York University maps courses that teach about Sustainable Development Goals

Image shows a hand holding a pine cone against a lush backdrop of greenery

York University is internationally recognized for its contributions to addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) through teaching, research, stewardship, and partnerships. York’s annual SDG report is a snapshot of some of the work the University is doing in collaboration with Canadian and international partners to advance the Global Goals.

“The University is making determined and substantial strides towards the goals, through the power of higher education,” says York University’s Provost and VP Academic Lisa Philipps.  

As the world rapidly approaches 2030, youth have been mobilizing to compel global leaders to take urgent action on the SDGs. “As a global SDG leader, York University and its students are already playing an integral role in this movement,” adds Philipps.

To continuously improve the support offered to students and graduates who are tackling these challenges, York University has embarked on a process of understanding how its courses address or are linked to the SDGs. This initiative maps York courses with one or more of the SDGs, as appropriate, and the University is making this information available to the community on its SDG website.

The goal is to better inform students about learning opportunities related to the SDGs, to understand York’s strengths and curricular assets across the disciplines, and to increase awareness and deepen SDG-related conversations at the University and beyond.

Teaching the SDGs: the number of York courses related to each Global Goal

The above graphic shows the number of courses that relate to each of the United Nations 17 SDGs

Lessons learned from mapping courses

In consultation with OSDG, an open access tool developed by the United Nations Development Program’s SDG AI Lab and the EU-based thinktank PPMI, York analysts were able to undertake this process. They looked at both undergraduate and graduate courses offered in both English or French across all Faculties and all courses offered at the time of this analysis.

This approach looked at the use of more than 20,000 keywords and with the help of machine learning identified courses that are related to one or more of the SDGs through course titles and official descriptions. The University learned about the OSDG tool from University College London.

York University is the OSDG’s first official North American partner, as the organization works with a range of global partners such as the University of Hong Kong. York analysts consulted other universities in Ontario, British Columbia, California, England and New Zealand, organizations like York that are recognized for their global leadership on SDGs. Those consultations focused on learning about best practices for mapping and sharing SDG-relevant courses with their respective communities.

In total, analysts identified 1,635 courses (38 per cent of all courses), that are related to at least one SDG. Mapping for SDG 17 is still in development. All Faculties were represented among the mapped courses and the above table shows the number of courses that were identified as being related to each SDG.

The OSDG’s machine learning-enabled course mapping functionality flagged SDG-related courses when they specifically referenced the SDGs in the curriculum or where the curriculum empowered students to independently tackle an SDG theme within or outside of the classroom.

Many courses also mapped to more than one SDG – in fact, 285 courses were simultaneously mapped to two SDGs and 43 courses mapped to three SDGs. The process of mapping courses to the SDGs is iterative and analysts recognize that it is reliant upon the use of specific keywords and phrases found in current courses descriptions. As course descriptions continue to evolve, the analysis will be updated.

This approach will continue to improve over time, as new keywords are contributed to the OSDG’s bank. The full list of mapped courses will be published by Spring 2023 on York’s SDG website for the benefit of prospective and current students. The University will invite feedback in the lead up to publishing these courses and will continue to welcome ongoing feedback thereafter to ensure the mapped list of courses are kept up to date, and remain helpful for the York community.

The current analysis will serve as a starting point to improve the process of capturing SDG-related courses and advancing SDG education, and research on the SDGs, as outlined in the University Academic Plan.

Feedback from former Provostial Fellow and Professor Cheryl van Daalen-Smith, associate dean, academic; the Sustainability Office; the UNESCO Chair in Reorienting Education Towards Sustainability; and the Vice-Provost Students team has also been invaluable during this initial mapping endeavor. This Provostial initiative was supported by the Associate Vice-President Teaching & Learning, the University Registrar, the Office of Institutional Planning and Analysis and York International.

York University funds $4.05M to support interdisciplinary research for the UN SDGs

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The research projects advance knowledge in areas ranging from water remediation, management of infectious disease through technological innovation, the effects of climate change on ecosystems and human populations, visual neuroscience, and understanding the pathway from colonial genocide to building just relationships.

York University will fund ground-breaking research through the Catalyzing Interdisciplinary Research Clusters (CIRC) program, which aims to foster interdisciplinary collaboration, global research excellence and world-class training opportunities.  Now in its second year, the program supports critical research that can advance York’s contribution to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).

“As the world continues to address urgent global challenges such as climate change, global health crises and political polarization, and their impact on people and the planet, it is critical now more than ever for York to support novel interdisciplinary research collaborations that drive innovative solutions to these grand challenges,” says York President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton. “York University is home to some of the brightest researchers in the world, and I am inspired by the talent, drive, and commitment of our researchers to making the world a better place. I offer you my congratulations in these exemplary research endeavours.”

