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Future17 - Information for University of Exeter staff

Your opportunity to become involved in a new global sustainability education initiative:

Future17 is a new global initiative between the University of Exeter, QS and a consortium of leading international universities (initially CUHK, Stellenbosch, São Paulo and IE). It is designed to support students to develop the skills needed to collaboratively tackle 21st Century global challenges thorough working with professionals to create pathways for innovative solutions to real-world issues associated with one or more of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Through Future17, students will collaborate with learners from the consortium of global partner universities in international, interdisciplinary and multicultural teams to tackle challenges through projects defined by SDG Challenge Partners (businesses, charities, NGOs etc.).

Students will first undertake an online induction program that will develop skills for collaborative, challenge-based and inter-cultural learning, which will promote forms of Design Thinking for tackling global challenges. They will then work with academic and SDG Challenge Partner mentors to diagnose a sustainability challenge and develop an approach for developing one or more solutions.

They will be assessed on the basis of a project output (a report or equivalent) and presentation to an expert panel, including representatives of the SDG Challenge Partner which set the challenge, a representative of QS and academic staff from the partner universities.

The program will be delivered entirely online and is open to taught students (except first year undergraduates) from all campuses.

We expect that most students on Future17 will, on successful completion of the program, be able to gain academic credit (15 credits) for their participation and to use it as part of their degree program via Accredited Prior Experiential Leaning (APEL), subject to available optional credit and program rules. 

Students are also eligible to apply for the program on a non-credit basis (for example, if they do not have sufficient optional credits available). They will receive a certificate from QS on successful completion of the program. Please note that students should consider the academic workload implications of undertaking this additional work. Advice can be sought from the Academic Lead for Exeter, Professor Stewart Barr.

We will be running a pilot of Future17 in 2022 in order to test the program structure, induction material and student demand. In this pilot year, we anticipate that there will be up to 48 places available for Exeter students and we are looking for academic and research staff to become involved as academic mentors (please see below) for student groups, and also to support the program’s future development through providing advice and guidance on the program’s content.

Future17 aims to develop the collaborative, inter-cultural and innovative skills sets required for tackling global interdisciplinary challenges in the 21st Century. Specifically, using the UN’s SDGs as an over-arching framework, the module aims to:

  • Promote skills for Design Thinking as a way of mobilising creative, visual, inter-personal, iterative and multi-configurational approaches to problem solving;
  • Enable students to appreciate the importance of interdisciplinary and inter-cultural exchange and learning for tackling sustainable development challenges;
  • Develop students’ critical thinking skills to question conventional assumptions about sustainable development challenges through Design Thinking approaches;
  • Develop employability skills by providing a space for students to work intensively with academic and SDG Challenge Partner mentors on a sustainable development challenge of mutual interest;
  • Enable students to gain an appreciation of the sustainable development challenges facing SDG Challenge Partners and how these can be responded to appropriately;
  • Develop skills for promoting change within organizational settings and developing systems and mechanisms to support such changes;
  • Develop professional presentation and report writing skills for external organizations;
  • Promote students’ awareness of and interest in applying academic knowledge to sustainable development challenges in a professional setting;
  • Provide students with an opportunity to generate non-academic impact for tackling sustainable development challenges.

Future17 is about bringing students together from different cultural backgrounds and pedagogic settings to collaborate on a challenge set by a SDG Challenge Partner, who they will work with to understand the problem, diagnose the issues, examine potential approaches through evidence-based study and propose & justify pathways for developing solutions. 

Students can apply to the program via partner universities if they are an undergraduate (except first year students) or postgraduate taught student. A recruitment and selection process will be followed (see ‘How and when will students be selected for the Program?’). 

Student teams will be drawn from at least two partner universities (partner universities are currently the University of Exeter, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Stellenbosch University, the University of Sao Paulo and IE University) to work in groups of typically between 6 and 8 students. 

Students will be supervised by at least one academic mentor from a partner university, with expertise in the challenge area. There will also be a mentor from the SDG Challenge Partner, whose role will be to outline the sustainability challenge, provide context (and potentially data) and act as an agent provocateur.

Future17 is about developing skills for international, inter-cultural collaboration for sustainable development and is a problem-focused program that encourages independent group-working. Accordingly, the syllabus is built around three discrete elements:

Part 1: Program induction and skills for tackling sustainability challenges (indicatively four weeks but accessible flexibly and can be completed in a shorter period)

This will comprise a series of online, flexibly available asynchronous learning activities to enable individual students to learn independently about the principles of Design Thinking that underpin the module, including collaborative learning, team working, working with external organizations and inter-cultural exchange. The induction program will also examine key elements of professional working and liaising with a client organization. Details of the induction program are being developed by the University of Exeter to share with partners for comment and potential contributions.

