Engineering Education for Sustainability

Getting to the Next Level

Colleges and universities have been infusing sustainability into engineering curricula for more than 10 years. What are some of the drivers and, more important, how do we go to the next level and what does it look like? My expectation is that all engineering faculty members and graduates will understand the principles of sustainability as they apply to their field of engineering.

In my view, the accreditation of engineering programs is an important driver. ABET, an organization that accredits college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering and engineering technology, has included sustainability in its engineering accreditation criteria. ABET engineering criterion 3 specifies that students graduating from accredited schools should be able to design systems that meet several realistic constraints, including sustainability.

Two of the three pillars of sustainability — economics and environment — are long-recognized design constraints and engineering design is increasingly sensitive to social constraints. ABET engineering Criterion 3 goes on to require that graduates will have acquired “the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental and societal context.”

Through my work with the American Society for Engineering Education, I know that many faculty members are infusing sustainability into engineering curricula from lectures in introductory engineering courses to complete courses at the graduate level. Much of what has been reported is based on projects supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Center for Sustainable Engineering at Syracuse University, along with five other universities, conducts a summer course to introduce faculty members to sustainability and maintains an electronic library on the subject. At a workshop on sustainability at the ASEE 2013 annual meeting, it was evident that many of the academic champions for sustainability are alumni of the Center for Sustainable Engineering summer course.

Engineering is being globalized, and sustainability figures prominently in the attributes and professional competencies of the International Engineering Alliance, which apply to Washington, Dublin, and Sydney Accord graduates. Back in the United States, sustainability is included as a separate outcome in the second edition of the American Society of Civil Engineers Body of Knowledge, or BOK, and in the draft National Society of Professional Engineers BOK.

Sustainability is prominent in federal regulations and codes and standards that students are learning about and can be expected to consult in their design projects. Sustainability is important in student co-curricular activities such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s P3 competition, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, and Engineers Without Borders. Campus buildings and infrastructure are going green and many engineering students may have attended a green middle or high school. There are many opportunities now to use college campuses and schools as sustainability laboratories.

Yet there is recognition that university curricula broadly, and engineering curricula specifically, are lagging in bringing sustainability into the classroom. Why? What are some of the barriers?

According to a 2010 survey of civil engineering department heads, some of the main barriers are a crowded curriculum, lack of faculty awareness and a lack of teaching resources.

The consensus of educators at a June 2013 ASEE workshop is that, while there is no lack of resources, those resources are not as conveniently packaged and ready to use as traditional textbooks. An effective strategy is needed to make resources available in forms that faculty can easily integrate into courses from introduction to engineering to capstone design courses in all engineering fields.

Although extensive resources exist, so far there is no one best choice or practice for dissemination and sharing, although there are several good options. Examples include the National Science Foundation’s digital library and Connexions, an educational resource website for sharing learning modules, and there are others. Faculty members expect that online learning will play a larger role in engineering education and professional development and that online learning will be facilitated by the extensive electronic resources that are freely available.

Opportunities already exist for students to learn on their own. The U.S. Green Building Council has a very popular program for introducing LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) to college students and a Center for Green Schools that it established “to drive the transformation of all schools into sustainable and healthy places to live, learn, work and play.” Students can earn a certificate online from Coursera for successfully completing an introduction to sustainability course based on a free online Connexions textbook.

Faculty development is needed to lower the barriers to using online tools and resources effectively and efficiently; this will undoubtedly be a continuing need as technologies themselves continue to rapidly evolve and the knowledge base grows exponentially. Needs for faculty development range from a basic awareness of sustainability and how it applies in different engineering fields to how to access and use the extensive teaching and learning resources that are available.

Three keys to accelerating the infusion of sustainability in engineering curricula in my view are continuing to lower the barriers to the access and use of extensive materials that exist in electronic form for teaching and learning sustainability, professional development for faculty to ensure efficient access and use of materials in the classroom, and the expansion of programs designed to educate students directly on sustainability.

William E. Kelly, Ph.D., P.E., is director of external affairs at the American Society for Engineering Education, Washington, D.C. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering Center for Engineering, Ethics and Society Advisory Group, the American Society of Civil Engineers Committee on Sustainability, and ASTM International Committee E60 on Sustainability.

This article appears in the issue of Standardization News.