Corporate Sustainability

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In the main course of the Group for Sustainability & Technology at D-MTEC, students learn about key concepts in corporate sustainability and develop skills to implement them in the real world. The course prepares students for making well-informed sustainability decisions in their future careers.
In an immersive company case study, coached by experts and aided by self-learning tools, students collaborate in sustainability teams to solve problems and negotiate decisions at the board level. Central to the course is the opportunity to reflect about the involved trade-offs in sustainability and how to transform companies towards sustainability.

In 2018, SusTec’s Corporate Sustainability lecture was nominated as a finalist of ETH Zurich’s KITE Award for innovative teaching. In March 2021, the lecture team received an Innovedum grant for the project “Case-​based collaborative group coaching in corporate sustainability”. During 2021, the course was redesigned, transforming its approach and strengthening its student-centered learning. We integrated collaborative activities into the course, in particular with a 360° case study of a large Swiss retail company to foster holistic and cross-​disciplinary learning.

Unique course design

The course uses constructive alignment to bring the various innovative teaching and learning elements (e.g., case-​based experiential learning, reflective thinking and peer coaching exercises, blended learning with videos and quizzes) into a coherent transformational journey. Students can now flexibly, efficiently, and effectively acquire the conceptual foundations that are essential for a substantial understanding of corporate sustainability.

In the Fall semester 2021, we started the course online, with three live sessions on Zoom to welcome students to the course and introduce the unique course design (see screenshot below). On Moodle, students were provided with video tutorials, allowing them to study on their own time. These videos – which we recorded at the ETH video studio – were embedded with quizzes to help students learn with active recall of core concepts. In total, we created more than 20 high quality videos, involving about a dozen different researchers – professors, senior researchers, and doctoral students.

Moodle platform

The Moodle learning platform was used with intent. We nudged students with a “Monday Mail” about the week’s upcoming assignments, video tutorials, answers to open questions about the course structure, and to point them to specific deadlines.Moodle also helped to structure the course contents, with the ten parallel sustainability challenges located in specific tiles (see screenshot) to help students navigate the complex course structure.


Board session

The climax of the course was the “Board session” in week 12. Through 19 parallel sessions – mostly online due to the Corona situation – each student acted as a Board Member of the case company. In these Board Sessions, they presented a proposal specific to a sustainability challenge, that they had developed over several weeks in smaller teams and with the support of a coach. Following the discussions, they voted on how the company should strategically trade-off between the sustainability impact of the proposals.

In addition, we introduced a new text-based anonymous coaching exercise that helped students reflect on their attitudes and worldviews about sustainability. Students could reflect and write a series of journal entries during the semester. Each journal entry also had a peer feedback cycle, deepening student understanding. This journal was hosted on the Moodle add-on Eduflow. We explain the exercise in more detail in a later section.

Anonymous text-based coaching

A new addition is an exercise that works particularly well in a blended and asynchronous setup. We developed an anonymous text-based coaching exercise. Students experienced offering coaching and being coached by their peers, by asking powerful questions in carefully designed ‘micro-conversations’.

We developed the exercise to contextualize a series of reflection journal entries and set it up with the Eduflow platform that we linked into Moodle. Students would write, for example, a short journal entry on “How would you describe a sustainable company?” and “From your perspective, how easy or difficult is it to change a company to be more sustainable?”. The writing prompts intentionally do not test the students for correct answers. But they are aligned with the learning journey and help students articulate their personal opinions. Of course, they can write a more informed entry after having worked through the respective learning material from the lecture and the video tutorials.

We then «hacked» the peer feedback process in Eduflow and established a framework for short coaching conversations. The original submission is given by students, assuming the role of the coachee. Then they change roles and become coaches – now they provide one coaching intervention to a peer. They don’t grade, evaluate, or comment on the writing. Instead, they ask powerful questions to help their anonymous coachee to reflect, widen their horizon, and explore new approaches.

The writing prompts, which are aimed to trigger reflections to go deeper and further, are:

  • Formulate your coaching intervention. Ask a question to the journal writer that will lead her or him to reflect deeper.
  • Suggest an idea or a resource (article, blog, video) for the journal writer to help develop their perspective further.

When students receive their coaching intervention, they follow up and write to their «coach» on what resonates with them, what helps them get unstuck, how they can think deeper, and where they gain more clarity. To do so, they answer two questions:

  • What did you learn from the coaching intervention you received?
  • How useful is the coaching intervention overall?

