team decided to host a sustainability day event on Jan. 28 in Kunkle Lounge on campus, where they planned hands-on wind energy activities spanning a variety of sustainable energy topics and presented them to parents and children in the community.”

SDG-BASE matched this activity with SDG seven: “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all,” at the exposure level. Three club members ultimately pursued the badge. 

Stewart also plans to offer the SDG seven experience level badge to students who take on significant responsibility at the wind competition, which will take place in mid-May at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Courses, like Architectural Engineering 453: Load and Energy Use Simulations for Buildings, have plenty of opportunities to integrate sustainability-focused content and assignments. 

Starting in the fall, Greg Pavlak, co-chair of the Engineering Sustainability Council, assistant professor of architectural engineering and instructor of AE 453, will offer a badge for SDG 11: “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable,” at the exploring level.

“In AE 453, students learn how to model and analyze energy use in buildings,” Pavlak said. “They will complete a final project where they create an energy model of a building, propose energy-related design and operation alternatives, simulate those changes and analyze the impact of those design and operational changes.”

Pavlak will include additional course content for students to learn about the SDGs, particularly in how building design, operation and energy use are connected. To earn the badge, students will integrate their understanding of the SDGs into their final project and simulate improvements that ultimately help to meet SDG 11.

“Sustainable design and decarbonization of the building sector are extremely important topics right now,” Pavlak said. “Through an SDG badge, students can gain recognition for intentionally developing and demonstrating tailored skills in this area.”

As the program develops, SDG-BASE plans to add additional badges corresponding to more SDGs. Faculty are encouraged to join the program by registering relevant activities online

“This is an opportunity for faculty to highlight the activities or courses they teach or mentor related to the SDGs,” Allain said. “In addition, the badges that are awarded to students allow them to communicate their knowledge and experience in sustainability to future employers. SDG-BASE recognizes the importance of socially conscious engineering, and the shared responsibility to protect our planet.” 

SDG-BASE is funded by a seed grant from the Leonhard Center for Enhancement of Engineering Education at Penn State. The program website can be accessed at


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