Skip to Content
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationSUMMER 2008Volume 17 | Number 9 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES


2008 Annual Conference
2008 ASEE Annual Conference - A glimpse of what's to come in Pittsburgh.


COVER STORY: Earth, Wind and Science - In just seven years, sustainable engineering-technology to protect the planet while raising living standards-has caught fire with students and professors across the U.S. - BY Corinna WuCOVER STORY: Earth, Wind and Science - In just seven years, sustainable engineering-technology to protect the planet while raising living standards-has caught fire with students and professors across the U.S. - BY Corinna Wu  

When Regina Clewlow graduated from Cornell University in 2001, she didn’t take the career path one might expect of someone with a degree in computer science. She wanted to apply her technical skills toward improving the lives of the poor, and do so in an environmentally sustainable way.

Clewlow considered joining the Peace Corps, but then decided to take matters into her own hands. She continued at Cornell, pursuing a master’s degree in civil engineering to reorient herself. In one of her classes, she drafted a business plan for a new organization focused on sustainable engineering. She then collaborated with Krishna Athreya, director of Minority and Women’s Programs in Engineering at Cornell, to develop the framework for what would become Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW).

The idea took off. In the spring of 2002, the first two ESW chapters formed at Cornell and at Pennsylvania State University. By December, more chapters sprang up — at Stanford and Northwestern universities, the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley. “A lot of students around the country were thinking that they would like their careers in engineering work to go in similar directions,” Clewlow says, “so the other chapters came on board pretty quickly.” Today, ESW has dozens of campus chapters and holds an annual conference attended by hundreds of faculty, students and professional engineers.

Students and faculty have long been vocal about reducing pollution, conserving energy, and alleviating poverty. But there are signs of greater campus activism than a decade ago, even a revival of a previous generation’s “save the world” idealism. Richard Luthy, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, says he’s reminded of his own student days during the 1960s at the University of California, Berkeley.

And engineers are now finding that they have something important to contribute to this movement, given their specialized technical skills. Many feel they can help answer the core question underlying many sustainability issues: How can we raise the standard of living for present and future generations and not destroy the planet in the process?

Institutions are responding, as well. According to Clewlow, who has served as executive director of ESW since its founding and is now going back to school for a Ph.D., the opportunities for engineering students to pursue an interest in sustainability have grown tremendously in the past few years. Faculty research is focusing on sustainability, and this in turn influences changes in curriculum. Engineering schools are offering courses, and in some cases even degrees, in sustainable engineering. Universities have made commitments to go green in nearly all their operations. In sum, sustainability is becoming a fundamental part of the way engineering departments—and indeed, entire college campuses—look at education.

Spreading influence

In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, published a report called Our Common Future, which proposed long-term strategies for sustainable development. “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” the commission stated.

As the office of sustainability at the University of Florida defines it, sustainability “means looking at the issues and problems facing our world with a new perspective—one that focuses on three interdependent areas of concern: ecological preservation, economic viability, and social justice.”

Sustainable engineering addresses these challenges by adapting existing technologies and developing new ones. Essentially, it focuses on energy, materials, chemicals and water. Design and manufacturing techniques that improve energy efficiency, make use of recycled materials or renewable resources, minimize pollution, and reduce water use are all examples of sustainable engineering. Students require not only technical knowledge but also a background in the social sciences to understand the environmental impact of their decisions.

Jeff Rayl, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering at Pennsylvania State University and president of the ESW chapter there, thinks back to his days as a Boy Scout, when he was taught to leave a campsite cleaner than he found it. “To me, sustainability means leaving the world cleaner than you found it,” he says. “Engineering gives us the tools to maintain our lives and do so in a sustainable way.”

So far, most of the activity of integrating sustainability into coursework has been concentrated in civil and environmental engineering departments. “These are the engineers that help society to function,” says Luthy. “The qualifier now is that they have to help society to function in more sustainable ways.” Today, civil engineering students might learn about how to develop a system that both treats wastewater and reuses it for irrigation, or about principles of “green architecture” that make buildings more environmentally friendly.

Inroads have also been made in other disciplines, like mechanical and manufacturing engineering. Students might learn about low-temperature manufacturing processes that use less energy, or how to monitor processes in real time to optimize efficiency. At many schools, special courses have been developed that allow students to pursue hands-on projects. Such projects give students the opportunity to put all their training to work on devising a solution that has real-world applications.

