Engineering: A profession with the power to save our planet
“Peace engineering – or engineering peace – is about sustainability. You cannot have one without the other,” Jordan told University World News. Peace engineering draws on many disciplines as well as engineering’s rich toolbox to find new ways to solve problems.
Other initiatives in the United States with similar ideals are Engineering for One Planet and Engineers Without Borders.
These and other developments in engineering that support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and greater global resilience were debated at the recent 2023 symposium of ABET, the American quality assurance service provider that accredits more than 4,500 academic programmes in 895 institutions in 40 countries, in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and maths). They were further explored by University World News.
Pressure to change
The pressures for busy engineering academics and universities to stop for a while and listen to the buzz around sustainability come from multiple directions and sources.
Societies that regulate the profession are pushing for change. Sustainability and resilience are among ABET’s accreditation criteria. Students are concerned and eager for change. Climate disaster is upon us and the world expects action. And actually, say some experts, embedding sustainability into curricula and academic activities is not that difficult; certainly it does not require an overhaul.
At the same time, there are pressure points, says Dr William Wepfer, professor emeritus in the George W Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech, and a former president of ABET. At research universities, academics engaged in research must become ever more specialised in pursuit of excellence “while the world is getting more transdisciplinary. It is a dilemma”, he said.
One task for ABET has been to amplify the feedback it has been getting around climate change, sustainability and resilience. “We’ve been hearing about these issues from more and more constituencies. The symposium was a way to integrate and share this with our broader audience,” he told University World News.
ABET’s accreditation criteria and standards are broadly written and consensual. “The philosophy is to allow programmes to innovate and to respond to what's happening in society.” University curricula are jam-packed with content. When important new developments emerge, they can be tricky to integrate.
For its accreditation, ABET requires a certain amount of time for core subjects such as maths – about a year-and-a-half of pure engineering topics, said Wepfer. So programmes have flexibility to integrate other criteria and topics, such as sustainability or interaction with the outside environment. “One of the challenges is that it’s a slow process. And it’s especially acute right now with the climate crisis,” he said.
Not that engineering education is moribund. For instance, most engineering curricula have project courses where students work in teams and tackle contemporary issues. Also, engineering schools are becoming more transdisciplinary. “With more transdisciplinary faculty, it will become easier to make curricular changes and start to embed concepts such as sustainability and resilience into the curriculum,” he said.
Peace engineering for sustainability
Jordan is an electrical engineer and associate dean of engineering for international programmes at the University of New Mexico. He is a leader in international engineering education research and a vice-president of the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies.
Jordan was the driving force behind the first global conference on peace engineering. It was held in November 2018 at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, in collaboration with the Ibero-American Science and Technology Education Consortium – ISTEC, which Jordan founded in 1990 – and the Global Innovation Network for Entrepreneurship and Technology.
“We wrote a thought-provoking paper to challenge every person who wanted to come to change their mindset,” he told University World News.
Like all designers, engineers design solutions for specific problems. “We tend to ignore the unintended consequences. There are intended consequences that most of the time are clear. But there’s always this fuzzy line; people do not have the whole story. We don’t look at the impact on the planet,” he said.
Time is running out. There are only 6.5 years left for the UN 2030 Agenda, the target date for achieving the 17 SDGs and the start of the decade in which scientists believe global warming will tip the world’s climate system into multiple disasters.
“Can we educate people to meet the 2030 deadline? There are 76 months left to educate engineering professionals at the bachelor level,” he said. The goal cannot be met for masters and PhD graduates. The need to change higher education is urgent, Jordan stressed.
An unintended consequence of the 2018 conference was a decision by participants that it should not just be another conference. It was decided to start meeting virtually once a week, with the meetings open to everybody, and the Peace Engineering Consortium was born, as described in a Procedia Computer Science journal article.
“It has grown tremendously. It’s gone global,” said Jordan. There are many universities involved – from New Mexico to universities such as Colorado, Georgia Tech, Drexel and Purdue in the United States, to institutions in Argentina, Colombia and more. “It keeps growing.”
