An Immersive Company Case Study

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In this flagship course by the Group for Sustainability and Technology at D-MTEC, students acquire essential knowledge about corporate sustainability and develop practical skills for implementation in real-world scenarios, preparing them for making well-informed sustainability decisions in their future careers.

The course offers an immersive learning experience, including a 360-degree case study where students examine a company from various angles, learning to navigate tensions and trade-offs in corporate sustainability. Coached by experts and utilizing self-learning tools, students collaborate in teams during the case study to address sustainability challenges and negotiate decisions within a simulated board meeting setting.

This student-centered approach not only fosters cooperation skills, problem analysis, and creative thinking but also integrates Artificial Intelligence (AI) into teaching methods. The overall goal of this lecture is to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of corporate sustainability and the tools needed to drive companies towards sustainable practices.

Course Development

The Corporate Sustainability lecture, initiated 19 years ago, has undergone continuous enhancements. In 2018, it was a finalist for ETH Zurich’s KITE Award for innovative teaching. In 2021, it received an Innovedum grant, leading to a significant redesign. This transformation emphasized student-centered learning and introduced collaborative activities, including a comprehensive 360-degree case study of a major Swiss supermarket for holistic and cross-disciplinary learning.

Unique Course Design

During the course, participants undergo four distinct phases (as depicted in the diagram “learning journey”):

1.      Intro Phase: Here, they acquire foundational knowledge of Corporate Sustainability through traditional lectures.

2.      Team Phase: In this phase, participants, organized into teams of 3-4 students, become experts in one of 10 sustainability challenges (covering areas such as biodiversity, carbon removal, and sustainability culture). They collaboratively analyze the existing challenges within their chosen topic and develop solutions. One of these solutions is further elaborated into a Board Proposal.

3.      Board Session Phase: Transitioning from the second phase involves a shift in perspective. Participants, who were content experts, now take on the role of decision-makers in a fictional board session. This transition is facilitated with the support of SusBot, a chatbot used to analyze and evaluate a fictional board proposal.

4.      Reflection Phase: In the final phase, participants reflect on the overall progress of the course with an external guest, contextualizing their learning experiences.

Throughout the entire course duration, blended learning with videos and quizzes allow participants to deepen their understanding and immediately assess their knowledge. Evaluation includes performance assessments through four assignments during the semester and a written end-of-semester exam.

Virtual Conversation with a ChatBot

An innovative aspect of this lecture involves the incorporation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the teaching methodology. To enhance participants critical evaluation skills, we have created an application known as «SusBot», which is based on large language models in the form of a chatbot. Centered around a fictional board proposal, SusBot assists participants in assessing sustainability impacts, identifying risks, and considering trade-offs. It achieves this by prompting students for further elaboration, challenging arguments, and following up on ideas.

To assess the effectiveness of SusBot, we conducted a survey among participants, seeking insights into its utility. The underlying research question focused on evaluating how well a GPT-based chatbot could facilitate interactive teaching discussions and aid students in evaluating sustainability proposals. While the detailed outcomes of the survey are still undergoing evaluation, the initial response from students indicates a positive perception of SusBot.

Looking ahead, our future plans include expanding SusBot’s assistance to cover a broader range, ideally incorporating all 10 board proposals.

Thanks to the conversation with the chatbot I found new details in the proposal that I have not thought about.
Anonymous Quote from Student

360-Degree Case Study Format

The 360-degree case study is an integral and essential part of the course. Over several weeks, students work in groups to develop solutions for a major Swiss supermarket chain. The defined goal is to improve and expand the supermarket’s pioneering role in the area of sustainability by finding feasible, innovative and effective solutions and projects. In the final fictitious board session, 10 proposals are weighed up against each other and the chosen sustainability portfolio is justified.

What are the learning objectives?

The 360° case study format allows students to:

  • Grasp the diversity of sustainability challenges that companies are facing
  • Learn to evaluate sustainability proposal along several dimensions
  • Experience the challenges of negotiating different pathways for companies to become more sustainable
  • Recognize key concepts of corporate sustainability, such as tensions and trade-offs

What makes this case so suitable?

The choice of a large Swiss supermarket as a case study has proven to be very favourable. Students can easily relate to the case company and are already aware of the challenges in the area of sustainability. However, they lack simple solutions. The ability of the case to bridge the gap between theoretical understanding and practical application at different levels of expertise and experience is a great advantage.

What are the challenges of this format?

One of the major difficulties was to capture and handle the diversity in class across different dimensions: a diversity of challenges, a diversity of solutions, and a diversity of students with different experiences and expertise. But ultimately diversity is also one of its strengths: Students discovered that, amidst their unique strengths, effective collaboration and listening to peers emerged as essential success factors in developing and evaluating solutions to sustainability challenges.

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’ contribution 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
Teaching Power:
3 lecturers, more than a dozen support staff, 2 external experts
written on campus online examination and 4 deliverable during the semester.

ETH Competence Framework