Engineering Education: The Key to a Sustainable Future

By Thomas, Jason | Technology and Engineering Teacher, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Engineering Education: The Key to a Sustainable Future


Thomas, Jason, Technology and Engineering Teacher


Engineers have played a vital role in human civilization since the beginning of our existence. The first agricultural settlements to utilize irrigation canals, the Ancient Egyptian pyramids, Roman Aqueducts, the Eiffel Tower, and even the United States Interstate system all required countless hours from those within the engineering profession. In fact, if not for the ingenuity of engineers, the society we live in today would look completely different. Engineers are the visionaries who carry out the ideas others discover and do not have the expertise to follow through on (or perhaps they have the expertise but lack the inventive mind to come up with innovative ideas).

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Two very important types of engineers today are civil engineers and environmental engineers--both are key players in determining how our world is developed. While civil engineering has existed for centuries in some form, environmental engineering is a relatively new profession encompassing aspects of several different design professions. The profession of civil engineering can be described as one where professionals design large construction projects such as roads, buildings, tunnels, dams, bridges, and design systems for storm, waste, and sewage water management (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012a). The environmental engineering profession can be described as one where the principles of engineering are used in conjunction with those of soil science, chemistry, biology, and ecology in an effort to mitigate environmental problems such as climate change or pollution (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012b). Both professions work on complex, multifaceted projects and because of this, many engineers often specialize their talents in one (or a few) particular area(s). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employs career civil and environmental engineers to assess, plan, and manage flood-control projects in many parts of the United States (Figure 1).

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In today's world, it is increasingly important for our civil and environmental engineers to design and develop projects in ways that are beneficial to our society but at the same time are consistent with good environmental management practices. This sentiment is equally true for both developed and developing countries as the world we live in experiences significant population growth and our reliance on fossil fuels and otherwise unsustainable practices continues to increase. There is a trend where the concept of Americanized suburbia is largely over.

Extensive suburban development in the past placed increasing pressures on land, nonrenewable resources, wildlife, and our environment. Engineers, in conjunction with planners and developers and the general population, now recognize that we can no longer continue this type of development. Today, many American towns and cities are returning to the basics. An emphasis on creating more vibrant, livable cities is contributing to "walkable" communities with dense city centers that quickly give way to less developed agricultural and natural areas, which place less stress on our environment, consume fewer resources, and generally promote healthier, happier people. Nationwide, many older towns and cities have seen a resurgence of their downtown areas, while newer suburban towns are beginning to construct town centers. Not only are the development patterns being influenced by engineers, but these new buildings and developments are being constructed in ways that are much more "earth friendly," using techniques such as reclaimed water for toilets and irrigation, green roofs and walls, permeable paving, and reclaiming wetlands. Many of the building materials are recycled from materials that would otherwise find their way into landfills or, even worse, be discarded in the countryside. Figure 2 shows a stack of automobiles that are headed for a "crusher." Automobile companies and government agencies have initiated incentive programs to encourage consumers to recycle their automobiles. …

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