There are many ways that universities deal with sustainability issues, for instance in environmental engineering or biology, and civil engineering might have environmental studies.
The peace engineering concept has a different framework, among other reasons because it encompasses multiple disciplines and has a strong focus on context and on data.” It is about thinking differently,” Jordan told University World News. “We need to break the silos; we all need to work together. People from economics, health sciences, transportation, sociology.
“I tell my colleagues in the social sciences, use engineers as a toolbox. We have all these tools and we can help you address issues such as poverty, equity, air pollution or water contamination. We have the tools but you can do surveys to collect data that is not biased. You know the context. We have 24 ethnic groups in New Mexico and they are all different. We have to be cautious. We must talk to communities, learn from them, and develop trust.”
Context is key but is often not an equation in engineering education. “It is all maths and physics. Content that we’re developing has a lot to do with context.” How to measure and analyse a local circumstance, do analytics, produce actionable knowledge, and do something with it.
Peace engineering is also about verifiable, trusted data, Jordan explained. Two words that define peace engineering are ‘actionable knowledge’. “If you have data that you trust, you can verify it, and do something with it. This is science. We observe, we measure, and if we can replicate in different parts of the world, hey, that works. We need to get into this mentality,” he said. He is deeply concerned about the growing problem of misinformation and disinformation.
Walking the talk
One of the outcomes of the 2018 conference, said Jordan, was the “need to walk the talk”. The school of engineering at New Mexico created a peace engineering minor, with only 15 credits and a minimum of two classes. For the rest of the classes, students pick and choose from the core curriculum.
The imperative was to change the mindset of engineering students. The course deals with data analysis and other areas such as society, justice, accessibility, inclusion and equity. “This is new for a lot of engineers. What is great is that we also have people from other disciplines, such as psychology and health sciences. The minor is not for engineers, it’s open to everybody,” he said.
For a broader reach, Jordan and colleagues select a number of courses during a semester, from first to senior years. “We ask the instructor to lend us one class period, 50 minutes, and we bring in people to talk about different issues,” he said. The idea is to get student engineers thinking differently, and to create a ‘sprinkling effect’. “If students start hearing these things in different courses, throughout the four or five years, then bingo, we have made a difference,” he noted.
To move from concept to action, the Peace Engineering Consortium teamed up with Project Echo – Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes – which was launched in 2003 in the health sciences at the University of New Mexico. It uses technology to bring together healthcare providers and health experts, to transfer the benefits of expert health knowledge to local communities in order to save lives, and to make knowledge available to all.
“It’s one of the largest networks in the world on health care. They change the way health is being dealt with worldwide,” he said. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US and the World Health Organisation are part of Echo. A challenge for healthcare can be how to treat people if there is no water, electricity, communication and so on. “So we joined forces.”
One of several projects has been in Sudan, developing community engineering response teams. “They quickly go and set up water treatment, basic energy so that people can plug in basic medical equipment, telecommunications. It was working great,” he said. Then war broke out and now the project is in crisis.
“That is really trying to put peace engineering theories into practice. Walk the talk, right?” said Jordan.
Students – Concerned and keen to engage
As with its namesake in healthcare, Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) is all about action. It harnesses the skills of engineering student and professional volunteers to partner with underserved communities in the US and internationally, developing sustainable solutions to local problems.
Engineers can become fixated on finding technical solutions to problems and can lose sight of other impacts that a solution might cause, according to Duyen Nguyen, chair of the EWB-USA council of regional presidents and president of the Los Angeles professional chapter. She told the recent ABET symposium: “It is crucial to listen to voices that previously might not have been heard, but whose insights will help to build a more resilient world.”
In an email interview with University World News she said student chapters of EWB-USA work with communities through engineering projects.
“The projects are a true partnership, where the students learn to listen to their communities’ needs and don’t just work on their own to provide a solution. Students empower and work alongside communities to find long-term solutions. The projects not only focus on addressing infrastructure needs but also on improving the overall quality of life for the communities,” she said.
