Understanding engineering plus its financial, environmental and social implications
Faced with a growing need to find sustainable solutions to complex problems, today’s engineers must combine technical knowledge with an understanding of the economic, environmental and social impacts of their work. This holistic approach requires a re-imagining of engineering education to ensure that graduates are prepared for the multi-faceted issues they will face in their careers.
“Think about the impact of everything from 3D printing and robotics to autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, human genetic engineering and even waste recycling,” says Anthony Lau, an associate professor in UBC’s department of chemical and biological engineering. “These engineering advances all have potentially wide-ranging impacts on society. It’s a reminder that we need to train engineers to consider the social dimensions of their work from the very beginning of their education, along with a consideration of environmental impacts and economic issues.”
In addition to his teaching and research on waste-to-resource recovery and air pollution prevention and control, Dr. Lau previously taught an undergraduate course in engineering economics and co-taught a course in technology and society that encourage students to understand the financial, environmental and social implications of their work. “Economic considerations are a very important part of every project, in terms of capital investment and day-to-day operations and maintenance costs. Engineers need to understand the parameters and implications associated with estimating the profitability of a project.”
... we need to train engineers to consider the social dimensions of their work from the very beginning of their education, along with a consideration of environmental impacts and economic issues.— Anthony Lau, associate professor, department of chemical and biological engineering, UBC
He notes that the study of environmental impacts is well understood and integrated with coursework, but says that the social aspects are also increasingly under focus. “Engineers of the future need to be trained to keep those social dimensions front of mind – along with economics and environmental impacts – when making decisions.”
His colleague in the electrical and computer engineering department, Sathish Gopalakrishnan, says that an excellent way to get students thinking about the larger social dimensions of their work is by integrating experiential learning opportunities in the undergraduate curriculum.
“Our industry partners act as clients for fourth-year capstone projects, giving students the opportunity to connect with a real client and build solutions,” he says. When, for example, students are asked to design a system for social workers to categorize and document vulnerable children or to develop an electronic voting system, they must consider issues such as accountability and transparency. “It’s a powerful way to prompt students to think about how engineering can have a positive social impact.”
At the graduate level, UBC’s Master of Engineering Leadership (MEL) programs exemplify this holistic approach to engineering education, bringing sustainability issues to the forefront. Students can choose from nine cross-disciplinary programs ranging from advanced materials manufacturing and clean energy engineering to integrated water management and urban systems. Each one-year professional program blends technical classes with business and leadership courses to give graduates the skills to lead change and influence the triple bottom line.
Dr. Gopalakrishnan is the acting director of the MEL in dependable software systems and says that the social aspects are woven throughout the technical classes. “For safety-critical software systems – like those in autonomous cars, aircraft, health care and transport – engineers need to understand risk and ways to mitigate it. Through their classes on strategy and finance, our students think about risk from a societal and business perspective. They then bring their technical skills to consider ways to reduce that risk.”
UBC’s mix of courses, programs and experiential learning opportunities ensure that UBC engineering graduates develop the cultural fluency and well-rounded critical-thinking skills that will make engineering the liberal arts degree of the 21st century, says Walter Mérida, professor in the department of mechanical engineering and associate dean of research and industrial partnerships. It’s an approach that is preparing students to have the full suite of perspectives and skills needed to develop sustainable solutions to complex technical and social issues.
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