This induction Program will be available via the Future Learn online platform for students to use ‘anytime, anywhere’.

In advance of the induction program, students will be assigned to a team to work with other students and an academic and SDG Challenge Partner mentor(s) to work on a specific challenge in parts 2 and 3 of the module. They will be encouraged to make contact with their fellow group members via back channels (such as e-mail or social media) and they will also be able to informally meet their academic mentor online. 

Part 2: Group collaboration on a sustainability challenge (eight weeks plus one week for assessment preparation)

In this part of the program students will learn about their sustainability challenge and work as a team of students to design ways to diagnose the problem in collaboration with academic and SDG Challenge Partner mentors, and to develop approaches for delivering solutions. This is the main part of the program and will comprise group work with students from partner universities, supported by their mentors. Students will collaborate in a range of ways, including: synchronous online meetings as a team, synchronous online meetings as team with their academic and / or SDG Challenge Partner mentors, and asynchronous team work using collaborative documents and online platforms. Student teams will be expected to meet weekly, with fortnightly structured support from mentors.

The primary collaboration software used for this phase will be MS Teams, enabling group discussions, meetings and sharing of collaborative documents. However, teams will also have the flexibility to use other platforms as they prefer.

Part 3: Future17 Solutions Showcase event (final week, likely to be a mini-conference)

Students will attend an online showcase event(s), where each group of students working on a sustainability challenge will undertake an assessed presentation of their project for 25 minutes, plus time for questions and feedback. This will provide an opportunity to celebrate students’ work and that of other teams and provides a further space for collaborative learning.

Around one week after the showcase event, the written group assessment will be submitted.

In this pilot year, the differing term dates of partner universities means that the most effective scheduling is likely to be as follows:

Part 1 (induction): second half of February to second half March (allowing students to study the induction program flexibly);

Part 2 (group collaboration): second half of March to second half of May 2022;

Part 3 (showcase, including assessment): late May 2022.

The program has been curated to enable Exeter students to study and complete their assessments in time for these to be integrated into end of academic year examination boards to enable progression or award.  

Future17 is a program accredited by QS in the form of a certificate and students will therefore be studying the program externally but via support from Exeter colleagues, in particular the Academic Lead Professor Stewart Barr and their allocated academic mentor.

On successful completion of the program, Exeter students should be able to claim 15 credits at RCQ level 6, available for students to use as credit towards their degree award via Accredited Prior Experiential Leaning (APEL). This will be subject to an individual student’s available option module credit and their program rules.

Assessment will be both formative and summative:

  • Formative assessment will be in the form of group presentations of project progress, and feedback will be provided verbally by the project mentors.
  • Summative assessment will be in the form of:
    • 25-minute group presentation to the academic mentor(s), SDG Challenge Partner mentor(s) and QS representatives;
    • group written output, such as a report or other artefact (determined by the requirements of the SDG Challenge Partner’s challenge).

For both summative assessments, bespoke marking criteria will be published in advance of the assessment and marks will be agreed and documented between the academic mentor(s) and SDG Challenge Partner mentor(s). These will then be approved by QS. Students will receive written feedback to justify the marks awarded and provide criterion-based feedback.

Marks will use a notched set of criteria that use a 1-to-100-point system, with a pass mark (mean) of 40. Marks will be translated into partner university grades for use on student transcripts.

Assessment will be based on two group assessments and the program will develop and publish a specific group working policy that lays out the expectations for group working and provisions to document individual student input and any sanctions that may be required if a student’s input falls below the required standard.

We anticipate that the group written output will, as standard, be run through Turnitin to check for plagiarism and academic misconduct.

Academic mentoring is designed to support a group of students through the process of understanding their sustainability challenge, diagnosing it, putting into practice what they have learnt on the induction module, exploring solutions through individual and group research, and designing pathways for solutions.

As an academic mentor, you will work with the academic leads of Future17 to be fully involved in selecting students who have been appointed to Future17 for a specific challenge that you want to be involved with, which we expect to occur in early February 2022, when we have full details of who has applied and what projects are available.

The key term here is ‘support’; the mentoring role is not a traditional teaching one and the mentor is using their experience and expertise to mentor highly motivated students through a structured process that will have been laid out in the induction Program. They are there to advise and not to deliver material.

The mentor is therefore someone to inspire, encourage, nudge, challenge and affirm student group work; they are not there to teach or answer factual questions for students.

Academic mentors will be expected to be involved in the following way during the pilot phase: 

  • Familiarisation with the program and briefing sessions with their university academic lead for Future17;
  • A minimum of 4 hours of structured online meetings with the student group over an 8-week period (late March to late May), at which the SDG Challenge Partner mentor will also be present;
  • The option to ‘dip into’ other weekly group meetings, as necessary and as desired;
  • Attend the online research showcase during late May (likely to be a half-day);
  • Use an online platform to engage with students outside of formal meetings but on a limited basis;
  • Participate in marking the presentation and written output for the group they have mentored. 