Schools are also beginning to formalize their programs, with several universities developing both undergraduate and graduate certificate programs in sustainable engineering. Villanova University’s certificate is open to graduate students and undergrads with a 3.5 GPA. Michigan Tech offers a graduate certificate in sustainability and a Master’s International Program, which combines a graduate degree in civil or environmental engineering with service in the Peace Corps.

Arizona State University’s new School of Sustainability offers a full range of interdisciplinary degrees, including a B.S. and M.S. for students inclined toward the natural sciences and engineering. ASU also offers a graduate certificate in sustainable technology and management, while UC Berkeley’s graduate sustainability certificate is in engineering and business. At Stanford, too, the school of engineering offers both undergraduates and graduates an individually designed, interdisciplinary major in atmosphere and energy.

Degrees and More

As early as 2005, the Rochester Institute of Technology began offering undergraduates the option of earning a minor in sustainable product development. To meet the requirements, these students take five courses: three core courses in engineering, one technical elective and a social context elective.

So far, about a dozen students have pursued the minor, according to Andrés Carrano, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering and one of the advisors for the program. The electives span four different colleges, in itself an innovative development, says Carrano: “It was really the first minor with such scope.”

Sustainability is becoming a fundamental part of the way engineering departments and entire college campuses look at education.This year, RIT will also begin offering a new master’s degree program in sustainable engineering, the first of its kind in the United States. Students can develop tracks in renewable energy systems, systems modeling and analysis, product design, and engineering policy and management, depending on their interests. They can earn either a research-oriented master of science degree, which requires a thesis, or a master of engineering degree, which requires a capstone project.

Carrano points out that RIT’s approach to sustainability goes beyond these degree options. At both the undergraduate and graduate level, the programs emphasize economic, environmental and ethical dimensions of sustainability. Students work within a number of disciplines and often apply their skills to solving real problems. Student projects have included a device that purifies water using ultraviolet light, a machine to process cassava root into grain, and an energy-saving light-emitting diode lighting system for the RIT campus.

Students are spending time outside of class on sustainable engineering projects, as well, often focusing on the related issues of poverty and quality of life. Campus ESW chapters, which are run by students and advised by faculty, have many projects focused on technology solutions for both developing countries and disadvantaged neighborhoods in the U.S. For example, UC Berkeley’s chapter has initiated water quality projects for communities in India, the Baja California peninsula and Oakland, Calif.

"Administrators can IGNORE FACULTY - and they often do. But students speak with a clear voice and are harder to ignore." - Brian Thorn, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at the Rochester Institute of TechnologyStudents are also volunteering their time to make their own campuses more sustainable. At the University of Texas at Austin, students conducted an energy audit of the vending machines around campus. Another group is investigating the possibility of heating one of the university’s swimming pools with a solar collector. Several schools are considering using bio-diesel fuel to power campus vehicles.

Sharing the Wisdom

Just as the national ESW organization provides continuity and support for the individually operated campus groups, a number of other organizations are helping faculty and schools to develop sustainability programs. One of these is the Center for Sustainable Engineering (CSE), which was formed in 2005. A collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University, UT Austin and Arizona State University, CSE is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Several years ago, it was clear that engineering education would have to change to incorporate sustainability,” says Cliff Davidson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon and one of the CSE’s principal investigators. Institutions were experimenting with bringing sustainability into the classroom and “needed to make that wisdom easily accessible and able to be shared.”

A primary activity of CSE is conducting workshops for faculty members on incorporating sustainability into coursework. At the first two workshops held at Carnegie Mellon in the summer of 2006, “There was a lot of open discussion and sharing of ideas,” says Davidson. Instead of presenting experts, the workshops were designed to facilitate discussion, encouraging participants to exchange thoughts and techniques.

In the summer of 2007, CSE held two more workshops at UT Austin, involving participants from a different group of institutions. In January 2008, CSE brought together selected individuals at Arizona State to compare ideas in more depth. Two more workshops are planned for 2009.