Limited time and energy are big obstacles to engagement for busy academics, she told the ABET symposium. “Fortunately, students have a lot more time than us, and they have energy and fire. We have the knowledge; we have the experience. We pass that along to students, who have the time, energy, passion, and drive, teaching them why it is so important to face these challenges,” Nguyen said.
“Our biggest pain points can become our biggest sources of inspiration. Using that to have students help us move forward and drive change in this world is so important,” she said. Students help to build a bigger team to work towards a better world.
EWB-USA’s student chapters are very active. “Every time I get to spend time with them and provide mentorship, they inspire me and remind me of what our future looks like. That invigorates me to be able to put more time and energy into what I’m working towards as well. I highly encourage academics – any time you get a chance, mentor your students,” she said.
Mentoring is the primary role of academics. EWB-USA student chapters are all required to have a faculty advisor, Nguyen told University World News. “The faculty advisor supports the chapter by acting as an advocate and serves as liaison between the students and university administration. The most successful chapters have advisors who offer clear guidance but allow the students to provide the main leadership to the chapter,” she said.
Embedding sustainability, resilience in education
A key obstacle to infusing global imperatives such as sustainability and resilience into university learning, to better prepare students to create a better world, has been the basic question of how to do this.
For Jordan, sustainability understanding starts with the individual, and the first thing universities and academics can do is measure it – how much water do you waste, how much trash do you generate, how much electricity and bandwidth? A problem that is measured, can more easily be seen.
There are also major efforts underway to transform and integrate sustainability into engineering education, such as by the non-profit Engineering for One Planet or EOP. The EOP Framework is the first of its kind to guide coursework and provide teaching tools and student experiences that define what it means to be an engineer who is equipped to protect and improve the planet and people’s lives.
“There is nothing in my world that’s more important than thinking about how to train the next generation of engineers to be able to build a more resilient world,” Cindy Anderson, a consultant and sustainability expert who played a primary role in working with the Lemelson Foundation to develop the EOP Framework, told the ABET symposium.
“That means building more resilient systems, services, products. Engineers can’t do that alone. Faculty and administrators need to bring sustainability focused content, tools and methodologies into classrooms and programmes.
“The EOP Framework is the cornerstone of what we’ve been doing. It is a vetted menu of student learning outcomes that you can bring into your classroom today. Each one of those student learning outcomes is aligned to ABET accreditation standards. We’re trying to make your world and your lives really easy by helping you to achieve environmental and social sustainability efforts,” she said.
Anderson said that in two decades of training academics in sustainability, one of the biggest challenges has been the fear factor: “I’m not an expert in this, how can I possibly teach it in my class? We’re at the point in our planetary evolution that we have to give up on ‘sage on stage’. We need to move to this idea that we can learn with students and encourage students to teach us, push us to grow, and leverage what’s happening in the media and the news every single day.”
Anderson’s advice is to start small: “Start to have conversations in the classroom. Find other champions in your university – they will definitely be there. The EOP Framework was created with hundreds of stakeholders. There can also be great collaborations between institutions. You are absolutely not alone.”
The EOP framework is free, and anybody can join. There are outcomes that can be deployed in class. There are companion teaching guides and a quick start guide with core learning outcomes from each of nine topic areas. There are lesson plans, teaching materials and examples of student work.
It was only a few years ago, Anderson said, that in every report she wrote and conversation she had, she had to convince people of the case for sustainability in engineering.
“I don’t have to do that anymore. We’re in a completely opposite situation where in five years there'll be more green jobs and there are engineers to fill them. This is an enormous problem when you think about the environmental and social issues that we are facing that engineers need to solve,” she said.
To accelerate change, Anderson said: “we need to realise that time is running out rapidly. We have many fires burning right now, literally and figuratively. We need to change what we value and change how we behave and the actions we take on a personal level, in our classrooms and in the things we design.
“I don’t know of any other profession that has so much power. Engineers design and create everything we consume or buy or dispose of. They have ultimate power over the planet.”