On April 22, 1970, millions of Americans took to the country’s streets, parks, college campuses and classrooms to demand action for a healthier planet. This was the first Earth Day, and it sparked the modern environmental movement.
Today, sustainability has become a key touchstone and point of concern across all sectors, from government to industry to academia. But the challenges we face now are even greater than they were 50 years ago. We are already experiencing the effects of climate change, and vulnerable communities across the globe are bearing the brunt of the impact.
For this reason, equity and social and environmental justice have increasingly become intertwined with the sustainability movement. From water contamination to toxic materials to flooding, environmental damage disproportionately affects vulnerable and underserved populations.
There is growing recognition that the business-as-usual mentality will not suffice if we are to preserve our planet and our wellbeing. Addressing all of this requires fundamental and systemic change in how we prepare our workforce to tackle these issues, as well as developing new, more sustainable and more inclusive technology — and engineering has the potential to be a major force behind that effort.
Engineers have an outsized effect on the world we live in, from the structures we inhabit to the tools we use every day. The choices engineers make — such as where to build, how to design products and structures, what materials to use and how to distribute and dispose of them — have lasting impact. Their decisions have the power to either harm or help the environment, our health and our planet.
A key problem is that, while sustainability has become a hot topic in engineering education programs, it’s often treated as a distinct specialty rather than a required area of study across the board.
But the call for change is getting louder, and — echoing that first Earth Day and its college campus roots — some of the key voices advocating for urgent action belong to students.
A 2020 study from Students Organizing for Sustainability (SOS) International found that 90% of students were concerned about the effects of climate change, for example, and roughly the same amount felt that sustainable development should be universally taught in higher education. But only 26% of respondents felt their coursework was covering these issues in depth.
In engineering, students are pressing for sustainability to be integrated into all curricula across disciplines, so that everyone graduates trained in the fundamental skills and principles of environmental responsibility.
We spoke to three rising engineers who exemplify the student demand for transforming engineering training. They’re all members of the Engineering for One Planet initiative, a growing global network of academic faculty and administrators, professionals and other stakeholders who are advocating for making sustainability a core tenet of engineering education.
Ensuring Sustainable Access to Safe Drinking Water
Holly Rudel, a PhD Candidate in Chemical & Environmental Engineering at Yale University, was first exposed to environmental justice issues during a public policy internship as an undergrad at Bowdoin College, advocating for passage of legislation for safe drinking water subsidies in Maine.
She discovered that arsenic contamination in well water was pervasive throughout the state, but individual water treatment was beyond the economic reach of most households. That led her to develop a research project on the topic in her inorganic chemistry class, and ultimately to pursue an environmental engineering program at Yale.
She’s now designing nanomaterial-based sorbents to treat drinking water in a way that’s both economically and environmentally sustainable.
“In my scientific research, what I really want to do is shift the framework,” she explains, “keeping in mind both environmental sustainability and also thinking about populations of people that we want to serve.”
Those populations include millions of people in underserved communities in the U.S. and in low- and middle-income countries who don’t have access to safe drinking water.
For her, environmental responsibility is already a core part of engineering considerations, and not just an add-on.
“I think ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ have become such buzzwords that they have lost their meaning in some significant ways,” says Rudel. “By centering environmental sustainability and responsibility, we are shifting away from the idea of having a set of checkboxes.”
She looks at engineering as the way to design and innovate the changes the world wants to see in the next few decades. And instilling this mindset in younger students is key, she says. Having taught in middle school and conducted outreach to youth on STEM, she thinks about how to inspire and empower students through engineering.
“You want to see a change. You want to see a difference. Okay, let’s go make it. That is what engineering is to me.”
Creating Sustainable Energy and Addressing Climate Change
For Kianna Marquez, a third-year undergraduate chemical engineer at the University of Michigan, climate change was the motivating factor behind pursuing engineering.
“I knew that it could be applied to help with the issue,” she says, “and to address that through the lens of renewable energy and energy systems.”
From there, Kianna followed her interest in carbon removal — “as a discipline, but also as part of the solution to the global climate issue” — and began making the connection between energy systems and their effects on vulnerable communities.