“York is pleased to invest in interdisciplinary research clusters that will continue to amplify York’s world class research excellence,” says Vice-President Research & Innovation (VPRI) Amir Asif. “The CIRC program brings together talented researchers from across disciplines and faculties, supporting research that will help address complex global issues identified in the UN SDGs, and driving positive change in our local and global communities.”

Seven projects will receive $150,000 per year over three years:

Catalyzing Interdisciplinary Research Cluster for Detection and Remediation of Water Contaminants (CIRC-DRWC), led by Satinder Brar, Lassonde School of Engineering, with co-Principal Investigators (PIs) Pouya Rezai, Lassonde School of Engineering, James Orbinski, Faculty of Health, Sylvie Morin, Faculty of Science, and Ali Asgary, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS)
UN SDG 6: Clean Water & Sanitation

Catalyzing Collective Action at the Intersection of Global Health and the Arts, led by Caitlin Fisher, School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design (AMPD) with co-PI Steven Hoffman Faculty of Health, and Sharon Hayashi (AMPD)
UN SDG 3: Good Health & Well-Being

From Colonial Genocide to Just Relationships, led by Luann Good Gingrich (LA&PS) with co-PI Heidi Matthews, Osgoode Hall Law School
UN SDG 16: Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions

Technologies for Identification and Control of Infectious Diseases (TICID), led by Sergey Krylov, Faculty of Science
UN SDG 3: Good Health & Well-Being

Geomatics for Analyzing Climate Change Effects on Ecosystems and Human Populations, led by Tarmo Remmel, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC)
UN SDG 13: Climate Action

Translating Brain Signals Across Scales, Species, Sex and Lifespan, led by Jeff Schall, Faculty of Science with co-PI Shayna Rosenbaum, Faculty of Health
UN SDG 3: Good Health & Well-Being

Designing Sound Futures: Inclusive Design and Transdisciplinary STEAM Learning, led by Kurt Thumlert, Faculty of Education with Co-PI Andreas Kitzmann (LA&PS)
UN SDG 10: Reduced Inequality

In addition, six other proposals that were highly ranked by external reviewers will each be awarded two-year funding of $100,000 per year for two years for a total of $200,000 each. These proposals include:

Biomedical Engineering Cluster (BEC), led by Alex Czekanski, Lassonde School of Engineering with co-PI Peter Backx, Faculty of Science
UN SDG 3: Good Health & Well-Being

Towards Inclusive and Accessible Data Visualizations and Analytics, led by Enamul Prince (LA&PS)
UN SDG 10: Reduced Inequality

Overcoming Epidemics: Transnational Black Communities’ Response, Recovery and Resilience, led by Mohamed Sesay (LA&PS) with co-PIs Sylvia Bawa (LA&PS) and Oghenowede Eyawo, Faculty of Health
UN SDG 3: Good Health & Well-Being

Research Cluster on Data Economy, aligned with UN SDG: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure, led by Xiaohui Yu (LA&PS) with co-PIs Giuseppina D’Agostino, Osgoode Hall Law School, and Jennifer Pybus (LA&PS)
UN SDG 9: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure

*Social and Business Implications of Introducing Micro-mobility Vehicles (at York) Implications for Disruptive Technologies and Experiential Education, led by Andrew Maxwell, Lassonde School of Engineering with co-PIs Marina Freire-Gormaly, Lassonde School of Engineering, Pilar F Carbonell (LA&PS), Manos Papangelis, Lassonde School of Engineering and Jose Etcheverry, (EUC)
UN SDG 10: Reduced Inequality

*Towards Sustainable Extraction in the North, aligned with UN SDG: Responsible Consumption and Production, led by Laura McKinnon, Glendon College with co-PIs Kamelia Atefi-Monfared, Lassonde School of Engineering, Gabrielle Slowey (LA&PS), Zachary Spicer, (LA&PS)
UN SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

*Conditionally approved, subject to additional review.

“We would like to acknowledge the members of the internal Adjudication Committee: Professors Rosemary CoombeDavid HoodJane Heffernan and Dan Zhang, who have helped the Office of the VPRI support research excellence in ways that are equitable, diverse and inclusive,” adds Asif.

More about the Catalyzing Interdisciplinary Research Clusters Program

The Catalyzing Interdisciplinary Research Clusters (CIRC) program funds research excellence for interdisciplinary projects, crossing the mandates of at least two of the three federal granting councils, with the core team of at least five researchers for each project including members from at least two faculties and at least one early career researcher.

Modelled to replicate the success of interdisciplinary research clusters, the initiative empowers clusters to achieve research excellence and secure large-scale funding through highly competitive national programs, such as the Canada Excellence Research Chair, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund and the New Frontiers in Research Fund – Transformation stream. The CIRC program will scale the development of research teams and clusters to position the University as a key node in national and international networks in strategic areas of interest, while enabling impactful contributions towards the University’s Strategic Research Plan, the University Academic Plan and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

All proposals received were subjected to expert external peer review, with final decisions informed by an internal adjudication committee comprised of senior York researchers with additional representatives from the Office of the VPRI.

