PRISM Magazine - January 2003
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AN EARTH FRIENDLY CURRICULUM

- By Linda Creighton   

Schools are broadening their coursework to teach students the environmental consequences of the products they'll create.

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 realm.

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 of first-year
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 explains.

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."

Green First Impression

The efforts are paying off down at the classroom level, particularly at the year-old course-based program at Virginia Tech where incoming freshmen come
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 aware
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, Va.
She can be reached at lcreighton@asee.org.


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