Educating Ecologically Sustainable Engineers
Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Educating Ecologically Sustainable Engineers', Education Links, vol.37, Summer 1989/90, pp24-25.
This is a final version submitted for publication.
For the past two years I have taught a short seven week course to electrical engineering students at Sydney University on non-technical aspects of engineering as part of a subject entitled "Electrical Engineering Practice". The course was not about the environment in that it did not cover ecological principles or environmental science but rather for the environment in that it aimed to teach the students about their responsibilities for the wider consequences of their work.*
A major obstacle in environmental education for engineers is that they tend to regard it as peripheral to their career needs and they often resent it being added on to an already overloaded curriculum. The ideal situation would be to change engineering education so that awareness of the environment was an integral part of each subject taught. This is not yet the case. However it was advantageous that the subject I taught was offered as part of a traditional engineering subject on equal footing with other engineering subjects. It was compulsory for all final year electrical students, about 100 in number.
I found that an early emphasis on professionalism was an effective way to involve students who tend otherwise to shrug off the relevance of environmnental awareness to their careers. I emphasised that the privileges available to professionals are given in return for service to the community and social responsibility. I taught about professional integrity and appealed to their sense of pride and their youthful ideals.
We discussed the constraints on engineers as employees who must show loyalty to their employers if they want promotion and career advancement and the ethical dilemmas this can lead to when firms require engineers to work on projects that are detrimental to the environment or to public health and welfare. We covered the way expertise is used by policy-makers to justify and legitimise their decisions and by advocates and opponents of controversial technologies to support their positions which more often than not have a non-technical basis. The need for public participation in such decision-making was emphasised.
The next couple of weeks were aimed at technology itself and issues of how it is shaped, who controls the direction technological development goes in and how much influence engineers have in that process. In particular, the importance of social and political factors was highlighted since many students imagine that it is only technical and economic factors and market demand that determine the choice and success of particular technologies.
Finally the course examined the consequences of technological developments, whether they can be assessed in advance and how environmental damage can be ignored or considered as a cost that is outweighed by other benefits. We also discussed how engineering is a process of experimentation that should require informed consent from the public who may be at risk from such experimentation and the nature of risk assessment and who should judge whether risks are acceptable or not.
Since this course was taught as part of an existing engineering subject I was forced to fit in with some traditional teaching methods and facilities. The teaching took place in a two hour time slot in a tiered lecture theatre. Tutorial work and discussion was facilitated by getting the students to break up into groups of four to six students within the lecture theatre to discuss, in a somewhat structured way, case studies. These groups then reported back to the main group. It worked reasonably well.
Assessment was a problem. I had to set a question in a final formal exam arranged by the School. Engineering students are used to exams where there are right and wrong answers. For this reason I gave the students advance notice of what my exam question would be. I gave them three exam questions at the start of the course, one of which would be in the final examination. Apart from showing that they did not need to memorise facts or regurgitate my teachings I hoped this would help them see in advance which issues I felt were important and allow them to direct their reading and discussion to a certain extent. This may have been true but it meant that some of the students thought they didn't need to attend the class, which was unfortunately at 9 am on Monday mornings. They felt the subject was a soft option and they would be able to pass the exam using notes from their classmates and a good argument. However, just answering the exam question would have forced even these students to think about relevant issues for half an hour.
Those who did attend classes seemed to find it both worthwhile and relevant to their careers. Students were surveyed in the last class for their views of the course. Eighty three percent overall and 100% of the female students felt the course helped their understanding and intellectual development as a professional and 80% (100% women) felt the course was relevant to electrical engineering. Although women are very much a minority in electrical engineering they played a prominent role in the classes, tending to be among those with the most developed social conscience and among those who were most enthusiastic about the subject.
Seventy eight percent of all students actually felt there should have been more of this sort of material in their course. Electrical engineering at Sydney University is otherwise composed of technical subjects. Despite the calls of the students to continue this course next year, it is to be dropped in a reorganisation that will eliminate "Electrical Engineering Practice" altogether and the electrical engineering degree course will go back to being almost wholly technical.
The obvious difficulty in getting such subjects accepted into engineering courses is their perceived radicalism. Engineering educators are often concerned with socialising students to be good corporate employees and bureaucrats. It is feared that teaching students to question their role, to understand the political and social context within which they will have to operate and heightening their social consciences may conflict with that goal. It is safer to teach about the environment than for the environment; that is, safer to teach 'hard' science than to allow the personal and professional reflection involved in teaching social responsibility. One one can only hope that the new environmental engineering courses springing up around the country do not adopt this philosophy.
* The distinction of environmental education about, from and for the environment is made by Mary Maher, 'Censorship, Consensus and Challenge - Environmental Education in Schools in Australia', Social Alternatives 5(2), 1986, pp23-26 and J.Huckle, 'Environmental Education', in J. Huckle (ed.) Geographical Education - Reflection and Action, Oxford University Press, 1983.