Education for Engineers

What I wish I learnt at university… (about sustainability)

The People:  Liz Meddings, Building Services Engineer, Arup, Bristol; Tim Thorne, Civil Engineer, Balfour Beatty, London.

The Project: Starting at the end of 2006, Liz and Tim decided to focus one of the four Change Challenges highlighted in an earlier phase of Engineers of the 21st Century programme: ‘the capacity of teachers and trainers to integrate sustainability into courses must be developed quickly’.

From their own recent university experience and the demands they now faced in their jobs, they suspected that universities were not collectively meeting industry’s need for sustainability-literate young engineers, and they decided to investigate this further.

They developed a survey targeted at young engineers who had recently graduated and had been working for 2 to 10 years.  Liz and Tim set up the survey online, and advertised the link with support through IMechE, ICE, CIWEM, IET, CIBSE, Arup, Spongenet and Bechtel. An impressive 499 responses were received and the validity of the survey was increased further by the range of engineering disciplines, universities and current job functions and industry sectors represented. The survey asked engineers what they did learn at university about sustainability, what they wished they’d learnt, about the process of learning, and opinions on the attitude and knowledge of lecturers

The Results: The combined results highlighted a strong demand for including sustainability in engineering degree courses.  In contrast it was found that almost a quarter of the engineers had learnt nothing about sustainability at university. 90% wanted to do more than scratch the surface of the topic and wanted to understand the impacts of their decisions and practical methods of incorporating sustainability into work practices. 60% felt that sustainability is either important or very important to their job role today.  40% of university lecturers were deemed to have an inadequate knowledge of sustainability and only 30% had a positive to passionate attitude about the subject.

It was not the intention to make suggestions for implementation, however the majority of respondents felt that the teaching of sustainability should be fully integrated across engineering courses. The research also highlighted that this demographic sector had received little consultation on the issue.

The Value: The results reinforce the messages that the Royal Academy of Engineering and others have been broadcasting for some time: that Universities must continue to improve their effectiveness of their teaching of sustainability across engineering courses.  The message has been communicated in various publications such as the Times Higher Education Supplement, Green Futures and Civil Engineering (later this year).

For Liz and Tim, completing the project while continuing their full time jobs was challenging but ultimately rewarding, broadening their knowledge of sustainability and giving them confidence through presenting their results. In September 2007, Tim was invited to speak about his project at a prestigious event run by Imperial College: “Global Engineering – the future for engineering education”.

Tim notes:

"I was afforded the opportunity to present the project alongside some very high level business speakers, including Jonathan Porritt. This was a fantastic opportunity and I took a lot of self-confidence from its success."