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Webinar to look at putting technology front and center in defining 'sustainable'

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An upcoming webinar — The Overlooked Role of Technology in the Sustainability Movement: A Pedagogical Framework for Engineering Education — will focus on the need for engineering educators to emphasize the importance of technology in shaping the design and construction of sustainable systems. Illustration by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU, courtesy of Shutterstock

July 28, 2020

Over the past few decades the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development have been weaving their way into the fabric of various branches of engineering. Advocates declare that being sustainable should, in fact, be the guiding light of all engineering endeavors.

Yet some proponents in the field contend that sustainability remains a largely ambiguous idea. They say it lacks distinct frameworks for defining precisely what it means in utilitarian terms, and thus hinders the development of consistent guidelines for implementation.

Those calling for more specificity in defining the role of engineers include T. Agami Reddy and Brad Allenby, professors in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. They assert that the general perception of sustainability has not sufficiently evolved beyond its origins in environmental and social movements to encompass today’s technological advances.

A major impediment to remedying that drawback, as Allenby and Reddy see it, is a failure to properly integrate an understanding of technology and technological development into the core precepts of what constitutes sustainability.

Technological advances are shaping society more quickly and in more fundamental ways than ever, the professors say. So, in their view, sustainable engineering can’t fully transition from a broad philosophy into a deep-rooted industry practice without clearly detailing how sustainability can be achieved in rigorously technical ways.

That progress is hampered not only by a lack of understanding of the importance of assimilating technological considerations into what constitutes sustainability, they say, but also an inability to translate the vague assertions about sustainability by its advocates into the concrete design objectives and constraints familiar to engineers.

Metrics key to meeting sustainability goals

Reddy and Allenby will present their views on this challenge during an Aug. 11 webinar presented by the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering at ASU and moderated by the center’s director, Fulton Schools Associate Professor Mikhail Chester. The Metis Center is involved in research, teaching, outreach and public service to provide a basis for understanding, designing and managing complex integrated built, human and natural systems.

The Zoom webcast — The Overlooked Role of Technology in the Sustainability Movement: A Pedagogical Framework for Engineering Education — will focus on the close association between sustainability and engineering, and suggest a quantitative framework based on a short list of metrics for engineers to evaluate their progress toward sustainability goals.

Another focus will be the subject of developing the metrics necessary to ensure technological progress is integrated into the aspirations of the sustainability enterprise. There will also be discussion on developing approaches to preparing students for the changes that would emerge from such a refocusing of sustainable engineering.

“We have to figure out what sustainability means when you translate it into the actual technical practice of engineering,” Allenby said. “But after you decide what that is, then you need the masterplan for how you are going to teach this type of thinking to students and industry professionals or the change in practice is not going to happen in the real world.”

Reddy hopes the webinar will foster dialog and provide a pathway for engineers to become more fundamentally involved with social and environmental scientists in both defining sustainability goals and implementing sustainable solutions.

Updating engineering education paradigms

The idea for the webinar came from Professor Ram Pendyala, director of one of the six Fulton Schools, the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. Allenby and Reddy teach in the school. Reddy also teaches in The Design School in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Pendyala was motivated by reading a research paper in the Journal of Engineering for Sustainable Buildings and Cities authored by the two professors, as well as a paper in the same journal authored by Reddy on the concept of resilience in engineering pursuits. Both papers examine issues that are subjects of the webinar.

“We have done a lot of research in sustainable engineering, and many of us have integrated sustainable engineering concepts and thoughts into our research in some fashion,” Pendyala said. “But we haven’t necessarily done the same in our teaching enterprise, and I am not convinced that we are sufficiently preparing our students to think about sustainability-related implications of rapidly emerging technologies, designs, energy systems and so on.”

Pendyala encouraged Professor Matthew Fraser, associate director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, to work with Reddy and Allenby to organize a webinar advancing new paradigms in engineering education.

“We hope the event will help faculty from ASU and other universities use insights from the latest research to improve education for the next generation of sustainability and technology leaders,” Fraser said.

Allenby’s career-long work has contributed to defining sustainability as an academic discipline and promoting it as a vital industry practice.

Twenty-five years ago, Allenby and Tom Graedel, now a professor emeritus at the Yale School of the Environment at Yale University, co-authored “Industrial Ecology” — the first textbook on that then-emerging field, which set the stage for the birthing of sustainability engineering.

Several years later Allenby wrote a second textbook, “Industrial Ecology: Policy Framework and Implementation,” focusing on the social, economic and policy implications of industrial ecology that vigorously thrust the field into the sustainability realm. He and Graedel later merged the two areas in the 2010 textbook “Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Engineering.”

Two years later, Allenby authored “The Theory and Practice of Sustainable Engineering,” providing a detailed guide for schools to create courses in the subject.

Quantifying what sustainable means in practice

Reddy’s research has long focused on solar energy equipment and systems, along with energy efficiency and conservation in buildings and related systems, and more recently on how to model and evaluate energy systems for sustainability and resilience. He holds the title of SRP Professor of Energy and Environment, a position supported by Salt River Project, one of Arizona’s largest power and water utilities.

Through his experience, Reddy says he realizes the importance of emphasizing to students the fundamental techno-centric concepts of sustainability relevant to building structures and producing systems in ways that will meet goals related to functionality, resilience and longevity — the three primary objectives of sustainability.

“Our challenge is to quantify how to accomplish those things in actual on-the-ground engineering work,” Reddy said.

At the same time, it’s critical that the education of today’s students keeps pace with any reconceptualizing of sustainable engineering, Allenby said.

That will necessitate equipping aspiring engineers with more knowledge of artificial intelligence, data science and other cutting-edge technologies and methods to produce the algorithms and design strategies that guide today’s engineering efforts, Reddy and Allenby say.

The professors note they have geared the webinar presentation to students as well as college faculty members and industry professionals. Reddy and Allenby will present their own perspectives on how to realign education in sustainability and then lead discussion on the topic with the audience.

The webinar will be from 10:30 to 11:45 a.m. Pacific Time on Tuesday, Aug. 11. Register for the event.

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