Embedding ‘An Awareness of Sustainability’ into Chemical Engineering Curricula

Article by Madoc Sheehan

Madoc Sheehan says it is vital that future chemical engineers understand and build knowledge of the grand challenges we face but says teachers and mentors also need to imbue students with hope and optimism

CHEMICAL engineers will play a leading role in the transition to a more sustainable world and as teachers and mentors, we must do more to help them. Thankfully, accreditation bodies such as Engineers Australia and IChemE are now placing specific emphasis on sustainability-related competencies, with curriculum reforms designed to better prepare students to solve the wicked and complex interdisciplinary challenges faced by society.

In the Chemeca 2023 EdSIG keynote and associated workshop session, I outlined 15 years of curriculum development work by my team to embed sustainability into the chemical engineering degree at James Cook University (JCU) in Queensland, Australia. More than 30% of the JCU degree (~9 subjects) now includes sustainability-aligned curricula. The depth and extent of embedded curricula has altered students’ perceptions of sustainability from a niche activity to being normalised. JCU students now recognise and understand sustainability as the context for all engineering decision-making. For example, JCU students’ fourth-year design projects are developed within both a contextual and decision-making framework based on sustainability. Unsustainable developments that may have been embraced in the past, such as coal seam gas fracking or fossil fuel projects, are not considered suitable projects under the framework. Students are now right to query whether such proposed developments, through their impacts, would “compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

In my EdSIG presentation I described a simple framework for understanding what “an awareness of sustainability” means in terms of the engineering curriculum and proposed a series of five graduate attributes (knowledge, applications, systems, quantify, optimise) that have helped my team to develop and plan new curricula and learning experiences.

Fostering empathy and values

Understanding and building knowledge of the grand challenges we currently face (such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and wealth inequality) is essential in sustainability curricula. Understanding such impacts helps to foster empathy and values, which are important sustainability attributes. Indeed, the impacts of climate change on North Queensland JCU students are no longer abstract and distant but are instead very personal. For example, our students have experienced local climate-related flood and heatwave events, seen extensive coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, and observed the loss of endemic species in their own environment. In fact, the first mammal ever to go extinct due to climate change impacts was the Bramble Cay melomys, a past resident of an island in the Great Barrier Reef north of JCU.
In addition, scientific evidence outlined in recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports1 demonstrated the inadequacy of our collective response, and the lack of urgency in transitioning away from fossil fuels to lower emissions alternatives. Given personal connections, such evidence can make the scale of these challenges emotionally overwhelming for students and there is potential for this to lead to despondency. Thus, it is essential to provide examples of chemical engineering solutions, to encourage hope and optimism that students can make valuable contributions that help address these complex challenges. 

Providing context

The new sustainability curricula at JCU emphasises creativity and innovation by using new and exciting engineering research and practice to demonstrate more sustainable approaches. Incorporating emerging technologies and more sustainable production methods has been shown at JCU to be an effective way to provide “context” for learning traditional engineering concepts while also engaging, inspiring, and motivating students. For example, solar thermal technologies can be an excellent framework for teaching steam tables and energy balance concepts. Extraction of metals and nutrients from tailings wastewater using algal biofilms can be used to illustrate concepts of circular economy but can also be integrated into bioprocessing courses outlining growth media and as an illustration of the impact of growing conditions on cell metabolism.

In my presentation I argued that group-based problem-solving exercises were effective methods (ie pedagogies) to teach an awareness of sustainability, especially for curriculum associated with ethics, values, systems thinking, and critical thinking. Furthermore, using personal examples that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability by the teacher, university, and local industry encourage student engagement in the curricula, making it both more tangible, and introducing an element of personal responsibility that can motivate interest and personal action for sustainability. I gave the example of assessing the sustainability of my new electric vehicle in JCU’s energy balance and life cycle assessment course. Tangible benefits were identified across economic, social, and environmental dimensions. Further examples included students touring a local cooling plant that had resulted in great sustainability outcomes for my university, and guest lectures from past students working on the front line of sustainability action, including mine tailings waste reprocessing and green audit consultancy.

Article by Madoc Sheehan

Adjunct associate professor in the College of Science & Engineering at James Cook University, Queensland

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