The 2006 workshop participants identified several fundamental principles for incorporating sustainability into engineering curricula: For example, sustainability should be taught as being essential to every engineering decision—part of what defines “good engineering.” Instead of designing one-size-fits-all solutions, engineers should consider local conditions, such as availability of materials and energy, to reduce environmental impact. Also, diversity should be encouraged in the engineering profession, since the target users of these engineering solutions will come from many cultures and socioeconomic groups.

The CSE’s second main activity is to compile an electronic library with educational materials on sustainable engineering. It accepts handouts, notes, lessons, and projects, then sends them out for peer review to ensure they fit defined educational objectives. Demand is greatest for undergraduate curricula.

CSE is also developing a roadmap for achieving excellence in sustainable engineering education. The center is currently conducting a survey of all U.S. engineering departments—about 1,700—asking about the content of any courses and activities they have in sustainable engineering. The researchers are now waiting for responses. “I think there’s going to be a lot to say,” Davidson says.

The center’s three core institutions have each made a strong push for sustainable engineering in their own curricula. Carnegie Mellon, for example, offers a sequence of four half-semester courses for graduate students to introduce them to concepts and topics in sustainability. Davidson says that starting the sequence at the graduate level lets students “go right to the nuts and bolts” and focus on problems right away.

Though freshmen would benefit from exposure to these concepts, they don’t yet have an adequate background in subjects like thermodynamics and chemical kinetics, Davidson believes. Nonetheless, “We had pressure from students to open up the classes to seniors, and this year to juniors,” says Davidson. By that time, students have taken enough core engineering courses to explore sustainability topics in-depth.

Demand for both undergrad and graduate classes has been enormous. Students have a natural curiosity about sustainability, but they also may see it as a way to make themselves more marketable when they eventually look for a job, Davidson says. He is now taking a sabbatical to write a textbook on sustainable engineering. He hopes that once it is completed, more faculty will be able to teach the subject, and engineering departments will be able to accommodate all the students who want to learn.

Throughout the country, the increasing student demand is helping to steer some departments toward curricular change—but it’s not an easy task when some courses have been taught the same way for decades. “Universities are pretty archaic structures,” Davidson observes. “They don’t have to respond to change in society at the same rate that companies do. Universities don’t have that kind of pressure.”

At a number of CSE workshops, faculty members have expressed frustration with university rigidity. At the more conservative institutions, it’s very hard for some teachers to approach their department heads and suggest changes. The workshops help give them the tools to “go to battle,” says Davidson. In addition, when faculty members start teaching a sustainability course and students flock to it, then department heads take notice. So faculty can set the example—and future path—for their institutions.

“Administrators can ignore faculty—and they often do,” says Brian Thorn, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at RIT, “but students speak with a clear voice and are harder to ignore.”

It Takes a Campus

The fervor for sustainability has not been restricted to engineering departments. In fact, schools around the country have joined the green tide, embracing sustainability at the highest levels. Universities like Stanford and UC Berkeley have hired “sustainability czars” to oversee activities campus-wide. Other schools, like the University of Florida, have established offices of sustainability and developed long-term plans for implementing policies to turn their campuses green.

The activities include strengthening existing recycling programs, exploring alternative energy, encouraging public transportation, constructing green buildings, and initiating water- and energy-saving measures. Stanford has installed new sterilization equipment in its science and medical labs that saves 34 million gallons of water each year. A newly dedicated green building named after Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang and his wife will provide a home for the school’s energy and environment research. Stanford also plans to build an environmentally friendly dorm that will serve as a living laboratory for the school of engineering.

Bringing sustainability principles into the classroom as well as everyday campus life is attracting students to engineering who may not have thought of it as way to achieve their goals. “I’ve actually met a couple of students who started off in college in sociology or government and decided to switch into engineering,” Clewlow says. “That’s a pretty exciting trend. And maybe they can continue to attract and keep engineers in the field by getting them involved in real-world problems.”

Now the trend faces a test of its own sustainability: What kind of job prospects await sustainable engineering students? Will employers consider their training an added bonus? Many of the programs are so new that it’s too soon to tell, but big companies don’t seem to be in a rush to hire sustainability grads. “The traditional pathways to get a job after graduation are different and maybe wouldn’t work,” observes ESW’s Clewlow. The opportunities seem to be concentrated among smaller companies, consulting firms, and start-ups, she says. Popular as sustainability is becoming, graduates still might have to look hard to make it a career.

Corinna Wu is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.




Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.


American Society for Engineering Education