Chapter 5 Teaching Sustainability in Engineering

Teaching Sustainability in Engineering

Tate Cao

My Why

For me, sustainability is the core value to fulfill an engineer’s obligation to “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and the protection of the environment.” This is the first item in Engineers Canada’s Code of Ethics.

Engineering disciplines have improved the quality of human life over the last two centuries through innovation and industrialization. Engineering has also created unintended consequences for our environment and society. As an innovator and an educator who shapes and prepares future leaders, I believe it is my responsibility to ensure we think about and plan for these potential consequences as we develop new technologies.

Growing up in fast-developing China in the 1980s and ’90s, I experienced a rate of industrialization in 20 years that took two centuries in Western countries. The benefits of industrialization are obvious: things like increased life expectancy, more convenient transportation, refrigeration, and better roads. Overall, it created a better standard of living.

At the same time, the speed at which industrialization has driven development also changed the natural environment and how we experience nature. I remember a small forest just outside of my grandparents’ village where we would go for walks and gather wild mushrooms after a fresh rain. As the city grew, the forest was cut down and the trees were used as building materials. Even though new trees were planted on the same spot, the mushrooms were gone and have yet to come back.

Loss of biodiversity is not the only problem. In 2012, when I lived in Beijing, the smog caused a lot of pain in my eyes and lungs. Fast forward to 2023, and we had a record number of forest fires in Canada, so that smoke covered most of the country and much of the United States. It almost does not matter whether the fires were a result of natural causes, human activity, or climate change caused by humans. The question is how can we use our talents to ensure the environment we live in is protected while we improve our quality of life?

Sustainability is not a problem for just one country; it is a global issue. Engineers are often called upon to be responsible for environmental management regardless of their particular discipline or role in their organizations. Quickly changing environmental and societal issues require new skill sets for the engineering profession, which are provided through education and continuing professional development. The Sustainability Faculty Fellows (SFF) program and sustainability in teaching and learning interested me as a critical pathway to incorporate the call from Engineers Canada to bring sustainable development and environmental stewardship into classrooms.

What I Did in My Courses

I teach five undergraduate courses and one graduate course in the College of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. I worked on incorporating the principles of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)in the Technological Innovation Design Capstone course and Technology Innovation Management course.

Though the call for sustainable development in engineering has recently become more urgent, the engineering profession has been encouraged to focus on the triple bottom line (also known as the 3 Ps: people, profit, planet) for decades, so environmental stewardship and social responsibility are not new topics. This provided a great foundation for me. I mostly updated my teaching and learning practices to support the students not only to understand the concepts but to experience them emotionally—to create changes in their minds and hearts. Following are examples from both of the courses to show how I incorporated sustainability and changed my teaching practices accordingly.

Learning Outcomes

In my Technological Innovation Design Capstone course, I face a unique challenge as it is a multidisciplinary entrepreneurial design capstone as opposed to a discipline-specific design project. The projects in the course range from biomedical to agricultural or even aerospace projects. As a result, these projects may connect with different SDGs.

I tried to generalize so that the students would be able to understand how their specific engineering design work might impact the public good both positively and negatively. As such, I added the following learning outcome: evaluate social and environmental benefits and risks of the design solution according to the 17 SDGs and mitigate any potential risks throughout the project.

To maintain their accreditation, Canadian engineering colleges must demonstrate that their graduates have 12 identified attributes. I determined that sustainability and the SDGs align with the following nine of those attributes:

  • A knowledge base for engineering
  • Problem analysis
  • Investigation
  • Design
  • Individual and teamwork
  • Communication skills
  • Impact of engineering on society and the environment
  • Ethics and equity
  • Lifelong learning

My goal is to encourage the students, as technology builders, to think critically about their own creations, and to both appreciate the potential benefits for society and consider potential negative impacts for the environment or society. I created a similar learning outcome in my Technology Innovation Management course; however, students in this course are more likely to assess the technology from a managerial perspective rather than a technical one.

Teaching Practices

In terms of specific teaching practices, I used a combination of experiential learning, guest lectures, and Open Educational Practices in my courses to increase the impact of the learning.