Faculty of Graduate Studies names Sapna Sharma recipient of Postdoctoral Supervisor Award

Award stock image banner from pexels

Faculty of Science Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, Sapna Sharma, received the 2022 Supervisor of the Year award from the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) at a council ceremony on Dec. 1.

Sapna Sharma
Sapna Sharma

FGS bestows the award annually on an individual who has demonstrated outstanding support for postdoctoral scholars at York University, exceeding general supervisory expectations. Nominations must provide evidence that the nominee: fosters an exemplary environment of support for professional skill development; is a role model for intellectual leadership and professionalism in research; promotes and models a climate of respect and collegiality; and offers advocacy and guidance in long-term personal, professional and career development.

The adjudication committee reviewed an exceptional pool of nominees this year and were particularly impressed by Sharma’s work as a supervisor. The letter of nomination highlighted her drive to create an environment of support for her postdoctoral Fellows and students. Acting as a true mentor, she provides ample opportunities for professional skill development and exemplifies a steadfast commitment to facilitating international collaborations.

Sharma consistently went above and beyond her expected role, supporting the members of her lab, Sharma Lakes, by advocating for their personal, as well as professional, career development. This dedication was especially crucial within the context of the global pandemic and its impact on mental, financial and overall well-being.

“The past two years have been an unprecedented time with the COVID-19 pandemic and York University frequently closing. In response, Dr. Sharma has prioritized the mental health of everyone under her supervision, including myself,” her colleague, Alessandro Filazzola, stated in the nomination letter. “She frequently checks in to ensure we are financially stable, whether we require leave, or have the necessary support should we decide to continue working.”

Postdoctoral Supervisor of the Year awarded to Sapna Sharma by FGS council
FGS council names Sapna Sharma (top right) Postdoctoral Supervisor of the Year

On the challenges of research during the pandemic, Sharma said, “The students and postdocs in my lab worked incredibly hard to keep our research moving forward, despite the immense challenges of working remotely during the pandemic. I thank them for their work, supporting one another and the research program, and keeping the lab environment alive.”

Sharma’s area of research examines how lakes worldwide respond to climate change, including rapid ice loss, warming water temperatures, degrading water quality and changing fish distributions. The work performed in her lab involves predicting the effects of environmental stressors, such as invasive species and habitat alteration, on lakes. This important research highlights the real-life repercussions of climate change, which can inspire others to seek out ways to create a more sustainable future.

“I am lucky to have a wonderful lab. I work with amazing students and postdocs. They make my work life fun and intellectually stimulating as I learn a lot from them,” said Sharma.

Outside of her research and role as supervisor, Sharma is an active member of the community. She currently holds the position of vice-Chair of the Royal Canadian Institute for Science, a charity committed to science public engagement, which demonstrates her dedication to science communication. Moreover, she is also the founder and Chair of SEEDS at York University, an outreach program that provides refugee children who have recently arrived in Canada with additional educational opportunities in science and math.

“As a Provostial Fellow, Dr. Sharma has been working on a University-wide engagement strategy to build partnerships that focus on access to clean water, and in that sense is really taking hold of York’s commitment in the University Academic Plan to further the UN [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals,” said Dean and Associate Vice President Graduate Thomas Loebel.

The Supervisor of the Year Award acts as a way to acknowledge dedication displayed by faculty who exemplify all the characteristics of an outstanding role model. “[Sharma] has enriched the lives of her postdoctoral Fellows. Her investment and commitment serve as a model for others to follow.  She embodies the award’s dedication to mentorship creativity, excellence, and dedication,” said Loebel.

Workshop series brings SDGs to forefront of teaching and learning

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A series of one-hour workshops at York University will launch in the new year and share ways in which educators can infuse the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SGDs) into teaching and learning.

Co-developed by York’s Teaching Commons and SDGs-in-the-Classroom Curricular Innovation Hub, The Sustainable Development Goals in Teaching and Learning series launches Jan. 25, 2023 and presents five online workshops.

UN SDG wheel with the 17 SDGs

The series explores how educators might speak to the SDGs through curriculum, teaching practices, course design and assessments. The outcomes are developed to raise awareness of the importance of sustainable development and prepare students with the knowledge, skills and attributes to tackle the world’s greatest challenges.

The workshops, which run from 10 to 11 a.m., are:

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)-in-the-Classroom Curricular Innovation Hub is part of the SDG Teach In, a campaign to put the SDGs at the centre of all stages of education, and across all disciplines. The SDG Teach In, hosted by Students Organizing for Sustainability United Kingdom (SOS-UK), is a student-led education charity focusing on sustainability with a belief that change is urgently needed to tackle the injustices and unsustainability in our world.