“You can’t really talk about environmental sustainability without talking about social sustainability and social equity,” she says. “It’s important for every group to understand the impact that they have on the community. It’s not surprising that when we hurt the environment, we also hurt different underrepresented groups.”
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kianna is the first engineer in her family. As a young girl, her parents supported her love of math and science, she says, and encouraged her to develop her knack for numbers. Her family’s background is from Mexico, and though they carried many cultural traditions with them, there wasn’t much of a Hispanic community in the area where Kianna grew up.
But in college, she found a large community of Hispanic students through the University of Michigan’s Latinx cultural club. “It made me look at my culture in a different way,” she says.
One thing she discovered was that, though climate change and sustainability issues disproportionately affect minority groups, the problem isn’t often discussed among those groups. “It motivated me to not only help my community worldwide by helping address climate change with my educational path,” she says, “but also to make climate change a more talked about conversation in my community.”
For Kianna, environmentally sustainable engineering provides a path forward. “The way that I see it, environmentally sustainable engineering is engineering at its best,” she says. But she observes that it’s still seen as something of a luxury, a bonus perhaps added on to a project. “The work that I’d like to do,” she says, “is to get people to see it as, this needs to happen, rather than it should happen.”
Among the questions Kianna hopes to answer are how to incorporate sustainable energy systems into current society, and how to transition to a renewable energy grid. “I want to be at the forefront of figuring out the solution,” she says.
In the meantime, Kianna hopes to see the subject of sustainability gain traction everywhere, especially in academia, where she feels it needs to receive more attention in the curriculum and class time. Fellow students are extremely interested in sustainability, she says, and are advocating more and more for a focus on it campus-wide, not just in certain clubs or classrooms.
Industry is catching on too, Kianna says, and when she starts looking for a job, she’ll be looking for one where sustainability is front and center.
“For me, it’s very valuable if a company is trying to make a direct impact on climate change, rather than just have that be a facet of what they do.”
Building for Sustainability and Energy Efficiency
At the University of Texas at El Paso, civil engineer and graduate student Gerardo Valenzuela Mendoza is helping to literally build a college community centered on sustainability by focusing on infrastructure and energy efficiency throughout campus.
Gerardo is a research assistant at the university’s Safe and Sustainable Construction Laboratory, where he works on the application of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology to visualize the heat loss and energy use of campus buildings.
An international student from Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, Gerardo was first exposed to sustainability issues while studying abroad in Argentina. There, his research project focused on the “heat island effect” — when the concentrated infrastructure in cities causes their temperatures to rise — and how climate change is impacting vulnerable, urban communities.
“I would say that climate change is affecting all of us, even if we are not aware of it,” he says.
He’s currently conducting a case study computing the land surface temperature in his own college community. “Year-by-year there is an increase in the temperature of the campus in relation to electric energy consumption,” he says. “That really turns on a red light for me. How are we going to face the challenges of the future?”
Gerardo’s interest in building stretches all the way back to his childhood. “Legos were my favorite toys,” he explains. Once he discovered the existence of civil engineering in high school, he was hooked.
He acknowledges that the industry is not particularly known for its adaptability or for responding quickly to new technology or environmentally friendly materials. But he believes this can change, and that sustainability should go hand-in-hand with construction.
“If we are not exposed or educated in these topics, we might never give it the importance it deserves,” he says.
So he advocates for the integration of sustainability principles alongside the ethics, laws, regulations and building codes that the construction profession already adheres to. In other words, he says, “making sustainability and social justice a part of our every day as engineers.”
He sees momentum for this ethos in engineering education, but notes that many engineering students are still not aware of it.
“I believe that we have to get out of our bubbles and question what’s beyond us,” he says, in order to “be empathetic enough to see what situations people are going through and how we can help them through sustainability.”
Ultimately, Gerardo plans to be part of the solution by creating his own company focused on sustainable construction. His first priority? To tackle some of the problems he sees persisting in his hometown in Mexico, like unpaved roads to indigenous communities and inadequate access to clean and potable water.
“I believe that sustainable engineering has no boundaries,” he says. “It is equal for all of us.”
To learn more about the Engineering for One Planet initiative and how to participate, visit engineeringforoneplanet.org.