Why are the UN Sustainable Development Goals Important to STEM?

Our planet is under tremendous pressure as our population grows and we use ever more natural resources. We also put pressure on our environment by introducing greenhouse gasses, plastic, toxins and other pollutants. To address these many challenges, we need a way to classify and describe them so we can focus on addressing them. This is where the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, come into play.

The UN adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, after the expiration of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGS), to create a more sustainable planet through one united global force. The 2030 Agenda was created to continue the work already started by the MDGs by providing a road map for countries, industries and organizations to work together to create a more sustainable planet for our future.

Because the SDGs require collaboration to achieve them, STEM has a foundation in all of the 17 goals.

The SDGs describe what we need to do to create a more sustainable world — one that will support current and future generations of global citizens. Each goal is then broken into specific targets to better focus our efforts. Tackling sustainability can be overwhelming, so it can be hard to know how to make a difference. By organizing the steps into 17 goals and 169 targets, efforts to achieve sustainability become more manageable and achievable. Outlining a clear plan and knowing where to start is critical to overcoming obstacles, especially with the scope of stakeholders necessary to succeed in this mission.

Collaboration is a key element of the SDGs and is included in Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals. The development of the SDGs was a collaborative effort, involving many countries of the United Nations, as well as organizations such as the World Health Organization. Collaboration ensures that everyone gets a voice, with a focus on those who have been left out previously such as minorities and those in poverty.

STEM and Sustainability

The SDGs are built to encourage collaboration to achieve targeted goals. This allows different countries, industries, organizations, etc. to contribute to the achievement of each SDG. Achieving each of the SDGs requires a strong foundation in the STEM disciplines, even in the goal areas where it may not be initially obvious, such as Goal 1: No Poverty. The solution to global poverty will require everything from efficient, high-tech farming to accessible transportation to improved medicines and other resources. It’s clear that STEM professionals will contribute to the achievement of all Goal areas.

STEM has such a strong foundation in the SDGs that many of them corresponds to the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand Challenges. SDG 4 corresponds to NAE’s Advance Personalized Learning goal.

The requirement for a strong foundation in STEM is so strong that The National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering heavily correspond with most of the SDGs. For example, Goal 4: Quality Education corresponds to NAE’s Advance Personalized Learning. To improve learning effectiveness, we need ensure all students receive a quality education regardless of their individual learning style. By personalizing learning to the student’s style and other needs, we can provide a higher quality educational experience

How We’re Doing

The UN produces a yearly report to report progress being made within each goal area, as well as individual targets. Keeping track of progress is essential to ensure we are on track to achieve these goals by 2030. By understanding where we are in the process, we know what areas need more attention and can adjust our focus accordingly.

COVID shut down in-person classrooms for months, which had a positive and negative impact on different aspects of education.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on timely achievement of various SDGs as reported in The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022. However, we still made progress. Keep in mind that what was a challenge for some areas of the world was a benefit to others. For example, online learning improved Goal 4: Quality Education in some areas but was detrimental for others. According to the report, the longer students are out of the classroom due to online learning, the less likely they are to return to school. However, the report also details a survey by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) about half of participating countries took “significant additional measures” in water, sanitation and hygiene services in their schools after reopening.

If we are going to work together to achieve the SDGs and save our planet, we need to maximize the use our knowledge, skills and expertise. With the UN’s guide through the SDGs, STEM professionals can better collaborate to reach our overall goal of a more sustainable planet.

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Michael Milligan

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.