Educating Engineers for Sustainability


October 3, 2012

I had the great pleasure of spending some time with Dr. Richard Fenner, of the University of Cambridge, who is in the process of writing a new book on educating engineers for sustainability.

The talk was subtitled “Principles into Practice,” which is also the subtitle of his forthcoming book.

I realized, through our talks and during his presentation, that while we have been very good as a culture at educating engineers in the application of scientific principles, we’ve also created a breed of engineer that learns how to solve a problem in a particular way… at which point many new problems look like old problems and get solved in old, familiar ways.

He gave the example of the Army Corps of Engineers in the New Deal days, who were completely capable of damming rivers that had no business being dammed, only because they were good at building dams and had the money and skill to do so.

I have friends who spend much of their lives lobbying for the removal of these dams. It turns out a dam that has no business being a dam is also highly detrimental to the local ecology.

It was great to hear his views on educating engineers in the new design criteria of sustainable development, and we had a few great conversations about what exactly sustainable actually means.

His program, like the masters program at the Patel School for Global Sustainability, trains students in critical sustainability practices, philosophies and ways of thinking. As an engineer – or at least as a graduate of a highly engineering-focused school – it was great to hear about new programs that build sustainability thinking on top of the foundation of engineering and “hard science.”

I look forward to reading Dr. Fenner’s book when it is published – I’ll be sure to share it here.