Sustainable: (adj.) using resources so they are not depleted or permanently damaged
Growing up in Oregon, Brianna Dorie never cared about eco-buzzwords. But she did treasure the environment—to the point it determined her career path. “I actually decided to become an environmental engineer after learning about the hole in the ozone layer as a kid,” recalls Dorie, now a first-year doctoral student in environmental engineering at Purdue University, where she’s researching the public-health impact of fire retardants in electronics and other products. “I thought at an early age that it could be fixed.”
Dorie, a University of Portland civil engineering graduate with a master’s in environmental engineering from the University of Arizona, is among a new generation of students eager to protect the planet. Their favored tool: green engineering. The eco-friendly focus has prompted the nation’s engineering schools to examine their offerings and rethink overall educational philosophies to give conservation and sustainability the high priority the public and industry now demand.
Purdue’s College of Engineering is a leader in revamping the curriculum to emphasize environmental considerations across disciplines. The goal is to infuse sustainability principles throughout courses and projects. Purdue’s dean, Leah H. Jamieson, Ransburg Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, sees the new eco-focus as “an opportunity for engineering and science to be perceived as a profession that is very squarely in the realm of societal responsibility and meeting global challenges.” Engineers have enhanced life with sewer systems and power grids. Now, “sustainability is part of the global discussion,” notes Jamieson.
Such “grand challenges for humanity” help draw students like Dorie to engineering. Her research, for instance, focuses on public policy and the life cycle of brominated flame retardants, ubiquitous organic compounds that prevent pajamas, electronics and other items from catching fire. Elevated levels have been found in mammals, raising concerns about their toxicological effects. Some countries and states have banned their use. By analyzing the environmental impact of these “micropollutants” from manufacture through use, recycling and disposal, Dorie hopes to discover ways to reduce their potential harm.
Every year, Jamieson encounters students like Dorie who “want to improve the world.” Many once hesitated to speak up for fear of ridicule. Today’s campus, says Jamieson, is far more welcoming. Revamped, multidisciplinary courses have made students more aware of the role their work can play in tackling global problems. At Purdue’s Global Sustainable Industrial Systems research center, for instance, projects include analyzing the ecological impact of everything from manufacturing to political processes.
“There’s a real climate of collaboration right now,” says Jamieson, who cites such factors as the increase in public interest, industry’s need to meet environmental regulations and concerns over the availability and cost of oil and gas. Biofuels research is a prime example of this growing cooperation. It not only brings together such diverse disciplines as agricultural science, chemistry and engineering, but government and industry as well.
To foster collaboration and spur more engineering schools to address environmental issues, the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency have funded research to develop benchmarks, methods and other best practices related to teaching sustainability. A $2 million federal grant, for example, supported the development of Carnegie Mellon University’s new Center for Sustainable Engineering (CSE)—a partnership with the University of Texas at Austin and Arizona State University. The goal: help future engineers preserve scarce resources through faculty workshops, peer-reviewed educational materials and benchmarks to identify high-quality course content at the nation’s 1,500 engineering programs.
“We are looking at all sustainable engineering programs to see what’s out there, which schools have them and to determine best practices,” explains Carnegie Mellon civil and environmental engineering professor Cliff Davidson, CSE co-principal investigator. Engineers can no longer ignore arenas beyond their specialty, he says. Thus, CSE’s partner institutions push students and faculty to develop solutions across traditional department lines. For example, Carnegie Mellon recently established a program to work with local leaders and businesses to restore abandoned industrial sites and other polluted “brownfields.”
Part of the difficulty in promoting sustainable engineering, says CSE co-principal investigator Braden Allenby, professor of civil and environmental engineering and ethics at Arizona State’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, is that it tends to invite platitudes rather than practice. Federal grants, he says, will aid in “figuring out ways to do better engineering now and to train our students to consider the environmental and social implications of their actions.”
Some students already are blazing the way. Carnegie Mellon doctoral student Shahzeen Attari, who is pursuing dual degrees in engineering and public policy and civil and environmental engineering, is typical of these multidisciplined minds. The public knows “something is wrong with the current system,” Attari says. “The fact that we consume resources without taking the impact into consideration, the mounting effects of climate change and the fact we are no longer connected to the land all start adding up and start people thinking.” Attari seeks to harness psychology to change behavior by creating messages, procedures and incentives that communities could use to persuade residents to reduce consumption of materials that emit carbon dioxide. Some sustainability messages already are raising public awareness, Attari notes, such as “buy local” and consume less.
“People like the freedom to choose their lifestyles, what they consume and when they consume it,” observes Attari. “However, the environment is a ‘commons’ that we share with other citizens of the world, and when individual choices start negatively impacting others, we need to understand how to change or alter those behaviors.”
Academia’s increased focus on environmentalism spans the globe. The Institution of Engineers Australia, the country’s accrediting body for engineering education, has taken the lead in addressing the paucity of environmental content. It spearheaded the formation of a nonprofit sustainability think-tank called the Natural Edge Project, which pools research from myriad engineering-school and environmental-group partners and posts relevant textbooks, scientific papers and research on its Web site, www.naturaledgeproject.net/. Recently, the organization began developing curricula with individual universities.
Although Australia includes sustainability in its national engineering graduate competency standards, the accrediting body found little to support the concept in the classroom. “Anecdotal evidence suggests strongly that the level of integration within Australian universities is still marginal, even within the environmental engineering degree programs, which have been traditionally observed as the leaders in this area,” says Natural Edge Project education coordinator Cheryl Paten. She predicts demand for environmental expertise is bound to surge as the region’s population explodes. “Australia has a significant opportunity to lead by example,” she believes, by providing engineering graduates “with the tools that can really make a difference.”
Closer to home, a dash of internationalism has made a big difference for undergrads at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. For the past six years, groups have spent one week in Mannheim, Germany, touring corporations and local government offices in a three-credit course called GO GREEN. (The acronym stands for Green Organizations: Global Responsibility for Economic and Environmental Necessity.) Germany is a leader in sustainable development, and students return from overseas—host partner Berufsakademie Mannheim is a cooperative education university—with keener insights into the link between concept and commerce.
Most important, the students get to observe sustainability principles applied in daily life, from how employers conserve materials to “fair trade” products at grocery stores. “Students see how Germans recycle because it costs them money to throw things away,” explains Patricia Fox, associate dean for administration and finance and assistant professor of organization leadership and supervision at the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology on the Indianapolis campus. “They come back asking ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ ” Future engineers aren’t the only undergrads learning to GO GREEN; the program includes majors in interior design, business, public and environmental affairs, art and communications.
These summer trips have spawned student as well as faculty reports on such topics as green roof designs, renewable energy, sustainable adhesives and the differences between sustainability practices in America and Europe. Several papers have been presented at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development conferences in Geneva, and at ASEE meetings.
Mechanical engineering student Michael Reed, a 2006 participant, says the Mannheim experience changed his career path. “Before this trip, I was certain that I wanted to use my degree for a career in manufacturing,” he reflects. Reed now aims “to make a difference” in manufacturing. “I want to be one of the engineers who helps the United States become sustainable, along with the rest of the world.”
Overseas travel “has definitely had an impact on the way I perceive life here in America and on the way I plan on conducting myself both personally and professionally,” concurs Alan Benedict, another mechanical engineering student in the 2006 group. “I have never really considered myself wasteful. However, I have always measured my conduct against a very wasteful model. Now that I have been to Germany, I see waste in the United States where I did not see it before.” Such revelations promise to transform engineering education even as it propels students like Benedict and Dorie toward greener frontiers, primed to protect Earth’s future.
Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.