Asee peer logo

The Wicked Problems in Sustainable Engineering (WPSE) Initiative: Pilot Results of a Cross-Institutional Project-Based Course Offering

Download Paper |


2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session


Tagged Divisions

Multidisciplinary Engineering and Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1257.1 - 24.1257.23



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Justin L. Hess Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Justin Hess is a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. He received his B.S. in civil engineering in 2011 with a minor in philosophy from Purdue University, where he hopes to complete his M.S. in civil engineering in December 2014. His research focuses on understanding engineers’ core values, dispositions, and worldviews. His dissertation focuses on conceptualizations, the importance of empathy, and methods to teach it to engineering students. He is currently the education director for Engineers for a Sustainable World and an assistant editor of Engineering Studies.

visit author page


Sarah Aileen Brownell Rochester Institute of Technology

visit author page

Sarah Brownell is a lecturer in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering's design, development, and manufacturing department. Her research interests center around development of products for developing countries, specifically sanitation design for Haiti.

visit author page


Alexander T. Dale Engineers for a Sustainable World Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Alex is the executive director of Engineers for a Sustainable World and has been part of ESW at the national level since 2009. He has driven efforts to improve ESW's educational offerings through national course initiatives as well as through leadership and sustainability skills webinars.

Alex finished his Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh in civil and environmental engineering in 2013 and was funded through an NSF IGERT fellowship. His research focused on the regional environmental impacts and feasibility of energy- and water-supply scenarios, and combined aspects of life-cycle assessment, policy implications, and the water-energy nexus. He has worked on the Marcellus Shale and spent 4 months in Rio de Janeiro on a research rotation.

visit author page

Download Paper |


The Wicked Problems in Sustainable Engineering (WPSE) Initiative: Exploring theEfficacy of a Cross­Institutional Project­Based Course OfferingWicked problems are characterized as problems without a conclusive formulation, withnumerous stakeholders’ values determining the quality of any given response. They aresymptoms of each other, essentially unique, and are unlikely to be definitively ‘solved’. Manytechnical sustainability problems show elements of wickedness (e.g. climate change,infrastructure, cities).Exposure to wicked problems during a student’s undergraduate educationis critical to preparing students for careers and global citizenship, but is also challenging. Inresponse to this, we have developed the Wicked Problems in Sustainable Engineering (WPSE)Initiative to provide a centralized connection point for sharing resources and to develop anasynchronous community for schools interested in exposing their students to wicked problems. In this paper, we seek to demonstrate the need for and feasibility of this cross­campusinitiative. We present the program design along with the results of a pilot year of the WPSEcourse offerings during the fall of 2013. The inaugural topic, which will change yearly, hadstudents examine the roots of air pollution. Students were asked to look at varied tactics forresolving wicked problems such as behavioral change and indirect approaches rather thanend­of­pipe methods. One course focused on social entrepreneurial and bottom­up approacheswhile the second course focused on methods of defining, analyzing, and resolving the problemwith focused consideration of different stakeholder perspectives. Both courses had studentteams design responses to the wicked problem as a central project. Results of pre­ and post­surveys of student attitudes towards sustainability and professional practice, as well as criticaldesign reviews spaced throughout the semester, are presented to demonstrate the potentialbenefits of linked project­based courses. As WPSE prepares for its second year with a larger number of colleges and universities,we discuss the role of non­profit organizations as partners in enabling the teaching of real­worldand complex topics, blending digital communities and physical classes and project teams toobtain the best aspects of both.

Hess, J. L., & Brownell, S. A., & Dale, A. T. (2014, June), The Wicked Problems in Sustainable Engineering (WPSE) Initiative: Pilot Results of a Cross-Institutional Project-Based Course Offering Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23190

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: © 2014 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