Why engineers must go back to nature

October 29, 1999

Kam Patel reports on an initiative that aims to inject green ideas into Britain's engineering courses.

Engineers must be aware of their stewardship of the planet, not just during their lifetime but for future generations. So their training must expose them early to environmentally friendly ways of thinking, the Royal Academy of Engineering says.

This must cover far more than greenhouse emissions and climate change.

Engineering students must think about issues such as raw materials, industrial pollution and creating a built environment that is more amenable to people and to nature.

To address these issues, the academy is placing "sustainable design" at the heart of its courses. It has appointed four leading engineers as visiting professors to institutions to help develop a curriculum that addresses social and environmental problems. Barring funding problems, the aim is to have about 50 such visiting professors in the next few years.

The four professorships cover fields in which sustainability is becoming increasingly important: construction; energy use in the built environment; design, manufacture and disposal of electronic products; and industrial processing and recycling.

Roger Wootton, dean of engineering at City University and chairman of the academy's sustainable development working group, said the idea is to get the concept "ingrained in the thought process" of all students and practitioners of engineering and engineering design.

"It should not be seen as a separate issue to be covered in special courses, and we can help to get the message across by providing case studies for teaching materials. Convincing case studies can be developed only by leading edge industrial practitioners working with experienced teachers."

The United Nations international conference on global climate change in Bonn this week highlights the need for engineers to be aware of the urgency of creating a sustainable future. But David Foxely, who runs the academy scheme, says: "Concerns about global warming are real, and it is good that it is high on the political and public agenda. But we do not want to highlight just one issue. Worries about climate change can act as a catalyst for action in many other equally pressing areas."

The scheme's key objective is to inculcate the ethos of sustainable design to the extent that students do not even have to think about it when they analyse problems.

This will require huge changes in teaching: "Traditionally engineers are taught a lot of theory. This is necessary, but there has been a growing realisation that the context in which students will apply that theory has often been missing," Mr Foxely says.

"They must still deal with facts and figures, but if they are not doing it in the context of social and environmental pressures they are not going to be good engineers. The need to be acutely aware of their stewardship of this planet, not just over their own lifetime but for future generations, has moved centre-stage. It is vital that they respond to this challenge."

While much has been achieved in the past 20 years in understanding how, for instance, industrial processes can be made more efficient, the application of this knowledge has been slow.

David Bartholomew, one of the the academy's new visiting professors, is head of Reading-based industrial innovation specialist DBA Consultants. From a base in De Montfort University's engineering faculty, he will focus on energy conservation in the built environment. Appropriately, the faculty is housed in the Queen's Building, one of the "greenest" of university buildings. Professor Bartholomew says: "For many years, governments have felt they have had difficulty in engendering change in engineering in general and especially in construction to make it more energy efficient.

"The case for the change can be traced back to the oil crisis in the 1970s, when the availability and cost of energy became uncertain. That concern transmuted into worries about global warming. But the issues for practical engineering remain more or less the same."

Professor Bartholomew says there is already a wealth of technical solutions to help the construction industry create a more energy-efficient environment. But, to the government's dismay, the solutions have not been adopted as widely as they should have been.

He says: "My job will be to help make these solutions more accessible to students through case studies. What is new about the academy scheme is that it aims to alert students to the context in which technical decisions are made and give them a wider appreciation of the constraints on practice than they are exposed to by the vast bulk of their training."

Professor Bartholomew will, for example, warn students about the need to shave budgets and the impact this has on plans to create energy-efficient buildings.

It is one of the major reasons why there has been limited uptake of energy conservation, he says.

"It is nearly always some aspect of energy efficiency that gets the chop when budgets come under pressure and costs overrun. It is not as essential as a roof or the grand front that reflects corporate aspirations. It is regarded as boring and marginal."

Working closely with Kevin Lomas, deputy director of De Montfort's Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development, Professor Bartholomew will devise case studies that explore the impact of design in the built environment on human behaviour.

A big reason why many offices are left empty at the end of the day with their lights ablaze is the location of light switches in one big panel near the entrance. "No one will switch them off because of worries about invading other people's space. The answer is to have them distributed, ideally at an individual level, to eliminate the problem. Even something as seemingly inconsequential as the location of light switches can have a major impact on human behaviour and energy conservation."

One case study being developed will allow students to explore the issue of legislating against energy waste, something Professor Bartholomew believes may soon be reality. It may be that when the current crop of engineering students is working in industry, he says government will require homeowners to ensure that their property is energy efficient.

Professor Bartholomew wants to highlight the paradoxes that those drafting regulations will encounter. "Why, for instance, should someone who does not insulate their hot-water cylinder and only takes showers be more culpable than someone who does and has a deep bath every day and in the process uses more energy? Engineers will increasingly come up against debates over the point at which the use of energy is legitimised.

"The context in which the current cohort of engineering students is going to work will be very different from that of today. Social and environmental pressures that have existed for some time will be more profound in the future."

Charles Duff, another visiting professor, echoes Professor Bartholomew's prediction about the challenges facing tommorow's engineers. Government has already called for companies voluntarily to provide "accounts" of how their activities affect the environment.

Professor Duff believes it is "highly likely" that if firms do not do it voluntarily, legislation will force them. "Either way, in 20 years, when they are managers of companies, student engineers of today will have to deal with this demand," he says.

Professor Duff will be based at Surrey's Centre for Environmental Strategy, whose director, Roland Clift, pioneered "life-cycle analysis", a technique that quantifies the environmental impact of producing, using and disposing of manufactured goods. Together, they aim to devise case studies that will expose students to the problems associated with recycling and processing materials.

Aluminium production, for instance, requires lots of energy, but the United Kingdom is very wasteful with the metal, says Professor Duff. "We recycle less than 10 per cent of aluminium cans. That is not good enough. We want to get students to move up and down the supply chain so that they appreciate that if we become more efficient with recycling, the impact of that goes all the way back to source, reducing damage to environments in Third World countries where the ore is mined."

There will be no shortage of challenges for future engineers, Professor Duff says. The atmosphere is filling with greenhouse gases, but the UK is also running out of landfill sites, and dumping sewage in the sea is outlawed.

He says: "These are big environmental engineering challenges, and they need to be addressed strategically. We would like our students to think deeply about such issues by confronting them with scenarios that place them in a company boardroom or research and development divisions in ten to 20 years, when it will be their turn to deal with them."

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