Student Typing on Laptop

Environmental Planning and Management Project: Client led Group Projects

Urmila Jha-Thakur
Department of Geography and Planning, School of Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science & Engineering

This case study focuses on a module that facilitates learning through the process of environmental consultancy. Students gather evidence and relate this to their practice of contextualising and formulating solutions to real-world environmental problems.

Touching on all Liverpool Curriculum Framework hallmarks, particularly authentic assessment, students are empowered to actively manage their own learning, by collaboratively working as groups and delegating tasks and building confidence by owning and leading their own projects, enhancing key employability skills and gaining valuable experience. This successful approach has been awarded a Learning & Teaching and Student Experience Award in 2021, and continues to receive exemplary student feedback, such as; “Working close with a proper client made us realise how hard we have to work in order to correct externalities in the environment and to figure out solutions, which shows we are capable of delivering great outcomes at such a young age!”

Please briefly describe the activity undertaken for the case study

In terms of the activity, this is a group-based module which is client-led. Every year we can have a different client and we develop a brief in collaboration with the client. The activity is that the students work in groups like in real-life situations as environmental consultants. They offer their services to the client during which the client interacts with them and the activities that they produce at the end of the module is a report and a presentation, and they interact with the client. So, the client looks at their work, and in marking their work I take the clients view onboard. That’s how the activity is organised.

How was the activity implemented?

Before the module starts it is quite a lot of work, because I collaborate with the client looking for a topic that is relevant. Now, this module is the project bit of environmental assessment and management. In semester one the students learn the theoretical side of things, so the topic has to be something that comes from that fundamental subject area but in which the students are implementing it. So, in terms of how we implement this module, we develop the brief and the brief may have several components which we divide into tasks, so the students will have to do several tasks. The tasks are all related to each other and sometimes these 7-8 tasks are then grouped into two assignments. Although the students are looking at different tasks, they are basically doing their assignments from the moment that they start the module, so the pressure is not all at the end, they have weekly deadlines for themselves.

Did you experience any challenges in your implementation? If so how did you overcome these?

Some of these challenges are general and they happen every year. The first kind of challenge that we face is that the case studies from the clients are from the UK, and mainly England, and we have a lot of international students. So, to keep the pace right for students who are international as well as those who may have work experience, there are quite a bit of differences, so I have to work very closely with the groups understanding where they are, and individually face-to-face I then work with them to make sure that they come up to the right level. Eventually sometimes what happens is that the group that was weakest at the beginning becomes the top group at the end, but that means that there is a lot of bespoke support that the groups get. There’s a lot of support that we have to give to the student groups.

What challenges, if any, did the global pandemic raise for you, and how did you maintain a successful implementation during this period?

There were technical challenges – let's start with the technical bit because of course we were asked to do it all online, and this is a module where I interact with the students very closely. So, to have it all online was daunting at the beginning. The first challenge was making the groups. I would usually ask the students to decide which group they would go into, and if they were struggling, I would help them, and all of this would happen in the same session. Forming the group is critical – you start working immediately, so if your group is not decided you are really losing time. In order to facilitate that here, what I did eventually was I gave them a working list using Canvas which they could interact with, and I asked them to form the groups. I was a bit worried how that would work but then I saw some groups were very quick, very proactive, and some that were struggling so I fit them in. So, the working live document was helpful, replacing what we usually do in that class.

The other challenge was how would I work with them in groups. This was partly because I was not aware of the best way to use Microsoft Teams. Initially we had the class and we decided on the groups and then what I tried to do was manually put them into the groups once the groups were decided. This was a very big class, 50 plus students, and to manually do this online stressed me out quite a bit, so eventually what I learned was that Microsoft Teams channels was the best way, and in fact it worked better than the normal way. Microsoft Teams channels are consolidated so I could see what they were doing, and they would mention my name and I can answer their questions promptly. Some people may see this as a problem because they are always online, but I had this approach anyway, so it helped me to enhance that efficiency. Even for the groups, earlier they would have different forms of communication but here in Teams channels they did not have to maintain minutes and collect stuff because it was all there. They wrote minutes but it was all consolidated in these channels, so this is something that I would like to take forward.

How does this case study relate to the Hallmarks and Attributes of the Liverpool Curriculum Framework?

Digital Fluency
This module links with all the hallmarks of the Liverpool Curriculum Framework and does so very intricately. Starting with digital fluency, because this was an interactive module, we were working within Microsoft teams, they were working in team's channels, this was embedded in how we were going to deliver this module, and not only for students it enhanced my digital fluency as well. The other thing apart from using Teams that was useful was we were also encouraging them to join the LinkedIn PGT group which I have developed for all PGT students because I am also the PGT director for the School of Environmental Sciences.

Though we encourage them to join this platform, the students this year made much better use of it than what I had anticipated. For example, students were interacting with contacts from other environmental consultancies via LinkedIn. Furthermore, they used LinkedIn to ask questions and collect data for their project. At the end of this module, I usually give each group a certificate saying what they did and how they did it, and LinkedIn was flooded with appreciation of the module, at the end. There was so much interaction, and I did not anticipate this. Apart from Microsoft Teams this was the first year that there was so much interaction on LinkedIn about the subject, about the topic, about our programme in the University, so it really was remarkably successful that way, how it linked to all the digital stuff that we have.