Academic mentors are not involved in the online induction program but they will be invited to have an informal online meeting to meet their allocated student group in February. 

As an indicative figure, the commitment for academic mentors is likely to be approximately 24 hours of time, flexibly committed over a 12-week period. 

This is broken down as (an indicative maximum): 

  •  4 hours preparation time (familiarisation and briefings with academic lead);
  • 16 hours group collaboration time (8 weeks X 2 hours) of student support (including online meetings and online correspondence);
  • 4 hours assessment time (including assessing the presentation and written output).

All interactions will be online. 

If you’d like to consider becoming an academic mentor, please fill out this online form to express an interest. You can also discuss the role with the Academic Lead Professor Stewart Barr. Involvement in the program needs to be agreed with your line manager or Head of Discipline and we would expect this to involve a conversation about appropriate workload hours allocation based on the figures provided above.

SDG Challenge Partners set a specific SDG challenge, for which they provide an objective and outline the challenge they need to be met. Challenges will be set in liaison with the QS World Merit Charity and submitted via the QS website.

We will ask a SDG Challenge Partner to set out a challenge that can realistically be understood, studied and approached by a group of 6 to 8 students from different universities, different disciplines and working online. These parameters are important because they need to be accounted for in determining an appropriately pitched challenge for students in terms of timing and complexity.

Please see the ‘What is a potential example of a successful Future17 project?’ below for an example of what a good Future17 project will look like.

The role of the SDG Challenge Partner is similar to that of the academic mentor, but their role will be to provide the SDG Challenge Partner’s perspective through: 

  • Clarifying and explaining the challenge;
  • Explaining and clarifying the kinds of outputs and outcomes that are relevant to their organization;
  • Providing context and potentially data to support students working on the challenge;
  • Challenging students to consider the challenge in a professional, organizational and corporate context as an agent provocateur

The time commitment is likely to be similar to that of the academic mentor, although the focus will be on explaining the challenge and challenging students to be focused on the user-focused outcomes. 

All interactions will be online.

Partner universities will work with QS to encourage SDG Challenge Partners to shape a challenge related to one of the UN’s SDGs for student groups to work on and will provide mentor(s) for the students. Students will be matched to a specific challenge project by the academic leads and mentors for the program, based on initial mapping by the QS system using SDG interests indicated by students and SDG alignment of projects.

SDG Challenge Partners who are currently engaged in shaping projects include (as an indicative list): 

  • Accenture
  • Dell
  • Diversey
  • EY
  • Founation for Sustainable Development
  • Hochwald Foods
  • IKEA
  • Intel
  • Government of Gibraltar
  • Greeneum Network
  • PwC
  • Morgan Stanley
  • SDG Exchange Inc.
  • United Nations Working Group on Climate Change & Environment 

SDG partner projects are designed to set challenging questions and deliver specific deliverables, for example: 


Question: “Millions of children and their families around the world live and work in slums, in dire poverty, with very little access to soap. How can Diversey help?” 

Deliverables: Legislation systems overview report covering such topics as: what are the existing frameworks and restrictions? What are the opportunities to establish local operations for NGOs? Will Diversey’s model be eligible to operate?

Ministry of Public Education Of the Republic of Uzbekistan:

Queston: How can the Ministry of Education introduce Sustainable Development Goals across all universities, offering institutions clear guidelines on how to handle the process of embedding SDGs from A to Z? SDG’s need to become a part of the universities’ DNA, from curricular to infrastructure management.

Deliverables: Report that covers market research of existing practices globally and an analysis of how these could be relevant to Uzbekistan, based on a 5-year horizon. This will include a roadmap for implementation and a list of key stakeholders to engage.

UN PRME Working Group on Climate Change and Environment:

Question: How can we design frameworks and toolkits that will enable any academic or community member to confidently educate others on the importance of SDG 13? This project will also show how SDG 13 influences all the other Goals and is a catalyst for creating jobs of the future.

Deliverables: Report highlighting the importance of SDG 13 and its influence across all other SDG’s, and a guidebook for enthusiasts to introduce SDG 13 to their relevant audience (Academia, Community, Corporate, etc). The outputs will also include a forecast of how SDG 13 will drive jobs creation/market.

The process for advertising, recruitment and selection of students will be as follows:

1. Advertising and Q&A sessions:

a) Student Q&A sessions online:

  • Friday 14th January at 11am. Follow this link to join.
  • Tuesday 18th January at 11:30am. Follow this link to join.
  • Friday 21st January at 11:30am. Follow this link to join. 

b) Student checks their program rules for eligibility and that they have sufficient optional credits available at the right level (the Future17 program is 15 credits at RCQ level 6). Students and staff can contact the Academic Lead (Professor Stewart Barr) or Project Manager (Re Oakley) to discuss this. They can also speak to their subject program director.

