Are today's grads prepared for careers in sustainable engineering?

As a new generation of designers seeks to make an impact in their work, education is evolving to support new careers in sustainable engineering.

Kimberly Holland

June 15, 2017

min read
current grad on laptop and working with colleagues

The caps have been tossed. The diplomas are framed. The résumés are ready.

Graduation season is over, and newly minted engineers and designers are entering a professional world in need of those with sustainable design and manufacturing skills. But are these blossoming professionals equipped to understand the impacts of their designs? Can they really make most products sustainable and economical throughout their lifecycles?

That’s the question for today’s grads—and for those tasked with hiring them. Industry experts, professors, and curricula designers are seeing a systemic shift in an industry known for its rigidity. And they are working to equip the next generation with the sustainable-design skills to make a lasting impact.

It just requires a realignment of almost everything the design world has known.

The end of the siloed engineer and the rise of the multifaceted designer

aerial view of engineering colleagues

Classic engineering curricula taught engineers to have a broad perspective in lots of areas but required a deep understanding of just one discipline: chemical, mechanical, civil, and so on. That created engineers with a great well of knowledge in their specialty but left them ill-equipped to make important, and often more sustainable, design decisions outside of their sphere.

In-depth specialization coupled with a breadth of other knowledge is important but needs to be integrated, says Patsy Brackin, PhD, a commissioner at the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). She sees the T-shaped engineer evolving to a V-shaped engineer.

“It’s almost like the borders between disciplines are getting fuzzy,” she says. “What’s so cool to me is areas that are linking together. Robotics, for example, puts together science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and controls. A lot of what we’re doing in sustainability is looking at chemical engineering, civil engineering, and aspects of mechanical engineering.”

The rising tide of sustainable design

Like the siloed engineer, the one-and-done approach to designing a product is also becoming a thing of the past. Many of today’s creators consider the full scope of a product, from material to end of life, as they’re creating.

“There are a lot of benefits to sustainability, and I see a big evolution in how people value it,” says Alex Lobos, IDSA, graduate director and associate professor of industrial design at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). “Traditionally in manufacturing and engineering, it started with a big focus on efficiency and ecology. So there was emphasis on better manufacturing processes, better materials, better choices for end of life. That was kind of the first wave of sustainable design, when people started gathering attention.”

Now that sustainable design is more commonplace and both companies and consumers are demanding better, more sustainable products, engineers get to solve for problems that were once never part of the equation.

“Now, it has really transformed into a discipline where the entire lifecycle of any product or system is taken into account,” Lobos says. “The approach now is more holistic. It’s not only looking at these components that have to do with efficiency, but it’s really looking at elevating the benefits of a product, elevating the quality of life for whoever makes them and whoever uses them, and there’s also a big economic benefit. That’s where I see the huge potential for sustainability.”

“Many companies’ cultures have shifted toward design,” says Aisha Lawrey, director of engineering education at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). “This paradigm shift in the field of design the last couple of years is due in large part to advanced manufacturing. They are increasing their in-house design capabilities and appointing designers to executive positions. Sustainable-design adaptability continues to evolve, which makes it so relevant and in demand.”

How schools are preparing students to meet this demand

engineering colleagues collaborating at a desk

The shift toward teaching students to be well-rounded creators who understand sustainable-design principles starts in the classroom. Curricula and program evaluators such as Brackin are on the forefront of helping schools design new programs that address this growing need in the profession.

“We’re beginning to see the flexible, customizable curricula,” says Brackin, who is also a professor in mechanical engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. “A lot of schools are looking at trying to build a flexible curriculum so that if a student comes in with interest in a particular area, they can be guided to select classes that are going to address the things that they want to do.”

In the past, Brackin says, if a student came to college with an interest in both sustainable design and automotive, that student would have been directed into only one general area of study. “Now, that student has the ability to pick classes to go toward both areas, and it doesn’t really look like an engineering degree at all,” she says.

“Going forward, you’re going to see more and more of those lines blurred,” says ABET Chief Marketing Officer Danielle Baron. “That’s going to be really disruptive.”

Schools like MIT are pursuing accreditation for these multidisciplinary areas of study because they know students crave the ability to shape their interests into these types of programs—something MIT’s outgoing Dean of Engineering Ian Waitz well knows. “We have to do more on energy and the environment,” he said. “Students at MIT are pushing us in these directions. They have an elevated sense of social responsibility, and we ought to be providing them the tools and the opportunities to go out and solve these problems.”

"The shift toward teaching students to be well-rounded creators who understand sustainable-design principles starts in the classroom."

—Kimberly Holland, Autodesk

The room for improvement

If companies are shifting to more of a design focus and want to put sustainability at its core, they need new hires well versed in design thinking. “I think today’s grads are prepared yet need to be better prepared,” Lawrey says. “That is why ASME is pushing ABET for more design experience in the beginning. Many companies are transitioning by heading to engineering-technology programs to get grads with more of these hands-on design experiences.”

Baron and the folks at ABET know what Lawrey says is true: Students need to be designing sooner to stay committed to engineering—and potential sustainable-design careers. “Students want the hands-on experience,” Baron says. “They want things to be more dynamic. The want to know that they’re having an impact.”

That, Baron says, is in part why ABET and other organizations are helping schools respond to the shift toward sustainable-design education and other areas of innovation. These talented designers and engineers know the work they do has the ability to make a difference and is critical to designing a more sustainable future.

“We have the potential to help the world,” Brackin says. “If we keep in mind that we need to treasure our resources and treasure our environment and our people, I think we have the potential to really make the world better.”

Kimberly Holland

About Kimberly Holland

Kimberly Holland is a lifestyle writer and editor based in Birmingham, AL. When not organizing her books by color, Holland enjoys toying with new kitchen gadgets and feeding her friends all her cooking experiments.

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