Academic journal article Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research

Bringing Environmental Sustainability to Undergraduate Engineering Education: Experiences in an Inter-Disciplinary Course

Academic journal article Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research

Bringing Environmental Sustainability to Undergraduate Engineering Education: Experiences in an Inter-Disciplinary Course

Article excerpt


This paper chronicles the development of a unique interdisciplinary course in environmentally conscious design at Kettering University, a technologically focused Midwestern university. Funded by the National Science Foundation, a team of six faculty members at Kettering University adapted work done by Ford Motor Company to educate undergraduate STEM students about the subject of environmental sustainability. The authors describe their modular approach and use of active learning techniques in achieving significant learning outcomes for their students. Assessment results demonstrate the course's impact on student learning and achievement of learning objectives.

Introduction and Motivation

There are a growing number of calls for the inclusion of environmental sustainability in undergraduate engineering education. In February of 2008, the National Academy of Engineering announced a set of "Grand Challenges for Engineering. In their document, the NAE stated:

As the population grows and its needs and desires expand, the problem of sustaining civilization's continuing advancement, while still improving the quality of life, looms more immediate.

In an earlier report the NAE stated that the growing environmental crisis means that "Engineering practices must incorporate attention to sustainable technology, and engineers need to be educated to consider issues of sustainability in all aspects of design and manufacturing" (NAE, 2004). ABET outcomes also speak to the need for sustainability education in outcomes (h) and (j) in its Engineering Accreditation program outcomes (ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission, 2007). These outcomes deal with: (h) "the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context" and (j) "a knowledge of contemporary issues."

Mulder writes of a crisis that the engineering profession faces in Western society. With the number of engineering graduates and the status of the profession in decline, there is a need to see sustainable development as a new paradigm. Mulder writes:

However, the traditional top-down technocratic approach will not cope with the challenge of sustainable development. Democratizing technological decision making and increasing the participation of stakeholders will be important to prevent the failures of the past. Are engineers fit for the job? The basic features of most engineering training programs (the application of basic science and mathematics to technological problems) have not been changed since engineering schools were established. However, this approach is not a solid base from which to solve society's modern problems, as environmental problems are intimately connected to social and political issues. (Mulder, 2004)

Against this backdrop, an interdisciplinary group of faculty at Kettering University (the Kettering Industrial Ecology Team or KIET) set out in 2005 to develop a new course in environmental design. KIET's work came about after these faculty members observed that many engineering programs like Kettering's offer relatively little instruction in environmental sustainability. Content that does exist frequently focuses on air, water, and soil pollution rather than environmental sustainability in manufacturing and product design (Powers 2002). Kettering's curriculum has long focused on engineering and manufacturing, especially of automobiles, but has not focused on the environmental impact of these activities. KIET seeks to rectify this situation and to disseminate the results of our work freely with peer institutions. Funded with an NSF grant (DUE-0511322), the group created a new course (IME540 Environmentally Conscious Design) that brings together relevant knowledge from multiple disciplines and encourages active learning pedagogy. Notably, KIET adapted work done by Ford in their Partnership for Advanced Studies (PAS) project for high school students and shaped it for use at a university level (Poledink, 2004). …

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