Building a green curriculum

Building a green curriculum

Gibney, Kate

Throughout the global business community, the influence of pollution prevention and other sustainable approaches on standard manufacturing practice is hard to miss. This fundamental change in industrial culture has not been lost on engineering educators.

As the architects of technological advancement and the experts charged with using technology to improve the human condition, engineers have an enormous role to play in implementing sustainable development. Engineering educators have acknowledged this by gradually incorporating environmental perspectives into the engineering curriculum. Engineering Criteria 2000’s stipulation, however, that every engineering graduate must receive a “broad enough education to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context,” lends these efforts new urgency.

Two approaches to incorporating sustainability perspectives into the engineering curriculum have evolved: the center approach and the whole curriculum approach. Each uses different strategies to achieve the same end: cultivating sensitivity to sustainability issues in students in all engineering disciplines.

The Center Approach

Engineering schools throughout the country are establishing multidisciplinary research centers that serve as the focal points for the study and research of sustainability issues. These centers provide students from many specialties with a “green” perspective. They act as a coordinating body for the hundreds of disparate green engineering research projects that engineering professors and students have often pursued independently in the past. Last but not least, the centers function as both facilitator and advocate for sustainability issues throughout the university.

The Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Sustainable Technology is one example of this approach. Established in 1992 with a $1 million grant from the General Electric Foundation, the center’s objectives include redesigning the engineering process to better reflect “the environmental imperative;” promoting the creation and dissemination of sustainable technologies; and developing and applying measures of sustainability.

To achieve these ends, the center became actively involved in a lot more than just research. One of the main thrusts of its educational programming efforts was the development of a series of pilot courses focused on sustainable development and technology.

The first sequence of three pilot courses debuted in 1996. Open to undergraduate and graduate students from any academic field, these courses are team-taught by engineering professors and faculty members from other departments, including public policy. Students can take the courses independently of one another or as a series. Jorge Vanegas, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech, coordinated the curriculum development effort. “The whole idea was to create courses that offered students who discovered that they had a real interest in sustainable technology the opportunity to get up to speed, and provided basic background for other students who just wanted to get an introduction to the subject,” Vanegas explains.

The first course, Introduction to Sustainable Development, gives students the necessary grounding to get what Vanegas calls that extra edge. “Being educated in sustainable technology gives students the ability to talk the language that a lot of corporations are starting to use today,” he asserts.

The pilot phase of the project recently ended and though the courses are still offered, Georgia Tech does not plan to implement a stand-alone sustainable development curriculum. Vanegas stresses that the ultimate goal of the curricular development effort was not to produce another degree but rather to create “educational material that could be incorporated seamlessly throughout all engineering disciplines.”

At Georgia Tech, it seems safe to say that the effort to achieve this kind of seamless incorporation is working. Sustamable development is now an intrinsic part of the university’s institutional culture. And it has not been the result of a determined effort to impose curricular changes but rather a by-product of attempts to get different disciplines working together and exchanging ideas, in part through the center. Curricular change, on the other hand, produces structures that can be quite rigid and imposes the need to tackle institutional barriers such as cross-listing courses.

“At Georgia Tech we encourage students through research opportunities and independent study to be leaders in the development of a sustainable future,” says Vanegas. “Sustainable development is an interdisciplinary exercise by definition. I think the culture here makes that clear to engineering students and offers them many ways to participate.”

Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s college of engineering has been actively working to communicate much the same message, but has gone about the process in an entirely different way.

The Whole Curriculum Approach

Ron Kander, a materials science and engineering professor at Virginia Tech, heads the college’s green engineering program. The university has made it a priority to “sensitize” the entire engineering curriculum to green engineering and to improving local and global environmental quality.

Virginia Tech’s efforts grew out of the work of civil engineering professor Jon Novak, and Ron Gordon, the head of the materials science and engineering program, and their proposal to the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) for funding of a center for environmentally conscious manufacturing. CIT passed on the request, but then-acting dean Paul Torgersen (now president of Virginia Tech) asked Novak to do some additional work with the idea.

Novak says that his work in environmental engineering taught him that engineers need to be trained to consider potential environmental problems in the same way that they consider economics. “A good engineer always considers costs and benefits. In the same way, they should think about the ultimate fate of manufactured goods in a total life-cycle analysis,” Novak explains. Students get this background most efficiently when the concepts are woven into the existing curriculum, he adds.

His initial proposal for the green engineering program spelled out how the integration could be achieved. Design courses could consider environmental issues. One or two weeks of specific environmental content could he added to lecture courses. New courses could be added to the second-year level that would address pollution impacts, life cycle analysis, and waste treatment and disposal issues. Novak submitted the proposal to Virginia Tech’s provost and received $250,000 to get the program underway.

As chair of the green engineering steering committee, Novak spent two years developing proposals to secure the funding needed to modify existing courses and create several new ones. The committee initially identified 70 courses throughout Virginia Tech’s curriculum that had an environmental component; 56 of those courses were in engineering. The committee then developed a series of baseline courses on green engineering that could suit either core or honors curricula. A green engineering minor, created in large part by steering committee member Malcolm MacPherson, professor of mining and minerals engineering, offered a more formal subject concentration.

Today, all of Virginia Tech’s engineering departments offer some courses devoted to or containing significant green engineering content. As a result, regardless of discipline, Virginia Tech engineering students virtually cannot avoid being exposed to green engineering. In fact, they begin considering environmental impact from the very start in the mandatory introduction to engineering course.

The array of available green engineering course options, however, ensures that there’s something to appeal to everyone. For example, materials science majors can take Design for the Environment. In this class, they explore ways to meet the demand of companies like Xerox, which mandates that all of its business equipment products be either completely reusable or recyclable. Electrical engineering majors can take Electrical Engineering and the Global Environment, which explores renewable energy alternatives and end-use technologies such as electric cars.

Looking Ahead

Both the center and the whole curriculum approach have their strengths and weaknesses and both appeal to different university cultures. Each, however, offers a way to reshape an engineering curriculum to meet the requirements of Engineering Criteria 2000. In the end, regardless of how engineering schools choose to address the issue, there’s no doubt that tomorrow’s engineers need to be sensitive to environmental externalities.

Industry’s drive to master greener, cleaner production and disposal processes raises the bar for today’s graduates and makes the need for a green perspective a job imperative. More broadly, however, today’s students will be entering an engineering community that has embraced its role in realizing a sustainable future. -Kate Gibney

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Jan 1999

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