Citizen Engineers: Engaging to Sustain

Associate Professor Chris Swan wants to put community engagement and sustainability at the center of engineering teaching and practice. In fact, he’s examining how community engagement motivates students to pursue sustainable engineering knowledge, practices, and solutions.

Swan is in a good position to take leadership in this area.  He serves as associate dean for undergraduate curriculum development in the School of Engineering, and teaches in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.  He also holds a secondary appointment with Tisch College, and has partnered with the department of education in the School of Arts and Sciences in his impact research.  Swan presented this work at a recent “lunch and learn” sponsored by the Environmental Studies Program.

“Sustainable engineering is engineering for human development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” said Swan.  “It covers three overlapping components: the social, the environmental, and the economic.”

Historically, said Swan, the focus among engineers has been on technical knowledge and applications, often to the exclusion of other considerations.  That tendency has extended to sustainable engineering, and it’s an attitude he’s working to change.

“Even engineers working on sustainability will focus on how to make the solar panel, or build the wind turbine,” he said.  “These are necessary questions; without technical competency you can’t design, develop, implement, construct, or install.  But to be truly sustainable, engineers need to understand their society and environment, and understand the economic contexts and impacts.  We think community engagement is a way to motivate truly sustainable practice.”

To build evidence for the connection, Swan and his colleagues developed a survey instrument that measures students’ attitudes about their own abilities, values, and feelings.  It is designed to be administered both before and after courses, extra-curricular activities, and other experiences that have community engagement and sustainable engineering components, to measure the effects of those experiences.

“Ability, affect, and value,” said Swan, “that’s what we’re trying to find out about.  How confident are students in their ability to do sustainable engineering, what do they value and think is important, and what emotional attachment do they have to this kind of work?  All three of these components feed into the assessment.”

Over a year and a half period, the survey was given to students at Tufts, Michigan Technological University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“These are three very different schools,” said Swan, “a small private university, a medium sized tech school, and a large public institution, and they have very different clienteles.  But all three have a strong environmental ethos, and we wanted to capture a wide range of experiences in the data.”

While the results are still tentative, the early signs point towards service learning as having the biggest effect on students’ motivation to do sustainable engineering.

“Value and affect matter,” said Swan.  “It’s not the technical things that make you motivated; it’s the value of things.  What we’re seeing is that engineering students who do service learning feel that sustainable engineering is important and the opportunity for service strengthens their emotional attachment.”

While these results are encouraging, much remains to be learned.  Swan is dedicated to finding the best ways to do sustainable engineering education, to maximize the effects of classroom, research, service, and co-curricular activities.

“I think that the student who is not only technically knowledgeable about sustainable engineering, but also believes in their heart that it’s the way things should be practiced, and has the values in their minds that this is the way things should be, that’s the student who is going to go on and have a big impact on practice,” he said.  “That’s the kind of active citizen and citizen engineer we want to train.”