Authentic Assessment
That is what this module was awarded for because it gets as authentic as possible. Every year we work on a new issue, and this year the planning reforms that are happening, and we are also drafting a paper on this. Based on the student project, we are being able to directly inform the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA) steering group. The chair of IEMA steering group was our client, and I am also part of the steering group, so the outcome of the project is going to feed into the advice that we can provide to IEMA. IEMA plays a role in providing advice to the government. So, it is very authentic and timely.

Active Learning
We are giving them the problem and they must work it out. We give them a topic and they must understand it and do the research, find out the background, think of recommendations, and work it out with the clients. It is about putting them in the deep end, so their learning happens at quite a fast pace. This is only possible because they have done the theoretical side of things in the first semester, so it is embedded in strong theory – but at the same time this module is about active learning. Of course, they are constantly being supported and we make sure that the group is working in the right direction.

Research-connected Teaching
For environmental assessment, we are one of the most active research centres in the UK currently. We also have links with the sector, with IEMA, and what we are doing in this module is also connected to other academic outputs. For e.g., this year’s project was on Environmental Impact Assessment Scoping stage, and I am drafting a journal paper as well as a book chapter on this. Furthermore, the results can be fed into IEMA. So, it is absolutely entwined with research.

Confidence and Global Citizenship
The best thing I like about this module is how much confidence the students gain by the time they finish the module. The students take ownership of the project. So, they work out how they are going to divide the task, and we let them know that it is about using each other's strength to produce the best possible output. Marking is based on how a group harnesses their member’s potential to bring out the best result. Hence, everyone does not need to make the presentation. Some may be gathering the data, some preparing the slides while others doing referencing. Therefore, even if you are not the star performer on stage, but you have given your best efforts, and this is evidenced in the minutes of the meeting and in peer view, this is what matters. What we try to train them in is that you do not have to fight to get the best output, you must harness each other's skills. So, people who do not feel confident in presentations but who know how to do great PowerPoint content can equally shine. They feel confident that they are contributing and that is appreciated. They do not all have to do the same thing, which is good.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) develops the competencies required for students to act on, question or interpret knowledge. Which of the key competencies for sustainability are improved by this activity?

Student employability is greatly enhanced, because just from this module, in the past students have the connection with the client and have secured a job. At the same time this is an IEMA accredited module which means that they become a graduate member of IEMA then they can facilitate a fast phased approach to become practitioners. So, it is very much about employability.

Time management is something that the students learn as well. Within the project, every week they have to set their own goals, they have to take ownership and manage the process. We are there to help but it is their project. They do that for themselves, and I stress to them that this is their opportunity to shine and connect with possible employers, and they have done that wonderfully this year.

Students have to work collaboratively in groups. It is challenging. They must face real-life clients – sometimes they can make mistakes. For example, how they speak or what they ask. One year, one of the students misspelled the clients name and the client was not happy at all which also affected the group’s mark. It is so unprofessional to not take note of the client’s name. So, they learn how to go about working with clients in a professional manner. Sometimes the client makes a mistake, and the student has put it very bluntly, so we have had to highlight how you collaborate with clients at a professional level. Also, collaborating with me and fellow students is also important for the project to be successful. If you cannot collaborate with other students effectively, then there is no way that you can do well in this module.

Integrated problem-solving competency – this is an interdisciplinary module because it is taken by students from geography and from planning - they come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Environmental Assessment itself is interdisciplinary. Students have to write their project in a way that can be understood by anyone across any discipline. The client can be from a different discipline as well, so they have to solve that problem. It could be qualitative, quantitative, or they can use mix approaches in their report as long as it is explained in a way that the common public can understand.

One of the things we make the students do the first time that they form their groups, is that we ask them to discuss their strengths and weaknesses and what they want to achieve. This way they can also set their personal goals of what they want to achieve for themselves while participating in the module project. Hence, they identify their own starting point, and they all have their own personal goal that they want to achieve outside of the bigger project, and they then bring that into the project. The module encourages self-awareness and personal development amidst group work.

This module is accredited by Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA) - could you expand on how the IEMA Sustainability Skills are integrated into the module?

The first thing is the topic – environmental assessment, is about delivering sustainability. Environmental impact assessment (EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA), which are the tools that we are teaching the students help decision making to incorporate environmental considerations. The subject and the tool that we are teaching here itself is about delivering sustainability, but we emphasise on the environment sustainability side because we believe that in the whole discussion into sustainability, environment is the weakest link.

We take a real issue or topic, which deals with sustainability, so we are trying to deliver sustainability for the client. The students then engage with that topic area, they revise what they have learned, they see it in practice, and then they provide recommendations to enhance real-life sustainability problems.

The students come from a wide variety of disciplines, and we look for students who are passionate about sustainability and the environment. When they bring together their expertise from these different fields in creating solutions, we think that this is an important kind of trademark for sustainability – it is not compartmentalised. If you are not learning from a holistic picture, if you just look at a very narrow perspective you will miss balancing social sides and other sides of things. So, when we look at delivering sustainability using a multidisciplinary perspective, it helps the students to understand how complex it is to do these trade-offs between social, environment and economic factors because they learn to see it from a holistic point of view. I would say these are the three main things that enables the module to deliver sustainability skills.


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Environmental Planning and Management Project: Client led Group Projects by Urmila Jha-Thakur is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.