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Engineers need a sustainability education

How the University of Michigan is making sure its engineering students are ready to tackle sustainability issues in their careers.

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Engineering meets sustainability. Image by Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz.

When working as an engineer in the late 1980s, industrial engineers’ main considerations were  the durability, quality, safety and regulatory requirements that the product must meet, and how to accomplish these goals as inexpensively as possible.

Thirty years later, that formula no longer works. To be a sustainable society long term, today’s engineer needs to have all of those skills and much more. Modern engineers should have an awareness of the broader needs of society, and the ability to look at the environmental and social impacts of the products they are producing. In the past, sustainability and technical training were two different departments at universities and companies. Now is the time that we need to blur those lines and provide at least basic sustainability skills to every engineer who graduates.  

Traditionally the thinking is that making goods sustainable in today’s world costs more, although oftentimes the brown penalty is visibly more expensive than the green premium of sustainable products. And as the climate crisis continues to ravage our ecosystem, this will only accelerate. We are witnessing the ever-rising costs of increasingly commonplace billion-dollar cleanups from environmental messes and disasters, not to mention the health impacts of non-sustainably produced goods. 

Socially, society is accustomed to a set of social norms for making industrial goods that are not serving society as a whole, such as clothing that only lasts one season, appliances and tools that are difficult or impossible to repair, power generation that weakens the health of people and nearby land from toxins and electronic devices that are out of date a few years after purchase.

But there is growing recognition that these norms no longer serve us, and the engineers who design these projects are having to adjust. Today, a new set of tensions has been introduced into the engineer’s job. Material choices for products and manufacturing methods can have significant societal and environmental impacts which need consideration during the design process. Engineers are not only designing goods but also manufacturing plants with lifetimes that are measured in decades — the engineers of today are building the world of 2050 and beyond.

Therefore, we need every engineer making product decisions to have sustainability skills — we will not be successful at tackling the climate and environmental crises if only a few sustainability staff are guiding the entire industrial goods sector to more sustainable production.  

Engineering education must change to prepare graduates with the ability to broadly understand societal needs and constraints. We need engineers who can design and produce solutions that can be successful from a societal, environmental and economic point of view, all at the same time.

So how do we train engineers to navigate a wider basket of criteria for making industrial goods? How do we teach them to navigate conflicting requirements? How should they make decisions when you can’t optimize everything at the same time? How should they choose what is important for the customers they are serving, and for society as a whole?

1. A people first approach to engineering

It all starts with the ability to recognize needs, hear differences in opinions and develop inclusive solutions. 

At the University of Michigan College of Engineering the People-First approach is geared to achieve exactly that. And mind you that people here include the engineers themselves. The people-first framework at Michigan Engineering is geared to enabling all engineers to have a positive impact on the world and build a future that will elevate all people.

Part of this people’s first approach is offering engineers exposure to different cultures through an overseas experience, something many engineering students aren’t able to do because it delays graduation. The International Programs in Engineering at the University of Michigan and attractive summer programs propelled engagement of international learning to more than 30 percent of the engineering undergraduate population. Recognizing and accepting cultural differences as a positive aspect of humanity is a great way to sharpen engineering skills. 

2. Engaging more people to solve bigger problems

The list of questions engineers have to solve is getting longer. The traditional: What is the right product? Who needs it? Why? How should it be made? And where? What will it cost? Can it be competitive? And now a new list of modern concerns has been developed: Can it be sustainably produced? Can the materials be sourced sustainably? What are the human rights concerns? What is the end life of this product like? What is the reliability of this product? 

We need engineers who can design and produce solutions that can be successful from a societal, environmental and economic point of view, all at the same time.

These are questions best addressed jointly by teams of people with different skills, backgrounds and expertises. Today’s world is too complex, too fast-paced for one person or one type of education to be prepared to tackle this alone.

One way we are attempting to solve this problem at Michigan is by collaboration. The Innovation for Impact Climate Change is a company-in-residence program offered by our Center for Entrepreneurship. In this program, student teams work with emerging companies on climate change solutions. The companies define projects of direct relevance and impact and present the students with real-world challenges. The students bring together undergraduate and graduate students from across disciplines, including engineering, business, economics, sustainability, policy, to work on solving the problem for the companies. The students get an enriching real world learning and work environment while also expanding the pool of people they interact with to solve a problem which sharpens their thinking about what might be missing and how to obtain respective insights, help and solutions in the future.

3. Putting students in the driver's seat

How do we train aspiring engineers to lead efforts with impact and value to society? And how will we know that they will succeed?

Let’s give them a chance to show what they can do. Independent research studies, engagements with local governments, and self-initiated student organizations are great vehicles to put previous classroom learnings to use, gain new experiences and demonstrate leadership.

Two students worked with our local city government and its energy commission to develop a resolution to promote the use of low-embodied carbon materials in construction. Not only did they provide the background research, write documentation and resource guides for city officials, they also saw that the resolution was heard, discussed and eventually passed by City Council. 

At a regional level, a team of our students evaluated — at the request of the Great Lakes Governors and Premiers — the prospects for the Great Lakes region to generate verifiable, durable carbon offsets. A summer-long effort culminated in a highly anticipated and well-received report that informs the development of a broader carbon strategy for the region.

Initiated by a single engineering student some years ago, the Global CO2 Initiative Student Association has become much more than the student branch of the Global CO2 Initiative. Working across the campus, teaming up with other students around the country, they are pursuing opportunities to put their own mark on how we best address the challenges upon us by climate change.

More learning opportunities like these are needed to ensure that all graduates are prepared to understand the complexities of the world, recognize the opportunities that arise from that and responsibly develop and introduce sustainable solutions that improve the lives of all of us (and not at the expense of others) to restore and maintain the well-being of the planet.

The Hire Learning column highlights knowledge from those inside the sustainability office to make sense of the career in this decisive decade. Have an idea you want to write? Email jesse@greenbiz.com. ]

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