The 2023 campaign will run from March 1 to 31, 2023, and encourages educators to pledge to include the SDGs within their teaching, learning and assessment during the campaign and beyond. Educators can pledge to take part now via the SDG Teach in pledge form

Lassonde team developing new tool for detection of microplastics in water

Close-up of micro plastic particles on the fingers under a magnifying glass. Concept for water pollution and global warming. Macro shot on a bunch of microplastics that cannot be recycled

Researchers at the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University are working to develop innovative methods for the detection of microplastics in bodies of water. Recently, a group of researchers successfully designed and prototyped an affordable and simple device for the detection of microplastics.

Water sources often contain pollutants due to the breakdown of large plastics and commercial product development, some of these pollutants are undetectable to the naked eye. One example of such pollutants are micro-and nano-plastics, which are harmful both to the environment and living organisms, including humans. That’s why researchers at the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University are working to develop innovative methods for the detection of microplastics in bodies of water. Although there are some standard laboratory-based methods to detect microplastics, they often have significant drawbacks, including both time and cost, which prevent their use in detailed investigations of aquatic environments.

Recently, a group of researchers from Lassonde Professor Pouya Rezai’s lab in the Department of Mechanical Engineering have designed and prototyped an affordable and simple microfluidic device for the on-site detection of microplastics. The team of researchers includes two postdoctoral fellows and former Lassonde PhD candidates Alireza Zabihihesari and Arezoo Khalili and one MSc student Mohammad-Javad Farshchi-Heydari. They fabricated the device with replica molding of two polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) layers onto 3D-printed master molds.

The microfluidic device consists of a straight microchannel in which the water sample enters from one end and leaves from the other. Simultaneously, a DC sweep current is applied to two microwires crossing the microchannel. Applying an electrical current to microwires induces an attractive electrophoretic force, which leads to microplastics accumulating on the positive or negative electrode (microwires), thereby changing the electrical resistance.

The proposed microfluidic method for DC electrical microplastic extraction and detection. (A) The experimental setup consisting of the microfluidic sensor, a syringe pump, a DC SourceMeter, and a computer. (B) Close up schematic of the dashed rectangular region of interest in (a) demonstrating microplastics accumulation around the anode during an electrical current sweep. Image courtesy Lassonde School of Engineering

This approach was tested using sparked microplastics in water at different concentrations. In the future, this sensor can be integrated into a hand-held device, enabling on-site detection of microplastics in aquatic environments. Currently, Rezai’s research group is working to expand the application of their sensor for detecting microplastics of different shapes, types and sizes in real samples collected from lakes, seas and oceans with various concentrations of salt.

Their manuscript is now available online and for the past few weeks it has been listed on Social Science Research Network’s (SSRN) Top Ten download list for: Analytical Chemistry eJournal and ChemRN: Fluidics.

The manuscript is available online: Simple Microfluidic Device for Simultaneous Extraction and Detection of Microplastics in Water Using Dc Electrical Signal.

UNHack brings together students to tackle pressing sustainability challenges

UNHack2022FEATURED image for YFile-01

From Nov. 4 to 6, Lassonde’s Bergeron Entrepreneurs in Science and Technology (BEST) Program welcomed more than 450 students from local high-schools, York and undergraduates from nearby post-secondary institutions to UNHack 2022, a three-day immersive learning experience aimed at addressing sustainability challenges related to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).

More than 450 students took part in this year's event
More than 450 students took part in this year’s event

UNHack provided a safe and immersive environment for participants to learn about sustainability challenges in their community, promoted the development of creative ideas and, through teamwork, students strived to design solutions for the UN SDG challenges they identified.

On the first day of UNHack, students met their teammates and dedicated mentors while learning about the principles of the Design Sprint process. They selected the challenge they were passionate about tackling and established roles within their teams. The next day, participants continued their structured learning journey by brainstorming and developing solution designs for the problem they chose to address.

“My biggest takeaway was learning how to apply different methods to solving a problem,” said Jason Lee, a first-year engineering student. “By not focusing immediately on solving the problem at hand and instead understanding why the problem exists, it helped us come up with a better solution.”

UNHack provided students with the unique opportunity to elaborate on their ideas and learn about the different perspectives of their peers while completing a project. Participants were able to develop a variety of skills including resilience, collaboration, leadership, time management, critical thinking, communication and project management.

Students worked in teams to brainstorm solutions to the problem they selected to address during UNHack
Students worked in teams to brainstorm solutions to the problem they selected to address during UNHack

“I learned what it is like to work on a project with a group and how to collaborate with other people,” said first-year engineering student Joshua Lopez. “UNHack showed me how beneficial, efficient and creative solutions can arise when working with a team, which is a vital experience as an engineering student, since many future projects will require me to collaborate with others.”

