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Purpose – This paper aims to analyze how a tangram activity improved students’ abilities to explain sustainability, articulate a positive perception of sustainable design and relate sustainability with innovation in engineering design. Design/methodology/approach – The concept of paradigm shift was introduced in the classroom by using a tangram activity to help students understand that sustainable design requires out-of-the-box thinking. Instructors from three institutions teaching various levels of sustainability courses to engineering majors used the activity to introduce sustainable design, then measured the understanding and appreciation of the concepts introduced through the tangram activity with pre- and post-activity surveys. Findings – Findings from the study indicate that students’ perceptions of sustainability significantly improved due to the activity, without regard to the institution. The activity also significantly improved students understanding of the connection between sustainability and innovation, across all three institutions, across all majors and across all years of study except second-year students. Improving engineering students’ views on sustainability may lead, over time, to changes in the industry, in which environmental performance is incorporated into the engineering design process. Originality/value – Active learning approaches are needed for affective-domain learning objectives in the sustainability field for students to learn the necessary attitudes, values and motivations to implement


International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education





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© Fethiye Ozis, Shannon Lynn Isovitsch Parks, Deborah Lynne Sills, Mustafa Akca and Christine Kirby. Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at http://


I 10.1108/IJSHE-09-2021-0392