Tech Insights

EE Professors Provide Insights on Sustainability Gaps in Engineering Education

July 28, 2023 by Claire Turvill

As the world works toward an energy transition, is engineering education keeping up to produce skilled and knowledgeable workers?

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an additional 85 million jobs related to the energy transition and the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius are expected to be created by 2030. 

 

Wind turbine inspection and maintenance

Wind turbine inspection and maintenance. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock

 

The renewable energy sector alone will produce about 26.5 million new jobs, while energy efficiency, power grids, and hydrogen fields will generate an additional 58.3 million jobs. These gains more than compensate for the projected loss of 12 million jobs in the fossil fuel and nuclear industries.

To address the growing job demand, it is crucial to enhance and broaden education and training programs and adopt measures to promote a diverse workforce during the transition. However, there is a concern that a lack of focused education on renewables and sustainability creates a skills shortage. 

EE Power spoke with electrical engineering professors from the University of Rochester (UR) to better understand industry opinions on the quality of sustainability-related education in engineering. Dan Phinney and Jack Mottley offered their insights.

 

EE Power: Are electrical engineering students expressing interest in working with sustainable technology and/or sustainable applications after they graduate? What technology or application is most common?

Phinney: A few students, maybe 15-20%, are expressing an interest in sustainable technologies. I work with all seniors in both Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and Audio and Music Engineering (AME), and there are typically one or two projects related to sustainability. This has included an automatic recycling system, energy harvesting from solar heat within a room, and other systems that are related to solar power.   Solar is the most common.

Mottley: Some students want to engage in sustainable tech or sustainability after graduation, but not all. I would say that number has risen a little over the last few years. I have not noticed a particular choice among them; it varies from year to year.

 

EE Power: How is UR incorporating sustainability into the engineering curriculum?

Phinney: For the classes I teach, which cover power efficiency in circuit design, stand-by power (vampire power) losses, and selecting materials less harmful to the environment, the students are encouraged to consider these areas and the impact on the environment in their senior design projects. This is a subject of discussion in numerous of the class sessions. 

Mottley: I cannot speak for all engineering departments. I can only speak about ECE when I say we have done very little to incorporate sustainability into our classes. The topic of sustainability is far removed from the topics we teach, and introducing it would require us to remove topics and methods to which our students already have very limited exposure. 

 

EE Power: Are specific engineering courses focusing on sustainability and sustainable design? If so, please provide some examples.

Mottley: We do not, to my knowledge, have any course in ECE devoted to sustainability. 

 

EE Power: Are any sustainability-focused projects or research opportunities available for engineering students? 

Phinney: Yes, in the senior design projects. If the students had support or a mentor from outside the college, we would have more of these projects. For example, one project that came in was carbon capture, and a team designed a CO2 measurement system for the chemistry department project. 

Mottley: If students want to work on particular projects in their senior year for their Senior Design project, we encourage them to do so, though it is not required of all students. We have had teams work on improving the efficiency of photovoltaic collectors by tracking the sun and solar concentration; developing instrumentation for a group in Chemical Engineering (CHE) that is working on direct air capture of CO2 to monitor carbon dioxide concentrations in the input to and output from their collector, and determining when the collector is saturated and needs to be cycled.

 

EE Power: How do you stay updated on the latest advancements and best practices in integrating sustainability into engineering education?

Phinney: I read up on power efficiency and energy harvesting, as both are areas of interest for me.

Mottley: I do not claim to stay abreast of all the latest advances in integrating sustainability into the curriculum. I read a bit here and there but do not follow the literature avidly.

 

EE Power: Have you encountered any challenges or obstacles in integrating sustainability into engineering courses? If so, how have you addressed them?

Phinney: No, I haven't. I talk about [sustainability] because it is important; however, the full impact has to be discussed and understood. For example, using a solar panel that results in massive pollution in the manufacturing process is not a good thing. Or an electric car that gets its power from a dirty coal power plant and pollutes the environment with toxic waste or making the batteries is not a good choice. 

Mottley: My biggest challenge to this is, “What do I take out of my already full course to make room for a completely different topic?  How much preparation would I need to give before a meaningful engagement with the topic would be possible?"

 

EE Power: Are there any plans or initiatives to further enhance the integration of sustainability into the engineering curriculum?

Phinney: I have some planned changes on talking even more about power efficiency in designs, so more of what I just started doing this last year.  

Mottley: I do not know of any ECE faculty who plan to incorporate sustainability into their courses.

 

EE Power: Are there any student-led organizations or initiatives that promote sustainability within the engineering department?

Phinney: Not that I am aware of. This would be good so the students learn to think beyond just the point of use, like with the electric car example above. 

Mottley: There is a chapter of Engineers Without Borders and a CHE group working on the Carbon Removal X-Prize.  

 

EE Power: How do you encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge exchange between engineering and other disciplines related to sustainability?

Phinney: My peers and I in the senior design classes help by encouraging projects such as the carbon capture sensor mentioned above (a peer in ECE brought this in).  

Mottley: We encourage students to get internships or campus jobs with other departments if they want to get more experience and exposure to other areas and take distribution courses in other areas. 

 

EE Power: What resources or support systems are available to students interested in pursuing sustainability-focused projects or research within their engineering studies?

Phinney: I do not know of any beyond my peers who work with the students.  If there was something available, I think most people would use it.

Mottley: Not having any grants or other support in this area that is very far removed from our faculty’s research areas, we only offer the same support to design projects in the area of sustainability that we provide to all students. 

 

ee classroom

Image used courtesy of Pexels

 

Engineering Education Concerns

While these answers are representative of one university, they suggest that engineering students are interested in sustainability-related education but may need more direct resources available to support them. 

In the UK, Engineers Without Borders is working to transform university education to embed sustainability throughout the course of an engineering degree. However, CEO John Kraus points out that even educators who want to incorporate sustainability into their courses are constrained by resources and time. 

With rising global competition in the energy sector, hopefully, more universities will introduce sustainability-related education into engineering courses to support the energy transition.