Sustainable development central to engineering education

Materials World magazine
2 Oct 2007

We are going to see a change in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) [for UK Higher Education] next year,’ said Ian Pearson, UK Minister of State for Science and Innovation.

The announcement was made in response to concerns raised by delegates at the Global Sustainability – The Future for Engineering Education forum, held at Imperial College London, UK, on 18 September.

Attendees noted that there was sometimes a conflict between the emphasis on gaining research points among academics, often in specialist areas, and the need to focus on integrating and inspiring engineering students on issues surrounding sustainable development.

Engineers should not only have the technical know-how, but should also be aware of the environmental, social and cultural impact and context of their work in addressing global problems such as climate change, waste management and sanitation. This was the consensus among delegates and speakers.

‘When we can help man walk on the moon, why do some [people] have to wait so long for clean water?’ asked Lizzie Webb, Director of Education, Training and Research for not-for-profit organisation Engineers Without Borders Australia.

Representing young engineers, Webb and Kaitlin Richards, a first-year Environmental Engineering undergraduate at the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia, struck a chord with their presentation on the charity. The organisation presents first-year undergraduates with the challenge of solving real life problems. Richards worked in a team of students to design a waste-water management system at Uluru Children’s Home in Alampara, India.

Change of image

Jonathon Porritt, Co-Founder of Forum for the Future – a sustainable development charity in the UK – hit hard with the challenges ahead for engineering education. He said that Forum for the Future’s Engineers of the 21st Century programme has worked for ten years undertaking a number of studies on sustainability, and while there has been a shift in thinking, now is the time for action, with only a window of 10-15 years to address the problem of climate change.

He said ‘Engineering is the key profession to tackle climate change [with] new technologies and processes. The fascinating thing is you have the institutional moan about the difficulty in attracting people to engineering – the failure of schools. What you need is young people saying “we care about the environment so I’m going to be an engineer”. I am talking about reconceptualising the image of the profession in a carbon-constrained environment.’

He added, ‘Graduates are not fit for purpose for sustainable development. Modern undergraduate engineering programmes rarely reflect such important issues. It’s monumentally stupid to allow a single young person to leave school in a state of sustainable illiteracy – to allow a young engineering undergraduate [to do that] is insane. I am not talking about elective modules on sustainability. I am talking about it being at the heart of what you do. Progress has been pathetic.’

Barrier to change

Paul Jowitt, Professor of Civil Engineering Systems at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, and Executive Director of the Scottish Institute of Sustainable Technology, continued the heated debate, alongside Ian Cameron, Head of Chemical Engineering at UQ.

They both argued that academics were sometimes the ‘barriers’ to change. Fears that discussing real projects or problems may water down the technical content were deemed unjustified. Providing students with a valuable context for their knowledge could in fact enhance learning. Jowitt uses, for example, a case study of a water resource management system in Israel to illustrate his lectures, while Cameron has helped to introduce a ‘project-centered curriculum’ at UQ.

Jowitt said, ‘The real problem is that most academic staff are not capable of doing problem-based learning. Most have been brought up to do research to score points in the RAE.’ One delegate noted the lack of a similarly rigorous teaching assessment exercise in higher education.

Pearson added, ‘The former DTI had a consultation on the RAE. But most universities are critical of the RAE until you try to change it.’ He also admitted that the status of engineers in the UK was not as strong as in other countries, and that too needed to be addressed to encourage change and attract more people to the profession. In an online survey of recent graduates who are now working in industry, conducted by Engineers of the 21st Century, the theme was clear. One respondent said, ‘My experiences at university did not in any way prepare me for working in a forward thinking environment.’

Cash incentive

But while academia did face criticism, the good work of many universities was not ignored, nor was industry’s role. It was raised that companies need to prove to young people that ‘green’ thinking is valued and important in advancing technology for sustainable development. Furthermore, ‘soft skills’ such as project management, team work and good communication also need to be on par with technical qualifications.

One delegate challenged Ellis Armstrong of BP, ‘Let’s assume that we at the universities have signed up to [sustainable development]. Why not announce [your approach] on your website. And say “we will give a signing bonus to people who demonstrate these skills.” Put your money where your mouth is.’

Further information:

Forum for the future, action for a sustainable world