This way, also the coach gets feedback on the usefulness of his/her intervention.

We will study the results from this exercise in more detail but have received positive feedback from students, who can work with little to no supervision in this exercise.

An incentive to participate is that students can earn a bonus of 0.25 points on their exam grade when participating in all steps of the 5 different journal entries during the semester.

After the pandemic, we plan to continue the course elements in which students experiment and work with anonymous text-based coaching interventions.

With regard to assessment, the course grade reflected both individual and team efforts.

Individual efforts: We offered a remote online exam at the end of the semester. It had a weight of 50% of the final grade. The core content of the exam came from the 20+ videos that we had produced. This grade could be improved with a bonus of 0.25 points if students had completed the reflection journal entries during the semester.

Team efforts: The team sustainability phase (week 5-11), when students developed in their proposals for the Board Session on a series of sustainability challenges, accounted for 50%. Each team grade was composed from four deliverables that each team had to submit. Each of these deliverables was aligned with the respective learning objectives of the sustainability challenge and checked for similar complexity across the ten sustainability challenges.

How has «remote» teaching been changed or optimised since the beginning of the pandemic?

We decided to start the course fully online, primarily due to health concerns for students and lecturers in a crowded lecture hall. As we approached the sustainability team phase in week 5, when group work was of key importance, we also offered in class teaching. Here, students received support and guidance from the SusTec researchers in the ten different Challenges. In the final weeks, and when the pandemic situation again became more severe, we went back to a full online experience.

The developments of the pandemic required us to remain flexible. We accommodate this with a course communication plan. We remained very responsive in the Moodle discussion forums and our approach to communicate transparently with students, helped to keep the majority of course participants – who have a very heterogeneous background, from Master’s, Bachelor’s, and continuing education levels – engaged and motivated during the semester.

For the live sessions, we optimized the setup to make it easy for students to follow in Zoom. We took care to have the online call with a good webcam, proper lighting, and a good audio signal with a dedicated USB microphone (left image below). One teaching assistant monitored the chat with student questions.

In the sessions with a company representative present, we used the Meeting OWL webcam, a 360° camera, to create a setting that made it easy for online participants to follow the conversation between the lecturers and the company representative (right image below).

Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive about the course design and the immersive learning journey that we offered to students.
Erik Jentges, D-MTEC

What discussion points are you particularly interested in when exchanging with other lecturers?
Other lecturers are invited to discuss our approaches to:

  • Collaborating with industry representatives in the classroom
  • Peer-to-peer learning
  • Anonymous text-based coaching

Course Description

Corporate Sustainability
The lecture explores current challenges of corporate sustainability and prepares students to become champions for sustainable business practices in their careers. Using a mix of online self-study and in-class teaching, students learn central concepts about corporate sustainability. In the group work phase, they work in teams on solving sustainability challenges.
After completing this course, students will be able to:
- Assess the limits and the potential of companies to sustainable development
- Critically evaluate and formulate statements, decisions, and arguments in the context of corporate sustainability
- Recognize and realize opportunities for corporate sustainability in a business environment
The lecture takes place in-person and online. Exact session times and formats are communicated near the start of the semester.
200 students
Management, Technology and Economics Master, MAS in Management, Technology, and Economics, Energy Science and Technology Master, GESS Science in Perspective, Integrated Building Systems Master, Food Science Bachelor, Mechanical Engineering Bachelor, Environmental Sciences Bachelor
Teaching Power:
2 examiners, more than a dozen support staff
The examination may take place on the computer.

Further involved persons 
The Chair of Sustainability and Technology
Oliver Akeret, Arnau Aliana Guardia, Julia Bachmann, Julija Belec Gergek, Catharina Bening-Bach, Nicola Ursina Blum, Petrissa Eckle, Christine Johanna Gschwendtner, Anna Guenat, Dianne Hondeborg, Sebastian Kahlert, Kevin Knecht, Christof Knöri, Anna Kulakovskaya, Noémie Lushaj, Georgios Mavromatidis, Christina Nakhle, Alejandro Nunez-Jimenez, Benedict Probst, Leonie Schoeller, Paula Thimet, Malte Toetzke, Katharina Wildgruber, Inese Zepa