More than 100 project teams took part in UNHack, with 74 teams making it to the preliminary judging round and 11 teams advancing to the final round. The top teams focused on a range of topics such as road safety, technological services to encourage female students to enter STEM fields and accessible opportunities for sustainable development.

“My biggest takeaway from this experience would have to be the amazing, skilled and smart women and men I have met on this journey, whom I now have the pleasure of calling my friends,” said Nicole Ikhuenbor, first-year engineering student. “The moments we spent at UNHack were invaluable. I was able to face being uncomfortable and embrace my communication and leadership skills. The entire team who orchestrated UNHack was amazing, thank you for this experience, I truly learned so much.”

Winning teams

First place – team #88:O2 (Chen Yu, Alex Pastiu, Ahmed Syed, Shaan Tandon, Alejandro Francis, Mikhail Ajasa). This team addressed UN SDG #6: Clean Water and Sanitation by designing an affordable water distiller/desalinater that can be built using local resources and is easy to set up and maintain, in order to serve the communities who don’t have access to clean drinking water.

Team #88: O2 – posing with Lassonde Professor Andrew Maxwell (far right) and Karen Lai (second from the right)
Team #88: O2 – posing with Lassonde Professor Andrew Maxwell (far right) and Karen Lai (second from the right)

Second place (and People’s Choice Award) – team #5: e-Portfolio (Suyash Singh, Anna Maximova, Heet Narechania, Mohammad Jad Allah, Ummi Hanny, Faiyaz Abdul Aziz, Syed Ali Reza Rizvi). This team addressed UN SDG #4: Quality Education by creating an artificial intelligence (AI) based e-portfolio to support York University students with smart course selection. Their platform aims to make the course selection process easy and eliminate the need to check and recheck the academic calendar, by integrating a comprehensive course directory that can constantly be updated.

Team #5: e-Portfolio posing with BEST Program Manager, Maedeh Sedaghat (centre)
Team #5: e-Portfolio posing with BEST Program Manager, Maedeh Sedaghat (centre)

Third place – team #103: Trash to Treasure (Wolfgang Becker, Stavroula Kloutsouniotis, Julia Rodriguez, Amarjeet Gill,). This team addressed UN SDG #11: Sustainable Cities and Communities by creating miniaturized recycling facilities on campus to convert recycled plastic into useful building materials for new construction, art or renovation and promote on-campus recycling. 

Team #103: Trash to Treasure
Team #103: Trash to Treasure

“Unlike traditional hackathons, UNHack focuses on empowering students to feel comfortable with ambiguity and to get out of their comfort zone in order to learn more about themselves, the process of creative problem solving and sustainability projects,” says Maedeh Sedaghat, manager, BEST program. “Students are provided with tools and techniques they can apply to design innovative solutions, make an impact in their community and help make the world a better place.”

UNHack was sponsored by York University (Office of the Vice-President Finance & Administration), Summer Fresh, KPM Power and Scotiabank along with our partners, mentors and moderators.

Lassonde Professor Magdalena Krol, associate dean, Research, Innovation, Enterprise & Partnerships, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change; Dean Alice Hovorka from the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change; and Nicole Arsenault, program director, Sustainability, provided opening remarks at UNHack. 

The expert judges participating in this year’s event:  entrepreneurs Elliot Atkins, Karen Lai, Subashini Kangesan and Keith Loo; Arsenault; and Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Associate Professor Jon Kerr.  

View more photos from the UNHack on the Lassonde Facebook page.

Senate approves five new Organized Research Units

research graphic

The five new Organized Research Units (ORUs) focus on new and emerging discoveries in artificial intelligence (AI), neuroscience, emergency mitigation, water, technoscience and society.

The Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation (VPRI) announces that the Senate of York University has approved five new ORUs, four of which officially started on July 1. The Centre for Integrative and Applied Neuroscience will commence its activity on July 1, 2023.

Amir Asif
Amir Asif

“York’s ORUs have been remarkably successful in fostering positive change by bringing together expertise across disciplines,” said Amir Asif, vice-president research and innovation. “Our organized research units serve as synergistic hubs, supporting innovative, interdisciplinary and collaborative research taking place beyond traditional academic units. The new ORUs exemplify our strengths in technology, sustainability practices, artificial intelligence, neuroscience and emergency management – areas of strategic importance to the University in light of our commitment to United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.”

The Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Society (CAIS) unites researchers who are collectively advancing state of the art theory and practice of artificial intelligence (AI) systems, law, governance and public policy. The research focuses on AI systems that address societal priorities in health care, smart cities and sustainability, and are fair, explainable, reliable and trusted. 

Neuroscience – the study of nervous system function – aims to explain the biological basis of human behaviour in health and disease. One in three Canadians will experience a brain-related health disorder. The Centre for Integrative and Applied Neuroscience (CIAN), commencing July 1, 2023, mobilizes research to address health, education, industry and other applications important for the global community. 

