The Green Petrol Heads: Developing Practical Professional Engineering Skills That Generate Interest in Sustainable Engineering

Article excerpt


During the Adelaide 2008 March heatwave, which was the longest on record (The Age, 2008), Caltex predicted that Australian fuel prices would double over the next decade (The Herald Sun, 2008). Both headlines seemed inseparably entwined amidst the scientific data that links the global voracious combustion of unsustainable carbon-based fuels to an exponential increase of carbon emissions and global warming (Hansen & Lebedeff, 1987). There is clearly a correlation between meteorological data that charts the carbon dioxide emissions from burnt fossil fuels, the carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere and an underlying pattern of global temperature change (Kuo et al, 1990; Etheridge et al, 1996; Keeling & Whorf, 2005; NASA, 2006). The need for sustainable, eco-friendly energy sources that cause far less damage to our environment is further exacerbated by the fact that our existing fuel sources are also certain to run out (Deffeyes, 2003), even though there is fierce debate as to when. This data is not new, but a sense of urgency has been slow to kick-in.

At the end of the last century the transport sector was recognised as a significant consumer of Australian energy resources and sustainable transport issues were becoming increasingly important to the community (Engineers Australia, 1999; 2001). Technological advancements mean that genuine practical solutions do now exist towards reducing carbon dioxide emissions through the use of (multiple) sustainable fuel alternatives. Sweden, for example, intends to be fossil-fuel-independent by 2020 (Olofsson, 2005). However, despite this the Australian preference for large six-cylinder vehicles was still increasing at an alarming rate until very recently (Australian Government, 2003). Unger (1992) explained that the scientific evidence of environmental damage is insufficient to encourage change and that it is only taken seriously when the evidence is complimented by significant and disturbing real-world events, such as extraordinary weather conditions that lead to a catastrophe. It therefore seems that recent events, like the 2004 Tsunami (Lindenmayer, 2007) and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina maybe providing the impetuous for change and the sense of urgency that has been missing. Australian politicians have also now gathered some momentum towards recognising the need to address both climate change and the energy resource crisis (The Daily Telegraph, 2007). Consumers are now buying smaller more fuel efficient cars (The Age, 2006; NRMA, 2006) and hybrid cars are also increasing in popularity with many more motorists believing that these alternatives are part of the answer (The Australian Automobile Association, 2008). This all indicates that the timing is ideal for engineers to help accelerate real and dramatic change. However, for this to happen our young engineering students must graduate with the theoretical knowledge, practical skills, confidence and (above all) enthusiasm to play an effective part.


While engineering programs and curricula continually expand and evolve to keep pace with emerging issues and technological advancements, lectures remain of fundamental importance for the transmission of relevant facts, theories and general information. However, while good lectures can be inspirational (Edwards et al, 2001), many important issues, such as sustainability, can be perceived as insignificant among the plethora of subjects that need to be covered. In such an environment, if any aspect of education seems dull, or not an "essential exam snippet", it might quickly be overlooked or forgotten. The cognitive development of the student and ability to achieve the learning outcomes of a course therefore require complimentary pedagogical methods that draw the students' interest and let the focus shift to what is being learnt rather than what is being taught (Mills et al, 2003). …