The Academic Senate is considering implementing a sustainability requirement for all degree programs at Cal Poly. I commend the university for engaging in this critical step of establishing Cal Poly as a leader in the green campus movement. Due to the polytechnic nature of our university, I want to focus on implementing sustainability into the engineering curriculum.
People often underestimate how easy it is to teach engineers effective methods for implementing sustainability principles into their engineering design. The central challenge in getting the message through to engineers today is the lack of ecological literacy in their fundamental education. The fact is that sustainability is not a discrete subject matter, it is better described as a new lens to see the world, or in engineer-speak, a new system of parameters within which you develop your design concept.
Referring to William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s iconic book, Cradle to Cradle, it is clear that our problem is not how we engineer things, but how and whether we consider the external impacts, or externalities, of our design process. The authors refer to it as the difference between making things less bad, in contrast to making things better, all within the context of ecological health. So, the challenge in breaking the idea of sustainability down into rational concepts that a trained engineer can implement into her or his design processes in not one of reframing the specific problem, but reframing the context within which that problem is solved.
This strategy creates a new standard, often referred to as the ‘triple-bottom-line,’ where multiple balance sheets are evaluated to ensure the engineering solution is ‘sustainable.’ So, a sustainable approach would in fact mimic the conventional design process, but it would enter into that effort only after determining effective methods of ensuring that the human experience is optimized and that the surrounding ecological systems do not suffer.
The problem at Cal Poly that prevents many of our graduates from understanding the importance of the “triple-bottom-line” is that, unless pro-actively sought after, a student will have little to no exposure to the ecological and social impacts of engineering design. Without a tangible context through which a student can truly understand the importance of sustainable design, we cannot expect them to respond in a meaningful way to the barrage of “green” events, keynote speakers and seminars that are offered continuously on campus. It is a problem that can be fixed, and one that the Academic Senate will hopefully resolve this spring.
Integrating sustainability into the engineering curriculum is a necessary step for Cal Poly to actualize its commitments to stewardship as expressed in the Talloires Declaration and the California State University Energy and Sustainability policy. Teaching ecological literacy takes time and patience, but overall it’s quite simple. The difficult step is developing strategies to deconstruct the preconceived notions of what is, and is not, within the engineer’s scope of responsibilities. If each engineer had an ingrained sense of responsibility for the health of all children of all species for all time, as Cradle to Cradle elegantly puts it, then there would be no question that their resulting designs would be models of sustainability in practice.
So the goal should not be to alter design processes, it should be to cultivate ecological literacy and a sense of responsibility for the future of our life-giving planet. Only then will a meaningful and effective method be developed for truly integrating sustainability into engineering.
Tylor Middlestadt is an architectural engineering senior, with a minor in sustainable environments. He can be reached at email@example.com.