Experiential learning: In the Technological Innovation Design Capstone course, I created more opportunities for experiential learning. The students were asked to identify more than one potential user and buyer to establish regular communications as they progress through the design project. Prior to their contact with the users, students were given training on empathy using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (a measurement tool for assessing empathy) and on how to conduct user interviews using qualitative research methods based on the book Talking to Humans. Throughout the course, the students had to visit potential end users in their spaces and, via various activities, to verify

  • the problem they are solving,
  • the value provided by their design (value proposition),
  • their potential solution, and
  • the potential impact of their solution on broader stakeholders.

This process is documented in the proceedings of the 2023 conference of the Canadian Engineering Education Association (soon to be published).

Guest lectures: Guest lectures are a great way to connect theoretical concepts with real-world situations and interdisciplinary perspectives. One of the challenges of having a guest lecturer is that you must relinquish some degree of control in your classroom. In general, my experiences with guest lecturers have been very positive, but I do set some simple parameters.

When I want to bring in a guest lecturer, I begin by defining the key topics and summarizing the key learning outcomes and points to be covered. I then explore my network to see if I can identify a potential guest speaker. If I can’t find a relevant speaker within my network, I practise what I teach in my entrepreneurship class—using cold calls and emails.

After a speaker agrees to come, I meet with them ahead of time to explain the key learning outcomes for their session and ask them to speak to these using examples from their recent experiences. I also share the key pre-class reading for students with the speakers so that we have a common understanding of what is being discussed.

On the day of the session, I open with a short discussion on the reading and introduce the speaker. After the presentation, we discuss how the key topics related to the speaker’s presentation.

One of my guest lecturers was the vice president of an international mining company. I had simply requested that they speak to the innovation gap in the industry and the opportunities for university students to be involved. The speaker gave a lot of good examples of the need for sustainable technology in the mining industry, driven by regulatory, safety, and economic considerations. These needs included ways to reduce water use and CO2 emissions in key operations, remove humans from dangerous underground operations, and even make potential operational changes that could protect the environment while increasing productivity.

The students reflected that they had never known a mining company to be so forward-looking and sustainability focused!

Open Educational Practices: My first contact with Open Educational Practices was in my first year as a faculty member at the University of Saskatchewan. When I was designing new courses and no suitable textbooks were identified, I relied on open textbooks and publications to support my teaching.

The SFF program exposed me to the idea of encouraging students to create Open Educational Resources. In my Technology Innovation Management course, I asked the students to create a case study based on a potential real-life investment that could increase production capacity in the region. The students were to conduct literature reviews and interviews with various stakeholders to understand the needs across the value chain. The considerations were summarized in a short case study to demonstrate the multiple considerations involved when investing in a new green technology, and how that technology may also create both positive and negative impacts for society. The case study will be used in my upcoming Engineering Economics class.

Learning Activities

My classes teach technological innovation and entrepreneurship. In these classes, I focus on teaching students to create new technology and then find a way to commercialize that technology. In my classes, students often need to balance economic growth and potential environmental and social impacts. Even though this is a principle most of my students understand and it is a standing principle for the engineering profession, the uncertainties related to these innovations can often be intimidating for the students. My goal is to create a safe space that is free of judgment and where students can develop skills through experiential learning, practice, and potential failure.

Engineering students need to be able to assess the impact of their work on society, as this is one of our graduate competencies. A common tool provided to the students in the engineering design process is the triple bottom line assessment.

To maximize the impact of this exercise, I attempted a new approach to encourage the students to work together and to leverage different perspectives in class. In my Technological Innovation Design Capstone class, I prepare the students to recognize different perspectives through two surveys: a simplified True Colours test and Interpersonal Reactivity Index. The True Colours test uses colours (orange, gold, green, and blue) to differentiate the four primary personality types. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index is a 28-item survey that defines empathy as a multifaceted phenomenon based on four subscales: fantasy, perspective taking, empathic concern, and personal distress.

The results of these surveys provide an opportunity to discuss diverse perspectives. During the discussion, I emphasize how different perspectives are important and that teams need to encourage all students to contribute. This empowers female and visible minority students to share their insights. It also allows the student groups to better understand often overlooked or dismissed sustainability issues that impact female, visible minority, and other marginalized groups.