The Institute for Technoscience and Society (ITS) is a global hub of critical and interdisciplinary research and knowledge mobilization on the relationship between technoscience and society, especially the configuration of social power underpinning scientific claims, medical practices, emerging technologies and sites of innovation.

The York Emergency Mitigation, Engagement, Response, and Governance Institute (Y-EMERGE) works to transform the way societies understand, conceptualize, analyze, manage and govern crises, disasters and emergencies. Y-EMERGE emphasizes community-engaged scholarship, real-world and need-driven research, and evidence-based training for effective emergency management.

One WATER will greatly enhance the capacity to address the diverse aspects of the ongoing water sustainability crises, attract and train future leaders in the field, educate the public, innovate with industrial partners, and attract external competitive funding and endowments. One WATER will engage in interdisciplinary world-class research on sourcing, artificial intelligence, technologies, education and sustainability, resource recovery and reuse, as well as their environmental, educational and societal implications.

The York community can expect another announcement in the coming weeks on the appointment of the ORU directors for these newly established ORUs.

More information on York’s 30 existing Organized Research Units can be found on the University’s Research & Innovation website.

York researchers’ revamped AI tool makes water dramatically safer in refugee camps

Water droplets

A team of researchers from the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research and Lassonde School of Engineering have revamped their Safe Water Optimization Tool (SWOT) with multiple innovations that will help aid workers unlock potentially life-saving information from water-quality data regularly collected in humanitarian settings. 

Syed Imran Ali
Syed Imran Ali

Created in partnership with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the free-to-use, open-source online platform has been shown to dramatically increase water safety for people living in refugee camps and has corrected major inaccuracies about proper chlorination levels that went on for decades. 

SWOT v2, to be unveiled at a virtual event on Nov. 8, builds on earlier research with advancements in the tool’s machine-learning and numerical-modelling engines. A reimagined and redesigned user experience, and new functionalities, promise to give humanitarian responders much-needed assistance in situations where waterborne diseases are among the leading health threats. 

“Our first version of the tool was a prototype. What we’ve done in the past two years with user feedback and field learning is build a state-of-the-art web product,” says team lead Syed Imran Ali, who is a research Fellow at the Dahdaleh Institute and an adjunct professor at the Lassonde School of Engineering. “This is one of the first operational deployments of artificial-intelligence technology in humanitarian response.”  

Ali and the rest of the team, who include machine learning lead Professor Usman T. Khan from Lassonde’s Department of Civil Engineering, modelling graduate researcher Mike De Santi, Dahdaleh Institute Director Dr. James Orbinski, MD, and field advisor James Brown, say these improvements are informed by real-life lessons gleaned from the field.

Humanitarian aid workers face huge challenges supplying safe water to people affected by conflict or natural disasters, explains Brown, who has previously worked in camps managing the water supply of upwards of 40,000 people

“Working as a water engineer in crisis, you’re providing water to people who are often extremely vulnerable, and it’s your job to help protect them from all the health risks that exist in that kind of environment. It’s so frustrating not having the information you need to be confident that the water you’re delivering isn’t yet another health risk,” he says. 

“The motivation for all the work we’ve been doing to release the SWOT v2 is to help people make the best decisions and provide confidence that quality standards are being maintained — both for aid workers and those relying on the water supply.”  

The tool was born out of Ali’s experience working with MSF as a water and sanitation specialist in refugee settlements in South Sudan. Despite following industry-standard guidelines for water chlorination, Ali and his colleagues were seeing that water was still unsafe in people’s households during a large outbreak of Hepatitis E, a serious waterborne illness that can have up to a 25 per cent mortality rate among pregnant women.

“There was a huge crisis — end of the rainy season, flooding everywhere,” Ali recalled. “So all these waterborne diseases were tearing through the camp.” 

Through field research looking at how water quality behaves in refugee camps, Ali and his team discovered the chlorination guidelines used widely in the humanitarian sector were built on faulty assumptions.

“No one had ever looked at the problem of what happens after the tap,” Ali explains, noting that unlike most urban settings in the developed world, people in refugee camps must collect water from public faucets in containers and then bring it back to their homes where it is stored and used for many hours, introducing many opportunities for recontamination during this ‘last mile’ of the safe-water chain. 

Building on the work initiated in South Sudan, the research team studied chlorination levels at distribution and in households in refugee camps around the world, and realized they could use this data — which is routinely collected for monitoring purposes — to model post-distribution chlorine decay and generate site-specific and evidence-based water-chlorination targets. They put these modelling tools on the cloud to create the SWOT v1 prototype and carried out a proof-of-concept study in a large refugee camp in Bangladesh.

“We found that using the SWOT recommendations effectively doubled the proportion of households with safe water at around 15 hours compared to the status-quo practice,” Ali says.

