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Enabling Transdisciplinary Education for Energy Systems Transitions

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Multidisciplinary Engineering Experiences

Tagged Division

Multidisciplinary Engineering

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Paper Authors

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Miles Skinner

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Sven Anders University of Alberta


Pierre Mertiny University of Alberta

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Pierre Mertiny (PhD, University of Alberta) studied Mechanical Engineering at the Leibniz University Hannover in Germany, where he graduated in 1999. He joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta in 2006. He has been teaching and conducting research in the areas of engineering design and advanced materials, focusing on fiber reinforced and/or particle modified polymer composites and structures. He has supervised nearly 100 undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Together with his students and collaborators he has been the author of over 100 journal articles, conference papers and book chapters. He has been awarded five visiting professorships to teach and conduct research at the Technical University Munich in Germany, including three August-Wilhelm Scheer Visiting Professorships. He has been serving several engineering organizations, including the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). He is a member of the Executive Committees for the ASME Northern Alberta Section and the ASME Pressure Vessel and Piping Division. He is passionate about promoting excellence in teaching. He has been appointed a Vargo Teaching Chair at the University of Alberta. He has received several teaching awards by the University of Alberta and external organizations, including the Summit Award for Excellence in Education by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (2015) and the SAE International Ralph R. Teetor Educational Award (2012).

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Climate change and global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are advancing at an alarming rate, posing an ever greater challenge that spans industries, economies and societies. Reducing the reliance of much of current economic activity and everyday life on fossil-fuel based energy generation is of significance to any effort of stemming continuous global warming and its catastrophic consequences. Central to the success of a carbon-neutral future is the transition of energy systems toward long-term sustainable renewable energy production. Engineers and especially the innovative capacity of forthcoming generations of young engineers arguably play a key role in coming up with technology solutions that make this broad energy transition possible, while at the same time contributing new sources of economic activity and societal prosperity. However, the massive scale of the required transition process carries a number of inherent uncertainties and risks that straddle the field of engineering discipline. While material failure and other technology risks may be predictable ex-ante, public perceptions of a new energy system or its perceived benefits and risks typically remain unknown. Public opinion, shaped by beliefs, knowledge, information and social media impacts is an input into the process of building public acceptance for a technology, which in turn is a necessary condition for receiving critical political support and regulatory approval. For example, while nuclear reactor technology continues to advance, shifting public perception over the safety of nuclear energy in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster quickly led to its demise initiated by political decision-makers (e.g. Germany). A critical next step toward solving this dilemma is the closer collaboration between technology designers, engineers, and their colleagues in economics, social and environmental sciences. To date, traditional engineering education is ill-prepared to accommodate new transdisciplinary concepts and content, given the already taxing time and intellectual demands placed on students. In response to these challenges, an international group of educators that span engineering, economics, social science, and environmental fields joined forces and created a training concept that fosters learning and transdisciplinary thinking in groups of international students from diverse program backgrounds, and different level of seniority (senior undergraduates to PhD). An 8-day summer school format immersed students and instructors in a variety of intense learning activities ranging from lectures and debates, to case studies and role plays. All activities placed a focus on student-centered and collaborative learning. Instructors merely provided concise lectures to establish knowledge bases for all participants. For example, engineering students’ initial positive analysis of a hydropower case study was quickly challenged by economists’ concerns investment costs and environmental science students’ concerns over habitat impacts. This article details the rationale for and the lessons learned from offering the chosen interdisciplinary learning format for seven years, both from an engineering subject matter and pedagogical perspective. Outcomes and experiences will be discussed and recommendations provided for the development of similar transdisciplinary training modules for engineering educators interested in preparing their students for the major transdisciplinary challenges lying ahead.

Skinner, M., & Anders, S., & Mertiny, P. (2020, June), Enabling Transdisciplinary Education for Energy Systems Transitions Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34527

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