Furthermore, I foster peer learning through feedback and discussions both in and out of the classroom. In class, peer reviews are set up at the beginning of class via team stand-ups (see description in the next section).

Outside of class, I use an online social annotation tool called Perusall to encourage discussion among students about the case studies for each week. I typically assign one or two articles each week relating to the upcoming lecture. Through Perusall, students can ask questions, provide insights, and upvote others’ responses as they read through assigned course materials.

Students are graded on their activities and level of interactions with others. This approach has been very effective in creating a social learning environment, and students often come to class each week having had lots of discussions amongst themselves. I then touch on selected topics in class to continue the conversation in the classroom.

Assessment Strategies

Formative assessment: I use a simple strategy, one that is common in start-up communities, to provide formative feedback to students: the team stand-ups. At the beginning of every class, each team appoints a representative who has two minutes to update the entire class about their challenges and progress. Then the class and instructor provide constructive feedback and suggest solutions to their challenges.

Summative assessment: I employ competence-based strategies in my summative assessments. The class projects are broken down into three or four submissions. Each submission builds on the previous one. Feedback and grades are given to students for each submission. However, students can update their submissions to address comments. The final grade is based both on the quality of the final report and on the improvements the students have made.

The Implications

My journey as a sustainability fellow has created opportunities for me to bring a sense of social responsibility to my classroom. To be honest, I was not sure how my students would react to topics around sustainability that might be unfamiliar or controversial to people with different backgrounds. To my surprise, the students welcomed these discussions. Many students expressed appreciation for learning about ways they can contribute to improving human lives in industries in ways they had not predicted. Some students recently came back to me expressing how much they liked the examples and case studies I gave that described social entrepreneurship and public funding support in land restoration in other parts of the world.

These comments opened my eyes to how much students care about the broader issues and are longing for opportunities to make connections between what they are learning in their professional lives and what they care deeply for in their personal lives.

My Reflections

Reflecting on my experience, the SFF program has been a great opportunity to incorporate sustainability into my classroom. It has been humbling to see how much students and industry care about sustainability topics. As an educator, my role is to expose students to topics that are meaningful to them and prepare them for the roles they will take on after graduation.

Sustainable development in engineering remains a challenging topic for the profession, so an interdisciplinary perspective and approach are needed to develop tools and resources to teach and practise these concepts in engineering education. Through the SFF program, I was exposed to multidisciplinary perspectives.

In my practice, I was fortunate to receive encouragement and various supports from my colleagues within the Ron & Jane Graham School of Professional Development. They generously provided insights, historical case studies, and tools and perspectives from the humanities to expand my understanding. Joel Frey helped me better understand how personality impacts the decision-making process in engineering design. Cory Owen inspired me with descriptions of how technologies are portrayed in science fictions in different time periods. Lori Bradford, the Canada Research Chair in Social and Cultural Decision Making in Engineering Design, generously supported me through the experience and provided insights that often pushed my understanding of the meaning of sustainability and how it relates to many social aspects. She generously shared her expertise and many resources from her social science background. These interdisciplinary perspectives significantly contributed to and shaped the teaching and learning experience in my classroom.

It has been interesting that the SFF educational practice also improved my own understanding of sustainability and how it connects to my personal and professional lives. This expanded understanding has informed my own research and practice in how digital technologies can contribute to sustainable agriculture.

Lessons Learned

The biggest challenge to implementing sustainability pedagogies is the time required to plan and implement them in courses. I recognized that I may have attempted to do too much at one time. It does not have to be done this way. I think focusing on one course and even one lecture at a time is a perfect way to get things started in your courses. At the same time, leveraging research activities to inform educational activities can be a great way to reduce workload and inform students about cutting-edge developments.


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Cultivating Change: A Prairie Guide to Sustainability Teaching and Learning Practices Copyright © by Aditi Garg; Brooke Klassen; Eric Micheels; Heather M. Ross; Kate Congreves; Shannon Forrester; Tate Cao; and Ulrich Teucher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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