Sustainable technology helps educate engineers

Sustainability is a goal many engineers, companies, and governments are pursuing. Dr. Karel Mulder gave a talk for the Hennebach Program in the Humanities about teaching sustainability. In his lecture titled “What is Sustainable Technology (ST) and its Relationship to Educating Engineers for Energy Development,” Mulder gave students and faculty a new look at how engineers fit into sustainable development.

One of the important ideas Mulder expressed to the audience is that sustainability is not easy to define. He said, “The articulations of sustainable development are often conflicting and they are changing over time.” This, he explained, makes creating technology for sustainable development difficult.

If engineers want their designs to be sustainable, they must first understand what it means to be sustainable. Mulder posed the questions, “What is actually efficient? What are the criteria of efficiency? What should efficiency be?”

Engineers and developers’ ideas of efficiency and sustainability can completely change. To illustrate this point, Mulder used the example of the horse and carriage. Although riding in a carriage seems more sustainable than fossil fuels, he pointed out, “It was a problem for public health around the [early] 1900s. It was tremendous. I think there [were] 1500 [horse] carcasses removed from the New York streets. There were, in some years, almost 20,000 people dying from the diseases spread by horse manure.”

There needed to be a new method of transportation to meet the country’s needs. Mulder said, “You could almost say the car was introduced as a sustainable innovation. And now, well, just the energy consumption of cars causes a real problem.”

What can seem like the perfect solution at one point in time, can just as easily be the next generation’s problem. “We have to take into account not just our direct needs,” said Mulder, “but also the societal challenges. What we do now in our globalized society can have tremendous consequences on the other side of the world… that makes innovation more and more of a challenge.”

Mulder suggested the tendency of new inventions to ultimately be unsustainable comes from the engineering way of thinking. He explained, “We are not thinking at the level of where we’re going. We are not thinking of the principles of what we are doing so the big picture is lost.” Also, engineers tend to focus on only their line of work. “There are other rationalities or world views than the engineering one,” Mulder said. “Students should learn to see there are different views.”

Without the big picture, engineers are left designing things to be more efficient, but not really understanding why. Mulder recommends, “[T]he engineering student should be trained to recognize the political and social kind of setting where he comes in.” Engineers play a critical role in society and it is up to them to find developments that will be sustainable in the long term. Mulder summarized the idea when he said, “Think in needs, not in the technologies you want to supply.”

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