May 19, 2020

Can art help to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

Faculty of Arts prof champions sustainability in research and curriculum

When you start home renovations, do you consider how the materials you use affect the planet? How about when you do a craft with your kids? Do you create more waste than you started with?

These are just a few of the questions Heather Leier, assistant professor, Department of Art, considers when she plans a project for her students or conducts her own printmaking research. More important, she asks herself how to integrate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into her work and ultimately, how the projects she designs will have an impact on society. This awareness led to her receiving the 2020 Sustainability Teaching Award.

“It was really wonderful to win this award because it recognizes that the contemporary art classroom is a valid and significant place for students to learn about sustainability,” says Leier. “My hope is it will highlight that students within the Department of Art are not only creating visually engaging work, but they’re also thinking through complex social issues within their art practices.”

In some of Leier’s projects, students have the opportunity to create work that responds to the SDGs. Often, at the end of these projects, students understand that while they intended to focus on one SDG, they quickly learn they're representing more than one, as they are so interconnected.

“I can’t think of SDG 14 – Life on Water without thinking about SDG 13 – Climate Action and SDG 15 – Life on Land,” says Leier. “No matter what a student was planning in their project, many aspects of sustainability emerge whether or not they were intending for that to happen.”

One research project that Leier is currently working on is a portfolio of prints for the Mid-America Print Conference this fall. She is curating a portfolio exchange where 17 international artists are making prints that respond to the SDGs. Each artist is assigned one goal and will create 17 impressions of their print, so that all artists participating in the project receive their own set of SDGs.

“It is storytelling through a different medium,” says Leier. “Artmaking can be a different way to communicate issues, and specifically for students, it is a way for them to address and approach issues through material thinking instead of writing a paper or conducting what we might think of as traditional research. I’m excited that the visual arts is being valued as a contributor to sustainability.”

How do you embed sustainability into curriculum and research?

Leier has been at UCalgary for less than two years and has already proven that any faculty member can integrate sustainability into the classroom experience or their research. She encourages faculty members to reach out to UCalgary’s Sustainability Resource Centre for tips or to engage with the Office of Sustainability on a Campus as Learning Lab project.

“Our students are citizens of the world, and we need to think about how the skills we teach help them in this context,” says Leier. “If you’re thinking of your students as global citizens, you’re likely touching on sustainability in some way in your classroom. There are so many ways to address global issues, and engaging with the SDGs can be a place to start.”

Leier’s work spans all United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to be a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability.