The environmental impact of human activities must be reduced if we want to preserve our planet. Climate change has become a growing concern for people around the world – including many students at EPFL. To help promote sustainability, the School has introduced a new certification system for Master’s internships that indicates which opportunities adhere to strict sustainability standards.
All EPFL Master’s students must complete an internship of between two and six months depending on their field of study. This requirement was introduced ten years ago to help students acquire professional skills in addition to the theory and hands-on experience they get at the School. EPFL has set up a dedicated website where hundreds of businesses post internship opportunities every year; last year more than 1,100 companies posted around 3,000 internships, and 1,285 students made the most of them. Over 70% of the internships were in Switzerland; the rest were mainly in France, the US, Germany, the UK and Belgium.
The idea for the certification came in 2019, when climate change moved to the top of the global agenda. Young people concerned about the future held large protest rallies around the world, Greta Thunberg became a household name and citizens everywhere became aware of the urgent need to protect the environment and tackle the climate crisis. EPFL’s management stepped up its own effort by developing a new strategy and setting up a task force to draft a Climate 2030 action plan that addresses the School’s educational, research and innovation activities as well as campus operations.
The internship sustainability certification was rolled out this summer. Companies can obtain official EPFL recognition that their internship involves developing technology or meeting some other goal that is eco-friendly or contributes to protecting the environment. For example, interns could be asked to develop a program for modeling and subsequently reducing a building’s energy use, calculate how much solar power can be generated for a remote heating system so as to minimize the use of fossil fuels, or come up with software that lets companies measure the environmental impact of their operations.
Getting used to thinking green
Companies wishing to certify their internships must fill out a questionnaire based on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, although modified slightly to meet engineers’ needs and background. The questionnaire responses are reviewed by Tech4Impact – an EPFL platform created to accelerate the development of innovative, sustainable technology – which then selects which internships to certify.
The certified internships are indicated with a colored circle – corresponding to the Sustainable Development Goals’ color wheel – on EPFL’s internship website, so that students can spot them easily.
“With this certification system, we wanted to draw attention to sustainability-oriented internships so that companies are more likely to offer them and students are more inclined to select them,” says Catherine Marselli Pasquier, EPFL’s internship program coordinator. “That also aligns with our School’s sustainability strategy and social responsibility approach.”
To prevent greenwashing, companies must provide detailed, comprehensive information, which is checked by experts. “Companies must describe the sustainability aspect of their internships in full and outline coherent sustainability objectives,” says Davor Kosanic, a Tech4Impact project manager. “It’s also a way to prompt companies to take environmental issues more seriously.”
The certification system is still in the testing phase. Students will be asked for feedback once the internships are completed to evaluate whether the sustainability criteria were indeed met and whether students found the certification useful. So far the system has been popular among businesses – several tens of internships had already been certified since early September.