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The Earth Sustainability Course Series

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Sustainable Energy Issues in Education

Tagged Division

Energy Conversion and Conservation

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1218.1 - 13.1218.11



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Paper Authors


Cortney Martin Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Dr. Cortney Martin has worked in information design, usability, and education for over 15 years including serving as the Assistant Director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village and the Broadband Wireless Networking Director for Virginia Tech. She teaches as a part of an innovative interdisciplinary thematic four-course sequence focused on Earth Sustainability. Her PhD is in Industrial Engineering (human factors) from Virginia Tech.

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Barbara Bekken Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Dr. Barbara Bekken is an assistant professor of Geosciences and an associate with the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (CEUT). With the support of the Provost’s Office and CEUT, she is directing the Earth Sustainability project and the Living in the 21st Century liberal education program. The Earth Sustainability project is a holistic learning program that is designed to foster student intellectual development within a learning community. Dr. Bekken has a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

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Sean McGinnis Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Dr. Sean McGinnis is the Director of the Virginia Tech Green Engineering Program and a research faculty jointly appointed in Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Systems Engineering. Dr. McGinnis holds bachelor's degrees in Chemical Engineering and in Materials Science from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Stanford University. Prior to joining Virginia Tech in 2005, Dr. McGinnis worked in corporate R&D for 8 years and helped implement a Design for Environment (DfE) program at a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary. His current research interests focus generally on sustainable engineering, including the specific topics of life cycle analysis, green manufacturing, sustainable materials selection, and design for the environment.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

The Earth Sustainability Course Series Abstract

A four semester Earth Sustainability-themed general education curriculum was developed by Virginia Tech in response to urgent calls for a more seamless integration of liberal and technical education. It provides a basic framework for understanding worldviews, water, energy, food, shelter, waste, and health from interdisciplinary viewpoints. Incorporating a learning community pedagogy promotes deep and meaningful learning by inviting participants to become active participants in their own learning.

The focused curriculum of many engineering programs is not in and of itself adequate preparation for meeting the needs of employers or our planet’s growing population and limited resources. But by coupling technical education with an Earth Sustainability-type general education program, and with themes carried throughout the curriculum, we can better prepare engineers to address the complex and ever-changing global problems of the twenty-first century. Engineers have great influence over the utilization of resources, so we are obligated to equip them with the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary knowledge needed to make environmentally- responsible choices. Preliminary results and findings of the Earth Sustainability program to date are very encouraging with respect to gains in epistemological development and critical thinking. The program will expand next year to include 25-30 engineers among the cohort of 150 students allowing for more detailed impact assessment.


Undergraduate engineering programs are faced with critical challenges as they continue to adapt to address the needs of the global marketplace, and more importantly, the needs of a planet that has surpassed its carrying capacity1. Both ABET and the National Academies recognize the need for a new kind of engineer who has deep cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary competencies. In response to mounting economic pressures and competition from other countries, engineering programs have historically responded by becoming more specialized and more technical to produce students who could readily contribute to growing industries. However, this model of specialization is no longer entirely adequate for today’s complex problems that cut across the boundaries of academic departments, nations, and cultures. In addition to technical knowledge and skills, engineers today need two other fundamental competencies: (1) an ability to apply math and science tools at the intersection of global economics, culture, government, health, history, and the arts; and (2) a deep appreciation for the limits of our available resources, and the need for socially-responsible cradle-to-cradle2 designs that protect the health of people and the environment.

A recent report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities states, “those who endorse narrow learning are blind to the realities of the new global economy.”3 They outline a broad set of vital learning outcomes and argue that these must be woven throughout every curriculum rather than regarded as a separate, or less important, educational component. Domenico Grasso4 aptly describes the troubling bifurcation of liberal and technical education and calls for a new definition of the well-educated engineer:

Martin, C., & Bekken, B., & McGinnis, S. (2008, June), The Earth Sustainability Course Series Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3378

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2008 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015