What is the vision for the future of engineering education? What are the student learning outcomes in engineering education that must be integrated into academic programming to cultivate environmentally responsible engineers? How can we work together to create a new future for engineers and our shared planet? What will success look like?
Engineers build our human-made physical and virtual worlds, and many engineers will become the inventors and entrepreneurs that envision and create the future material world we live in. Engineers hold the power to impact and change our planet for good or ill. For nearly 25 years, both The Lemelson Foundation (Lemelson) and VentureWell have been partnering to foster invention and entrepreneurship to improve people’s lives. As a pioneering entrepreneurship support organization, VentureWell has supported thousands of early-stage science- and technology-based innovators, many of which have brought sustainable products and services to market. During this time, VentureWell and Lemelson have learned a tremendous amount about the need for environmentally responsible (ER) education in disciplines including engineering, design, and business, and about the gaps and opportunities that exist for higher education faculty members to meet this need.
Despite concerted efforts by both organizations to cultivate environmental responsibility in innovation and entrepreneurship, and the steadfast work many academics and institutions are accomplishing to embed sustainability concepts into their curricula and programs, we aren’t collectively doing enough to create and advance environmental responsibility in engineering education in academic institutions across the US. Engineers, especially those who are or will become inventors and entrepreneurs, need help understanding the urgent and large-scale environmental problems we face, the knowledge to consider life-cycle thinking at every stage of product and service development, and the skills and experience to work, communicate, and solve problems across disciplines. It is time to take the next steps to create, implement, and support environmentally responsible engineering (ERE) education, together.
This paper represents the next critical milestone in a series of research efforts and tools development to foster ERE at academic institutions across the US and is a follow-up project from the Principles of Environmentally Responsible Engineering roundtable that took place March 27-28, 2019 that was hosted by Lemelson, VentureWell, and The Academy for Systems Change. A top-level recommendation made by the collective group during the roundtable event was to develop an initial strategy document—or white paper—that would clarify what has already been accomplished and to outline the next steps of this collective effort. Ten participants from the roundtable event further contributed to this process through individual interviews to help ll remaining gaps in our collective thinking and to delve deeper into questions that were raised and discussed at the roundtable event.
In this paper, we identify the challenges that we collectively face in developing ERE programs, and outline a rationale and a theory of change for this initiative. The paper provides a timeline of past work, present state, and future opportunities and strives to define the following key elements:
• “THE WHY” - an overview and description of the need and importance of the project, as well as the philosophy behind the collaborative approach to developing a framework.
• “THE WHAT” - a list of generalized categories of topics for what students need to learn and experience that were de ned as a set of four exploratory questions re ned at the roundtable:
• What do all engineers need to be able to do?
• What educational outcomes will enable us to make progress?
• What experiences, curricular and extracurricular, do students need to be exposed to, to achieve the desired educational outcomes?
• What systemic changes are needed to make it possible for these curricular and extracurricular experiences to become a reality for all engineering students?
• “THE HOW” - examples of critical tools and pedagogical approaches that could be used to achieve the desired learnings and experiences.
We also propose a shared vision, a timeline of critical milestones to serve as a high-level path forward, and make recommendations for next steps to collaborate with stakeholders to develop an ERE “framework.” These steps are intended to help create lasting, systemic change in engineering education across US-based academic institutions so that engineers will graduate with the knowledge, skills, and experiences to become leaders and change makers who will design and build with the planet in mind.
Subsequent to this paper, we will continue inviting and working with stakeholders to collaboratively advance this ERE education initiative. As an immediate next step, VentureWell and The Lemelson Foundation will lead an open process to enable stakeholders to develop a set of core principles of environmental responsible engineering that all future engineers should be equipped with. The current language being used to describe this component of the initiative is Environmentally Responsible Engineering framework. The community may guide changes in the terminology as the project progresses.
The framework will define ERE and outline key student outcomes relative to ERE. Recognizing that each higher education institution will approach ERE differently, the framework will outline some common objectives and student outcomes that institutions can agree are important in order to integrate environmental responsibility principles across engineering disciplines. The framework would serve as a collective vision and commitment. The ERE framework phase of the project seeks to define the “What” and next phases will address approaches for disseminating and enabling the integration of the framework in higher education institutions.
This paper will be shared with all participants of the roundtable and the dozens of other stakeholders who have engaged in prior steps toward its development, as well as be made publicly available through Lemelson, VentureWell, and other channels.