As leaders of and incubators for innovative thinking, educational institutions have the opportunity to lead the way toward adaptation as our physical environment, energy needs and resources change. The 32nd Cairo Climate Talks brought together experts from Egypt and Germany to exchange ideas on how both private and public universities are tailoring curricula, teaching methods, infrastructure and environmental awareness to become more sustainable.
Newly-appointed Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany in Cairo H.E. Julius Georg Luy opened his first Cairo Climate Talks panel discussion at the German Science Centre in Zamalek Wednesday evening, saying Egypt has massive potential in higher education given that roughly half the population is below age 24.
“Universities and other institutes of education serve as role models. They have the essential task to educate our next generations; they function as societal workshops for the future, as pioneers for sustainability,” the ambassador remarked. “Students are multipliers for green thinking within their families and their broader social and professional context. I am convinced that – independent of their field of study – students of all disciplines should be enabled to make sustainable decisions.”
Deputy Director of the DAAD Office in Cairo Mona Ayoub welcomed the Cairo Climate Talks back to the centre’s renovated premises and highlighted programs like the dual degree masters program “Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency for the MENA Region” (REMENA) between Kassel University in Germany and Cairo University as an example of best practices both countries can benefit from.
First Assistant to the Minister of Environment Dr. Mohamed Salah also gave welcoming remarks.
“We will not achieve sustainable development only with technical solutions, regulatory frameworks and financial agreements,” Dr. Salah said. “In addition to those we need to think green. Our vision is ambitious but clear; every human being should benefit from education for a future aligned with sustainable development. This means integrating themes of sustainable development such as climate change and biodiversity into our education system.”
Bicultural programs and university cooperation between Egypt and Germany are already improving the student experience and changing the university culture within Ain Shams University and other institutions by forcing them to examine their curricula and be open to criticism from partners, said Prof. Dr. Mohamed Salheen of the Integrated Urbanism and Sustainable Design program between his university and Stuttgart University.
The IUSD program, though it took a while to get the necessary government permissions and partners, now serves as a model for other faculties within Ain Shams University, he said.
“By positioning your education properly within the landscape you create the demand. You’ll only do this by showing your value to society and sustaining yourself — otherwise it’s just an academic exercise. It takes time, energy, stamina, you will get high blood pressure … to see it through, but it brings about a structural change and makes it sustainable.”
A need for practical solutions to local community problems was what prompted Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development to enter the higher education market in Egypt. Dean of Engineering Prof. Dr. Rasha el-Kholy described how staff and students are required to manage wastewater, recycling, farming, solar water pumping and other operations on campus and in outside projects.
“We have many initiatives with the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation and the Ministry of Agriculture. If we don’t reach for these government institutions we’ll stay in our isolated island trying to implement something which has not been digested by society yet,” she said, also extending an invitation to visit Heliopolis University and learn from this approach.
While Heliopolis University had the opportunity to create a new education model from scratch, changing existing university thinking from within and especially on the student-level can be challenging.
AbdelRahman El-Gammal, Project Manager of youthinkgreen-Egypt, said the roadblocks to student-enacted change prompted his organization to also work outside the university structure. Youthinkgreen conducts summer camps to offer students the hands-on experience and business development training they don’t get in the classroom. During the summer camps, which have been sponsored by the German Embassy, among others, dozens of students learn about renewable energy and sustainable solutions and implement them through projects they pitch to investors.
“As long as curriculum in public universities is not providing everything we need to be prepared for the market, we thought of the summer camp,” he said. “It’s something that is supplementary to education, to provide what is missing in university to the students.”
Co-founder of the German student initiative “Greening the University e.V.” Johannes Geibel said students also face similar hurdles in Germany when it comes to convincing university administrators to incorporate sustainability ideas. His group, which began at the university of Tübingen and has spread throughout the country, began by persuading leaders to reduce energy and resource consumption as a way to save money.
“One of our first key projects was to force the university to introduce an environmental management system. Why instead of one project? Because we thought that even if we leave the university in a few years we would like to leave it at a stage that we were able to leave these structures in place,” said Geibel, who is now board member of “netzwerk n”.
Asked for his advice to Egyptian students Geibel said: “You don’t need everyone to become a big change agent, it’s just key to provide all the motivated students and teaching staff and professors with the opportunity. The first key thing is to make structures not that hierarchical anymore, to make the thinking that we are all part of one university — some are just students and some are just the president. The university should be more open to opinions and proposals of students even though they are not yet elaborated and fancy.”
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