While these results were very impressive, they did not account for all the various conditions water and sanitation workers could experience, Brown adds, which v2 factors in. 

They also did not account for taste. SWOT v2 not only promises to make water safer, but also find the optimal level where chlorine levels are high enough to protect people, but not so high that people will reject it. This is particularly important in parts of the world where people were previously used to sources such as high-quality spring water and are not accustomed to chlorine. 

“If people don’t like the taste, they don’t like the way it looks and smells, they’re not going to use that source and they’ll then go to a river or somewhere else that could be dangerous,” Brown says.

In future SWOT versions, the team hopes to include other water quality and health outcomes and look at how they could integrate more participation from displaced people themselves. While Ali says the tool cannot deal with the political roots of the refugee crisis, the practical need for SWOT is greater than ever. 

“The unfortunate fact of it is there’s more people displaced now than there ever has been in human history,” Ali says. “We see climate-linked disasters increasing in frequency and scale — in particular, flooding crises, which are linked to a lot of waterborne illness. It is a very clear and present danger. People need solutions that work in the current context.”

President Rhonda Lenton outlines York University’s sustainability goals

Photo by Tobias Weinhold on Unsplash

The University will expand the Office of Sustainability to help achieve net-zero sooner, and a significant reduction of direct and indirect emissions by 45 per cent by 2030.

Dear York community members:

There is no more pressing global priority than the need to embrace a more sustainable way of living. Through our teaching, our research and our own practices, York University has contributed substantially to our understanding of sustainability best practices which are as much about what we do as what we are purposely choosing not to do.

At the same time, we know that more needs to be done, and so, we are investing resources to drive and expand innovative initiatives in the next phase of our Sustainability Strategy, enhancing the ability of our community of changemakers to deliver.

I am pleased to share with you York’s ambitious plans for sustainability, which include achieving net-zero and significantly reducing the University’s direct and indirect emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. We will bolster this commitment by expanding the Office of Sustainability and by investing $1 million to advance sustainable innovation. You can read more in the full announcement.

York is committed to driving positive change for our local and global communities, and sustainability is a core value that is at the heart of everything we strive for. Together we are taking the action needed for future generations, the planet and for ourselves.

Today is an important new chapter for the next phase of our Sustainability Strategy and I invite all members of our community to get actively engaged both in the University’s evolving plans and activities, as well as off-campus opportunities, as we seek to affirm our commitment to live and work more sustainably. Consultations regarding the Sustainability Strategy are in process and regular updates will be posted in the months to come.


Rhonda Lenton
President and Vice-Chancellor

La présidente et vice-chancelière Rhonda Lenton décrit l’objectif net zéro de York

Chers membres de la communauté de York,

La nécessité d’adopter un mode de vie plus durable est la priorité mondiale la plus pressante. Grâce à son enseignement, ses recherches et ses pratiques, l’Université York a considérablement amélioré la compréhension des pratiques exemplaires en matière de développement durable qui concernent aussi bien ce que nous faisons que ce que nous choisissons délibérément de ne pas faire.

Nous savons toutefois qu’il reste encore beaucoup à faire. C’est pourquoi nous investissons des ressources pour stimuler et développer des initiatives innovantes dans la prochaine phase de notre stratégie de durabilité, améliorant ainsi la capacité de notre communauté d’artisans du changement à tenir ses promesses.

J’ai le plaisir de partager avec vous les plans ambitieux de York en matière de développement durable, qui prévoient d’atteindre la neutralité carbone et de réduire considérablement les émissions directes et indirectes de l’Université de 45 % d’ici 2030. Nous renforcerons cet engagement en élargissant le Bureau de la durabilité et en investissant un million de dollars pour faire progresser l’innovation durable. Apprenez-en plus en lisant la version intégrale de l’annonce.

York s’engage à susciter des changements positifs pour nos communautés locales et mondiales, et la durabilité est une valeur centrale de tous nos efforts. Ensemble, nous prenons les mesures nécessaires pour les générations futures, pour la planète et pour nous-mêmes.

Cette journée marque un nouveau chapitre important pour la prochaine phase de notre stratégie de durabilité. J’invite tous les membres de notre communauté à s’engager activement dans les plans et activités de l’Université et au-delà des campus, tandis que nous nous efforçons d’affirmer notre engagement envers une vie et un travail plus durables. Des consultations sur la stratégie de durabilité sont en cours et des mises à jour régulières seront publiées dans les mois à venir.

Sincères salutations,

Rhonda Lenton
Présidente et vice-chancelière

York faculty create Open Educational Resources, advancing UN SDGs

Person working on a computer

By Angela Ward

Faculty develop innovative Open Educational Resources (OER) that are aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and reveal the positive impact on teaching and learning.

Faculty members who are engaged in the process of creating OER reveal the impact this has on the teaching and learning experience, both in the classroom and beyond. They note that the interactive resources provide a tremendous opportunity for both instructors and students to learn and adapt as the world becomes increasingly more digitized.