2. Student makes an application via an internal application form (deadline of 9am on 24 January 2022);

3. A recruitment and selection process will select students to be part of the program (see below; we will let students know the outcome of their application by 27 January 2022):

  • If selected, we will work with the Student Hub teams to register the student on Future17 and remove 15 credits that they wish to drop.

4. Students selected will then submit their details into the QS system via an online form, to enable the first step in matching students to SDG projects (deadline of 9am on 7th February 2022);

5. The program will start online in the second half of February and will run until late May. 

The University of Exeter will follow a recruitment and selection process that will ask for the following elements in an application: 

  • Student name and number; 
  • Academic program;  
  • List of modules undertaken so far; 
  • Ranking of available SDG goals of interest (up to three - to match to a challenge).  
  • Statements on (150 words each): 

(a) how the program will contribute to the applicant's academic program and skills  development

(b) how the program will contribute to developing the applicant's employability skills

(c) why the applicant is passionate about their top ranked sustainability challenge

(d) what positive contributions the applicant argues they can bring to a collaborative  project to tackle a sustainability challenge. 

Selection committees will be in accordance with the University of Exeter's policies on quality, diversity and inclusion. 

Future17 projects are typically based on 6 to 8 students from consortium universities working in a team and also undertaking independent research to support the work of the team over a period of 8 to 9 weeks, including the assessment. This will have been preceded by an online induction Program, which students will undertake flexibly (over a period of up to 4 weeks).

The number of hours worked by each student on the project will equate to 114 for various tasks, meaning that the cumulative group time to work on the challenge is considerable.

Academic and SDG Challenge Partner mentors will have an important role in encouraging students to manage their time effectively and develop systems and working practices for taking leadership roles, tasks and setting group deadlines for deliverables.

The challenge will likely follow a standard chronology and choreography, entailing:

  • Project familiarisation and context;
  • Problem diagnosis and understanding;
  • Researching approaches for delivering solutions;
  • Synthesising and questioning assumptions about possible solutions pathways;
  • Developing a selected pathway and presenting the evidence for this through assessment.

Successful projects will be ones that have the following indicative characteristics:

  • Be a specific challenge related to a SDG;
  • Be a challenge about which the SDG Challenge Partner can provide specific context and potentially data;
  • Be a challenge that can be practically explored and reported on using online methods within the specified study period, so that clear expectations can be set;
  • Be a challenge that has resonance across national and cultural boundaries; in other words, one of global concern (although it may have manifestations locally);
  • Be a challenge that enables critical inquiry and the potential for exploring and developing novel approaches;
  • Be a challenge that meets the requirements of ethical standards in research, and which does not involve research with vulnerable groups.

As an example of a suitable challenge, the following format would be appropriate:

Criteria Example: public health department hypothetical city government in USA
Specific challenge related to a SDG

How can we promote healthy lifestyles amongst low-income young people in minority groups in our city?

SDG 3: Good Health and wellbeing
SDG Challenge Partner can offer specific context

Public health department has population-level data to share on health outcomes, demographic factors and some anonymized survey data of residents.

Also has the results of a previous public health intervention on promoting healthy lifestyles.
Practically explored and reported on using online methods

Survey data and population data, e.g. from a Census, readily available.

Access to existing public health Programs online.

Access to scholarly literature on public health interventions online.
Resonance across national and cultural boundaries

Public health and risks associated with poor health are increasingly important, especially as economies develop, diets change and more workers undertake non-manual labour.

Linked imperative to promote active travel to reduce climate impacts (SDG 13).
Enables critical inquiry and novel approaches

Challenge posed is both academically critically engaging and highly relevant in policy terms.

Can derive both generic understandings and specific recommendations for SDG Challenge Partner.

Genuinely open question that may yield a variety of outcomes, e.g. from behavioural interventions to structural changes.

Meets requirements of ethical standards Secondary research using existing datasets that are anonymized and for which appropriate permissions have been granted for student use in an international setting.

Ethics and risk

An ethics application will need to be submitted to each partner university to provide a generic ethical approval for a prescribed set of permitted research activities on the program.

A risk assessment will also be required for the program, to be submitted to each institution.

Student wellbeing and pastoral care

If academic mentors have any concerns regarding student participation or wellbeing, they should raise their concern in the first instance with the academic lead from the student’s institution, who will then take appropriate action, which may include contacting the student’s personal tutor.

Speak to the Future17 Project Manager Re Oakley or the Academic Lead, Professor Stewart Barr.

Express an interest in supporting the program and / or becoming an academic mentor by using this online form.

You can watch this video that provides more detail about Future17.

Read the module descriptor here.