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A Sustainability Toolbox for Engineers: Exploring How Students Are Likely to Engage in Sustainability Education

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

NSF Grantees’ Poster Session

Tagged Topic

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.118.1 - 26.118.21



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Paper Authors


Denise Wilson University of Washington

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Denise Wilson is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her research interests in engineering education focus on the role of self-efficacy, belonging, and other non-cognitive aspects of the student experience on engagement, success, and persistence and on effective methods for teaching global issues such as those pertaining to sustainability.

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Rachel Roberts School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington

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Rachel completed her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Wyoming in International Studies and Spanish, spending a semester in Guatemala interviewing business owners and local residents in Antigua as part of a project to understand conflicts over the growing ecotourism industry. She has worked with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington on projects focusing on social acceptability of biofuels, engaging stakeholders in forest management issues, and surveys on public values of cultural ecosystem services.

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Cheryl Allendoerfer University of Washington

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Dr. Allendoerfer is a Research Scientist in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington.

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Mee Joo Kim University of Washington- Seattle

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MJ Kim is a Ph.D. student in Educational Leadership, Policy & Organizations Studies (Higher Education) at the University of Washington College of Education. She has been involved in a 5-institution, 5-year, NSF-funded project that investigated to understand the impact of belonging and other connections to community on academic engagement for undergraduates in science, math, and engineering (STEM). Broad range of activities related to the research questions at hand included data collection (surveys, interviews, focus groups, and classroom observations), analysis of the data(quantitative, qualitative, and mixed), assessment and revision of research design, data presentation, and supervising undergraduates who are involved in the research team. Her current research interest revolves around assessing institutional strategies to embrace global consciousness among undergraduate students majoring in STEM disciplines.

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A Sustainability Toolbox for Engineers: Exploring how Students are likely to Engage in Sustainability EducationCurrent  approaches  to  teaching  sustainability  in  undergraduate  engineering  programs  tend  to  focus  on   teaching   ABOUT   sustainability,   where   largely   traditional   techniques   are   used   to   transmit  concepts,   facts,   and   information   between   teacher   and   student.     Teaching   FOR   sustainability   is  similar   to   education   that   is   FOR   the   environment   where   students   gain   knowledge,   values,   attitudes,  commitment,   and   skills   needed   to   protect   the   planet.       With   sustainability   added   to   the   mix,   this  teaching   is   done   in   such   a   way   that   viable   solutions   meet   present   needs   without   compromising  those  of  future  generations.      Student   attitudes   toward   and   preconceptions   about   sustainability   can   affect   the   success   of   both  teaching  approaches.      Although  the  central  goal  in  our  study  is  to  explore  best  practices  to  teach  FOR   sustainability,   our   preliminary   results   are   likely   to   apply   to   all   those   who   teach   concepts   of  sustainability   to   engineering   students   in   their   courses.         In   our   preliminary   work,   we   have  interviewed   three   students   in   engineering   (freshman,   junior,   senior)   who   pre-­‐selected   for   the  interview  based  on  their  interests  in  sustainability  and  conducted  three  focus  groups,  consisting  of  freshman   through   seniors,   who   are   a   random   representation   of   the   whole   engineering   student  body.       These   focus   groups   were   conducted   in   two   classes:     (a)   a   junior   level   class   in   Sustainable  Design  for  the  Developing  World;  and  (b)  a  senior  level  class  in  Sensors  and  Sensor  Systems.      From   this   small   sample   size   of   25   students   at   a   single   institution,   we   find   a   surprising   range   of  sophistication   regarding   how   to   students   view   sustainability   in   terms   of   both   their   personal   lives  and  their  careers  as  engineers.    We  also  find  themes  that  emerge  independent  of  sophistication  of  thought   regarding   sustainability.   For   example,   a   majority   of   students   feel   powerless   to   impact  sustainability  in  their  careers  and  lives,  and  often  hold  a  cynical  view  of  the  prospects  of  technology  becoming   more   sustainable.     This   cynical   view   holds   that   capitalism   will   stand   in   the   way   of   any  meaningful  progress  to  make  technology  more  sustainable  for  future  generations,  as  corporations  are   unlikely   to   deviate   from   profit-­‐oriented   motives   and   sustainability-­‐motives   are   frequently   at  odds  with  those  quests  for  profit.        Students   are   also   more   able   and   more   willing   to   engage   in   deeper   discussions   of   sustainability  when  the  topics  hit  close  to  home.    Short  product  life  cycles  associated  with  cell  phones  are  more  likely   to   generate   animated   interest   from   students   than   sustainability   challenges   in   developing  communities   thousands   of   miles   away.     To   some   extent,   this   is   expected,   but   it   offers   some  challenges  in  covering  the  spectrum  of  global  sustainability  in  an  equitable  and  authentic  way  in  the  undergraduate  engineering  experience.        Our  poster  will  look  at  these  interview  and  focus  group  responses  in  the  context  of  how  to  structure  tools  for  teaching  FOR  sustainability  in  engineering  curricula.      

Wilson, D., & Roberts, R., & Allendoerfer, C., & Kim, M. J. (2015, June), A Sustainability Toolbox for Engineers: Exploring How Students Are Likely to Engage in Sustainability Education Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23459

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