Raymond Mar
Raymond Mar

Raymond A. Mar, associate professor, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health, and the creator of OER tutorials for data analysis, notes the financial difficulties students face when it comes to purchasing expensive textbooks. He says that OER not only reduce costs for students but also increase access to a wider audience, aligning with UN SDG 1 (no poverty) and UN SDG 4 (quality education).

“I think that making these resources more accessible increases the likelihood that they’ll be used more widely, which can really magnify your impact,” says Mar.

The OER tutorials he created are grouped in the resource “Research Methods: Interactive Demonstrations in ‘R’ at York (ReMInDeRY),” and are designed to help students learn a statistical programming language called R.

Mar explains that learning this software can be quite challenging for students as they move from a point-and-click interface to writing lines of code. R is becoming the predominant way of analyzing data for many fields, and being able to analyze data using R is a valuable skill to have in the workplace. When he first reviewed the available introductory tutorials for R, Mar thought that they remained intimidating.

“Even downloading and installing the software can be tricky for people,” he explains. “I created these tutorials to be the smoothest and easiest on-ramp to learning R, with everything available in a web browser window and no need to install any software.”

In this OER, students visit the website link, and receive an introduction to the basics of R with easy-to-understand language and quizzes to show their progress. From these tutorials, students can move onto learning more advanced skills in the software.

As a result of R being open source and free, packages have been created to improve its capabilities in creating interactive maps and websites. Mar points out how R can contribute to other SDGs by allowing users to produce persuasive data graphics that can speak to SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation) and SDG 13 (climate action).

Similarly, Tsvetanka Karagyozova, assistant professor (teaching stream), Department of Economics, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), sees connections to many SDGs in the OER she developed with an interdisciplinary team.

Tsvetanka Karagyozova
Tsvetanka Karagyozova

“I was interested in creating OER because textbooks and peer-reviewed course materials are the gold standard in economics but over time they become more expensive,” adds Karagyozova. “At York, I typically leave one copy of the textbook required for the course on reserve at the Scott Library, so I can see how well-used that textbook is.”

Karagyozova was part of a group of York collaborators, including Ida Ferrara, associate professor, LA&PS, and Edward Furman, professor, Faculty of Science, and Ricardas Zitikis, an associate professor of statistics from Western University. They also secured support from research assistants, a project manager and Xpan, an external contractor for the virtual reality (VR) experiment.

United under the Risk and Insurance Studies Centre (RISC) at York, they received funding from eCampusOntario Virtual Learning Strategy (VLS) program to develop a fully online course, Economics of Insurance and Decision Making Under Risk, accompanied by a VR behavioural lab. Because this OER uses a Creative Commons licence, it allows others to freely adopt, adapt, and build on the materials.

“Some of the SDGs are embedded in the course materials,” Karagyozova explains. “One of the modules, for example, is dedicated to microinsurance and economic growth. We look at how microinsurance can promote sustainable and inclusive growth in developing countries, serving as a risk mitigation mechanism that can break the poverty cycle and elevate women out of poverty.” This directly addresses UN SDG 1 (no poverty) and UN SDG 5 (gender equality, and empowering women and girls).

She adds that with the high cost of textbooks, students in developing nations sometimes do not have access to basic learning materials. OER within niche fields like hers can be shared with learners globally, opening them up to the world.

Eric Armstrong
Eric Armstrong

Eric Armstrong, chair and associate professor, Department of Theatre, School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD), also touches on the global reach OER can have on communities. His open textbook, Lexical Sets for Actors, is internationally accessible and has garnered interest from the United Kingdom (U.K.), fulfilling a need they have for accent training.

“There are lots of resources to teach people accents and phonetics (the sounds of language) but the lexical resources available are outdated, buried in a philosophy and pedagogy that’s often biased towards a standard speech,” he explains.

Armstrong says he is open to working with others to make variations of the book for different audiences and needs. He has even received feedback from his U.K. partner on changes they would like to see. Because Armstrong’s OER is licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, his OER allows for other instructors and educational institutions to remix and adapt the OER to tailor it to their local teaching context.

He approached the creation of the textbook learner with variability in mind. There are sample sentences for actors to practice their accents, which employs a creative writing component. It was also written with accessibility and many demographics in mind, including BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and non-binary communities. The OER’s inclusivity impacts areas outside the university as well.

“I’m also using the book with colleagues who are learning to be this type of teacher or trainer,” he adds. “Not working just in university settings but with professional actors, coaching them for roles. This resource stretches beyond the walls of academia.”

In looking towards the future of OER, Armstrong says, “The OER we are creating now will serve as models for others to get involved and to show that it can be done. People start to think differently about the nature of teaching, the nature of resources and about the nature of our responsibility to create a different kind of learning experience.”