Thinking about big ideas on Earth Day

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgToday for me consisted of one PhD defense (I was on the committee; it was successfully defended, congrats Dr. Ken!), a meeting about ADVANCE, 2 hrs of class, another PhD meeting that I’m on the committee of, and then a bunch of following up with folks. So it’s been pretty packed, as usual. (Tomorrow looks quite humane in contrast!)

But I didn’t want to let today slip by without acknowledging that it is Earth Day. I thought about titling this post “Happy Earth Day!” but it really isn’t, is it? The earth is in a mess, global warming is terrifying, and so is the general apathy towards global warming in day-to-day life in academia.

ScienceWoman started off a conversation about how to make our universities leaner and greener. In addition, I think we should have also a conversation about the big decisions we need to make. I started that conversation a while ago, and perhaps today is a good day to bring it back up.

So, in addition to the small things, what are some of the big things we need to start doing differently in universities to start slowing global warming?

I have an idea below the fold, and look forward to reading your ideas in the comments.

My thought has to do with changing how we teach engineers. My department is responsible for teaching all first year undergraduate engineering students, and students now are going to be practicing engineers in the year 2020, if not before.

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) put out a report a few years ago about how we need to change how and what we teach engineering students in preparation for the Engineer of 2020. A few of the items are directly linked to environmental issues, as are many of the Grand Challenges the NAE has published.

So we need to start incorporating this material directly into the content of our engineering courses, and our engineering students today need to learn that the amount of energy their designs take (including day-to-day energy and embodied energy) will need to be as important a consideration as the monetary cost. They need to start learning this will be a normal part of engineering practice, not something just for environmental engineers or ecological engineers.

We approach our first-year engineering course called “Engineering Problem-Solving and Computer Tools” with this philosophy – we incorporate content on sustainability into our lectures and active learning activities as well as our labs, assignments, and our final semestrial design project. In fact, that’s what they’re working on now, and we’re going to report on what we found from last fall (and maybe some of this spring) at the Harvey Mudd Design Conference in May. In particular, we’re going to talk about our philosophy of “normalized sustainability,” where students learn that sustainability is a normal part of engineering practice, and not just something for special disciplines of engineering or engineering practice.

The hope is that our first-year engineering students will be well set on their way to start thinking about sustainability throughout their engineering courses, whether or not their professors bring it up, and whether or not Earth Day falls on their radar or not.

So this is an idea about how to change what we teach our students; please share your ideas about university policies, curricula, hiring practices, operating procedures or any other big changes that you think academia should consider.


  1. #1 Nathan
    April 23, 2009

    Thanks, Alice…we appreciate the mention of two reports. Just tweeted about your blog post.

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