Sustainability engineers fill key industry needs
July 17, 2012
Patrick Eagan likes to look at sustainability as an opportunity for engineers to become leaders in green development.
Today, sustainability is no longer just a concept but a global imperative — and as human impact on the earth increases, changes are needed to keep the planet healthy.
To address demand, Eagan, a UW-Madison professor of engineering professional development, worked on a team of professionals who created the new online master of engineering in sustainable systems engineering (SSE) degree at UW-Madison.
Geared toward practicing engineers, the program prepares students to understand and inspire change within their organization relating to complex systems and their effect on the quality of water, land, air, energy, economics and society. SSE is accepting applications through Oct. 15 for the semester beginning in January 2013.
The new online degree combines UW-Madison expertise in distance technology delivery with expertise in the emerging area of sustainability. Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report ranked UW-Madison's online engineering graduate programs No. 1. In March 2012, UW-Madison launched its Office of Sustainability to achieve several goals, including transforming sustainability research and education on campus.
“Engineering professional development has been looking for a way to meet the needs of engineers and other professionals working on sustainability and making it actionable for more than seven years,” says Eagan, who also is affiliated with UW-Madison’s Office of Sustainability and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “Our research indicated that there was a need—and that we could meet that need.”
Students who enroll in the SSE degree program take 24 credits of required and elective courses that cover such topics as industrial ecology sustainability tools; sustainable improvements of complex systems; sustainable sciences, natural resources and conservation; renewable energies; environmental systems modeling and optimization; and change management and environmental decision-making, among others. Students also complete a three-credit sustainability capstone project.
Eagan helped design two of the required courses for the SSE curriculum. Core Competencies of Sustainability introduces students to sustainable design and development. During the semester, they experience a range of sustainability dimensions and explore sustainability by engaging in reflective thinking. They also look at the professional and personal competencies they need to address challenges in a range of engineering fields.
The second course, Sustainability Tools and Contexts, explores sustainability from both an industrial and a public-sector standpoint. Students learn how to use various eco-design tools, and how to evaluate results after these tools are in use. Each week they use a different tool — such as the Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment — and apply it to a variety of situations. Guest speakers with hands-on experience using these tools in their careers show students how these tools will affect their careers.
Eagan says the SEE degree program creates opportunities for students to engage in activity-based learning that enables them to explore how sustainability will apply to their professional lives and their interests.
“For engineers, it’s a topic that needs to be explored and a competency that should add value to their career,” he says. “Companies and other institutions seek engineers competent in sustainability practices.”