Note: This post was written by SEI staff, Aida Sefic Williams.
SEI welcomes new staff member Aida Williams. In this post, Aida talks about her training as an engineer, how the concept of sustainability was dealt with in her experience as a student, and ideas for how engineering programs could foster the type of thinking needed to approach sustainability issues.
Sustainability is a term used often in today’s technical professions, and it is most certainly a buzz word heard around college campuses. I am a recent graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology, shortly referred to as Georgia Tech. There, I majored in mechanical engineering, where I received a good education at a top-notch school. But how much did this education prepare me for my current line of work dealing with sustainability and e-waste?
At Georgia Tech, I heard the word sustainability a lot around campus. It seemed to be a very popular objective when discussing the new construction projects on campus. The new sustainable buildings at Georgia Tech had solar panels for energy generation, recycled their own water waste to use as irrigation, had fully automated facilities, and many more impressive details that I am probably not aware of. The push for “greener” buildings was evident in all the new buildings and even in the many remodeling projects. Although I had many fine examples of one type of sustainability around me, I still did not quite have the grasp of the sustainability concept.
In my mechanical engineering classes, the topics included thermodynamics, heat transfer, machine design, manufacturing, and many others. The beauty of attending a large university is the option to attend classes which interest you. There were many opportunities that I did not take, such as courses in HVAC, energy systems, fuel cell design, and the list keeps going. I had an interest in taking many of the classes Georgia Tech had to offer in my degree, but I did not want to extend my five-year stay any longer than I had to. For the sake of money, time, and my sanity, my electives were concentrated on composite materials. Surprisingly, this class never mentioned sustainability but contained several important concepts which are also stressed when dealing with sustainability. The reuse and non-hazardous properties of many materials were greatly stressed in the class.
There are two specific required classes which come to mind that did focus on the concept of sustainability and environmentally conscious engineering: manufacturing and senior design. These classes were not geared to promote those concepts, but it was the professors who promoted the ideals of sustainable engineering. Dr. Jonathan Colton has been a professor for 20+ years, and his research focus was on the manufacturing of hypodermic micro-needles. Through my research with him, as well as through his class, it was easy to notice his focus on sustainability. He often spoke of recyclable materials which can be utilized to not only make a product, but to also make it environmentally and socially responsible.
The other class which opened my eyes to sustainable design was my senior design class with Dr. Bert Bras. In teams of 4 to 5 students, each group within the class picked a project that would be worked on by the team. Dr. Bras’s focus of research is environmentally conscious design, and he was named the director of the Institute of Sustainable Technology and Development. He was a perfect professor to take the minds of soon-to-be new engineers and change our focus not only on creating something new and different, but designing something which would benefit the world. My team worked on a pump system which would utilize a playground and child play in order to provide water to rural areas in third world countries. We spent months doing research on locally-available and cost-effective materials which a Nicaraguan community could use. Our final design utilized locally-available wood to make a see-saw, a cost-effective piston pump which met the well depth requirements of our project site, and we utilized a ball bearing for an automotive suspension to connect the two pieces together. The project allowed my team to think out of the box and find a way to use old, recyclable parts or to use locally-available natural resources.
More course options at reputable universities and technical institutions around the world allow for students to become more familiar with sustainability and other related concepts. Hopefully, the concepts of sustainability will also find their way into more traditional courses to let students get a better idea of how to use their practical, theoretical knowledge to solve real-world industry problems. My experiences at Georgia Tech may not have explained the concept of sustainability, but the training I received did instill in me the ideas which would fall under the sustainability umbrella.
When I was taking classes for my minor in German, the topic of the different classes was interesting. One of the classes I enjoyed the most was a “Current Issues” class, which was concentrated around current social and political issues in Germany. The class was spent reading recent newspaper articles and publications which would allow the students in the class to better understand the current issues within the Germany. This allowed the students to learn about the direction in which Germany was headed and to also think about those same issues within the United States. This point seems a little off-topic, but I am going somewhere with this. I think that engineering programs should offer a class which could possibly be called “Current Issues in Engineering.” This class could be centered on current trends and legislation regarding different engineering principles. Potential topics in the class could include: Sustainability, “Green” Engineering, Six Sigma, Electronics Disposal, Global Engineering, Engineering in a Tough Economy, etc. Such a class would let students get a brief overview of topics which they might encounter at work. More importantly, however, it would allow young engineers to see that there is a world outside of their books, classes, and campus, which they will soon join and have a chance to mold with the education they are receiving.