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Valuing, Learning: Revising a Sustainability Curriculum for First-Year Students

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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

Assessing Social Responsibility & Sustainability

Tagged Divisions

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society, Engineering Ethics, and Educational Research and Methods

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1696.1 - 26.1696.10



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Paper Authors


Mark H Minster Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Associate Professor of English

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Richard A House Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Richard A. House is Professor of English at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He received a B.A. from Illinois Wesleyan University and M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine. His interests include liberal education for engineers, engineering communication and pedagogy, sustainability, and Shakespeare. He is co-author (with Richard Layton, Jessica Livingston, and Sean Moseley) of The Engineering Communication Manual, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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Patricia Brackin P.E. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Patricia Brackin is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, where she teaches design throughout the curriculum. She is particularly interested in sustainable design. Her B.S. and M.S. are from the University of Tennessee in Nuclear Engineering and her Ph.D. is from Georgia Institute of Technology in Mechanical Engineering. Her industrial experience includes Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Chicago Bridge and Iron, and a sabbatical at Eli Lilly. She is a registered Professional Engineer in the State of Tennessee.

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Corey M. Taylor Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Corey Taylor is an Associate Professor of English at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, IN. He is a co-founder of the Home for Environmentally Responsible Engineering (HERE) cohort, and has taught introductory courses in writing and sustainability for the program. Dr. Taylor also teaches technical and professional communication and an array of American literature courses.

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The HERE (Home for Environmentally Responsible Engineering) program, a first-yearliving-learning community at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, was designed to introducestudents from multiple disciplines to sustainable engineering. In addition to residential and co-curricular components, the program was built around special sections of standard required courses.Students in the program enroll together first in a freshman writing course, then a humanities andnatural sciences course on the global contexts of sustainability, and finally Introduction to Design.The purpose of the HERE program is, in the words of an article on “deep learning,” “not simply toteach concrete facts about the environment but to create an active, transformative process oflearning that allows values to be lived out and debated, and permits a unification of theory andpractice” (Warburton 2003). For decades, the pedagogical literature on higher education has been nearly unanimous onthe role that the first year plays in students’ learning, at every taxonomic level. The freshman year isthe time to create expectations and habits as well as “interdisciplinary cognitive skills and course-specific knowledge” (Upcraft, Gardner, and Barefoot 2005). Likewise, the scholarship onsustainability in colleges and universities clearly shows that education for sustainability must bepervasive and foundational, not super-added only in junior and senior courses. Unlike the prevailingcurricular model in engineering education—in which introductory courses teach basic science andmathematics, prior to the intense disciplinary specialization and professionalism of upper-levelcourses—the scholarship on sustainability education (Arbuthnott 2009; Ashford 2004; Bryce et al.2004; Lourdel et al. 2004; Boyle 2004) points to the need for “learning for sustainable development[to be] embedded in the whole curriculum, not as a separate subject” (UNESCO). Authentic,transformative impact is only possible when the concerns of sustainability transcend the peripheryof a curriculum to pervade student skill development.During the first three years of the HERE program, however, we have found that even our first-yearefforts had not gone far enough, with Introduction to Design not coming until the spring quarter,and course content still too compartmentalized. Our students have repeatedly expressed discomfortat a perceived discrepancy between their professional goals—defined by technical specialization andthe rewards of their eventual profession—and our curriculum, in which the goals and traditions ofthe liberal arts, interrogating arguments and values, have preceded the questions and processes ofengineering design. Our students have sometimes seen challenges to their personal beliefs asthreatening, and they often express the belief that as student engineers, they should not be asked toapproach environmental problems from historical, philosophical, and rhetorical perspectives, letalone to allow such problems to “constrain” design. Such difficulties have prompted somerethinking of the program and its goals of achieving meaningful professional education insustainability at the freshman level.This year, however, we have merged Introduction to Design and the freshman writing class into asingle course, a two-quarter-long, interdisciplinary, team-taught sequence. This course now takesplace during the fall and winter quarters, at the very beginning of the program. As in so much of the“greening of the campus” movement, student projects explore design solutions to sustainabilityproblems that affect our campus. Folding the requirements of a writing course into the process ofdesign has allows for more reflection as well as for more complete contextualization of the problemsto be solved (“problem setting,” in the words of Donald Schön: “In real-world practice, problemsdo not present themselves to the practitioner as givens. They must be constructed from thematerials of problematic situations which are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain” [40]).Our paper explores some of the new ways that our HERE curriculum has tried to meet studentswhere they are, accounting for their growth using such metrics as Perry’s levels of intellectualdevelopment and Bloom’s learning taxonomies. We show how the program’s learning outcomesand bodies of knowledge are changing, based on individual and collective experiences teaching inand administering the cohort. To the extent that our challenges are representative of others whostruggle (a) to incorporate sustainability into the first-year curriculum, (b) to incorporate writing andengineering courses, (c) to engage engineering students meaningfully beyond the classroom, and (d)to enrich introductory design courses, our findings will be relevant.

Minster, M. H., & House, R. A., & Brackin, P., & Taylor, C. M. (2015, June), Valuing, Learning: Revising a Sustainability Curriculum for First-Year Students Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.25032

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