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Introducing Elements of Sustainability into Formal and Informal Environmental Engineering Education

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Introducing Sustainability into Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Environmental Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.957.1 - 22.957.11



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Paper Authors


Jean D. MacRae University of Maine

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Jean MacRae is an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Maine, where she is faculty adviser of the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

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Introducing elements of sustainability into formal and informal environmental engineering educationThe pressing need to find ways to improve quality of life on a crowded planet with energy andresource limits provides the impetus behind at least five of the National Academy ofEngineering’s Grand Challenges. Bolstering students’ understanding of what constitutessustainability is therefore an important aspect of an engineering education and can contribute toABET outcomes c (an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needswithin realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health andsafety, manufacturability, and sustainability) and h (the broad education necessary to understandthe impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context).The importance of sustainability in environmental engineering decision making has thereforebeen emphasized in technical courses, and a non-technical course was designed to exploresustainability issues in a global development context. Student participation in Engineers WithoutBorders (EWB), a service organization with a mission to provide sustainable engineeringsolutions for developing communities, also provides informal learning opportunities.These three venues provide different contexts in which to understand sustainability. Theirdifferent emphases produce varying perspectives on sustainability and different levels ofawareness, especially about the social impacts of engineering design and practice. This paperprovides a reflection on the ways in which the environmental, social and economic aspects ofsustainability appear to lend themselves best to each of these contexts.Environmental sustainability has been most heavily and effectively emphasized in technicalcourses, since material and energy balance approaches can readily be used to assesssustainability, and ecosystem services and resilience fit well within the scope of the field. Groupprojects encourage the exploration of sustainability issues including energy, water and resourceuse and management, biodiversity, resilience and assessment of impacts.The international context of the EWB project and non-technical class brings the cultural andsocial aspects of sustainability into relief, so they are easier to recognize and acknowledge.Typically in the club context, the economic aspects are prioritized due to the scarcity of funds,and social acceptability is a major factor in design, however levels of awareness among clubmembers vary considerably. The non-technical course provides an opportunity to read and reflecton what makes a project successful in the long-term. The emphasis has been on the social,including economic, aspects of sustainability. Environmental sustainability is also discussed, butwith less emphasis on mechanism. The classroom setting provides common content that can beused as the basis for discussion of issues and assessment of sustainability, but the EWB projectprovides a powerful motivation to learn. The limited grade and survey data available suggest thatthe formal and informal settings are mutually supportive in that students who are involved inEWB have a greater motivation to engage in the intellectual work of the formal class, and thestudents who have been in the class are likely to become more productive EWB members.

MacRae, J. D. (2011, June), Introducing Elements of Sustainability into Formal and Informal Environmental Engineering Education Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18165

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