Schools are broadening their coursework to teach
students the environmental consequences of the products they'll
Starting the day with a glass of orange juice is routine,
but for many first-year engineering students at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg,
Va., it just never tastes the same after their first semester. That's
because every one of the 1,250 freshmen get their first taste of "green
engineering" and insights into the environmental responsibilities
of engineers in a required introductory course that explores the step-by-step
production of America's favorite breakfast drink.
"We have the chance in our course to touch every
Virginia Tech student who graduates with an engineering degree,"
says Jean Kampe, assistant professor in the division of engineering
fundamentals. "We give them an awareness of green even if they
avoid courses that deal with it in their discipline."
In the three decades since the first Earth Day, the industrial
culture and engineering educators have broadened efforts to incorporate
sustainable approaches to manufacturing. Environmental concerns have
been added to engineering curriculum, and schools across the country
have devised different approaches to prepare their graduates for work
in an increasingly competitive global economy.
At Virginia Tech, the uniqueness of the approach is that
the students do not choose to study green—they do so automatically.
Now in its second year, the two-semester "Introduction to Engineering"
takes a traditional problem and puts its solution solidly in the environmental
The case study involving orange juice production walks
students through the various trade-offs engineers might face balancing
the means of production, the energy consumed, the packaging required,
the product's shelf life, the product's distribution, and the handling
of various waste products.
The challenges that New York City faces, for example,
with waste disposal might make frozen concentrate more suitable than
the freshly squeezed orange juice that arrives in space-consuming containers
that clog scarce landfills. Alaska's open spaces might make it easier
to find landfills to dispose of containers used for freshly squeezed
orange juice, but transportation costs and the 60-day shelf life make
frozen concentrate more attractive. Freshly squeezed orange juice might
be perfect for Arizona where landfill space is available and water shortages
might make frozen concentrate less convenient.
Kampe says that because of the widely divergent backgrounds
students in terms of math, science, and physics abilities, the inclusion
of detailed technical problems is difficult. "Instead, we just
want the first semester to give them a qualitative sense of their responsibility
to the environment in all the engineering systems they participate in
later in their curriculum and their careers. We want to bring familiar
things into the classroom. Most of them have mixed up a can of frozen
orange juice. The basic idea that you're dealing with a condensed
product is easy to understand, so that they're not stressed out
trying to understand some complicated engineering system," she
Once the mechanics of making the juice are under their
belts, Kampe says, the next step is the packaging. "The packaging
is a big thing, and combining that with knowledge of the transportation
process means they can start making choices now about the products they
purchase and how they dispose of containers."
Looking at such a simple problem becomes a whole-Earth
concept naturally, according to Kampe. "If they select a product
that's going to be recyclable and make sure the container goes
to a recycling center, then when they're working and they're
dealing with constructing a dam, they will be more conscious of how
that dam affects the marine life and the streams and rivers. Or if they're
a chemical engineer, they will know the importance of scrubbing the
effluents. They know the implications of taking shortcuts."
The ethics of engineering, implicitly charging future
engineers with the protection of the environment, are covered in case
studies and discussion. A popular video called "Gilbane Gold"
is about a company making chips and dumping an effluent stream down
to a sewage-treatment facility. The company is within the limits of
the law but not within the spirit of the law about contaminating the
environment. Kampe says the dilemma an engineer faces when confronted
with signing off on the project produces lively class discussions.
The nation's engineering schools have steadily added
environmental awareness to their programs. Ideally, these programs enable
graduating engineers to satisfy the demands of hard-pressed industries,
the rigors of a profession shaped by environmental regulation, and the
ethical tenets of a discipline that promises to protect the health,
safety, and welfare of the public.
Some schools have interdisciplinary programs or research
facilities to tackle the challenge. The University of California-Berkeley
has the consortium on green design and manufacturing. MIT's technology,
business, and environment program examines ways that companies achieve
environmental excellence and commercial success with an eye on identifying
approaches that can be adopted by other firms. The University of Michigan
offers courses, research opportunities, and even a certificate in industrial
ecology as part of an effort to "prepare graduate students to
design and manage natural and industrial systems to meet human needs
in an environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable manner."
The efforts are paying off down at the classroom level, particularly
at the year-old course-based program at Virginia Tech where incoming
face-to-face with their environmental responsibilities as engineers
in the opening week of school. All 1,200 impressionable freshmen are
summoned to an evening lecture in their first week of classes to hear
a featured speaker such as Judge Hullihen Williams Moore, a member of
the State Corporation Commission of Virginia and a director of the National
Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, highlight their future
responsibilities. It's not enough just to tweak things, he told
them. As engineers, they must have revolutionary new ideas.
Kampe says the first few weeks of school can be really rough for first-year
students. "They all of a sudden wonder, jeez, is engineering what
I really want to do? The judge's talk just energizes them. They
were going to be engineers, and they were going to fix these problems."
Ironically, the downturn in the economy may adversely affect the funding
of programs that could lead to future economic success. Michael Gregg,
director of the Green Engineering Project at Virginia Tech's college
of engineering, says the "sustainability'' of his
program concerns him because of a budget crunch in the state of Virginia.
Over the decade of the program's existence, $500,000 has been
provided to the school's 10 different degree-producing departments
to establish green content in their courses. But the interdisciplinary
green engineering program is vulnerable at Virginia Tech because research
funding is scarce. "In a research university, faculty live and
die based on the research money they bring in," Gregg says. "The
green engineering program is not a cash cow, and it is not self-sustaining.''
Virginia Tech has made a lot of progress, he says, toward ensuring
that every graduate of the college of engineering has "a healthy
understanding of the environmental ramifications of engineering activities."
But as a result of budget cutbacks, grants are less available to faculty
members teaching green engineering courses.
Gregg says industries are awaiting the arrival of more environmentally
engineers who can help balance the tough tradeoffs in a worldwide economy.
"Companies have responsibilities to their shareholders, to the
public, and to the environment, and balancing all those responsibilities
is very, very difficult," Gregg says. "If there were any
easy answers, they would already have been implemented."
At Virginia Tech, the goal is not to hand graduating engineers all
the solutions. As Gregg puts it: "We can't give our students
answers to every engineering or ethics question that will arise. But
we can give them the tools."
Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington,
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.