Friday, July 24, 2009

Greener Graduates

Civil and Mineral Engineers are given no small task: they are responsible for building us a society that is clean, prosperous and healthy. In short, they give us the means by which we enjoy our quality of life.

In the past, this quality of life was achieved by way of short-term plans that did not take the environment or the needs of future people into consideration. As a result, we now live in a world with mounting environmental concerns even as our technology and knowledge of sustainable
practices increases.

Environmentally-conscious engineering is no longer optional. The world needs its engineers to put the environment first, and U of T is now positioning itself as a leader in sustainable design and practice.

About a year ago, a student-led presentation to our Academic Planning Committee outlined several key areas in which we could embed the theme of sustainability. Our committee was inspired by this, responding with the single most significant change in curriculum in our Department’s history.

The Sustainability Initiative, as it has been called around the Department, includes the following: “Technology in Society and the Biosphere,” formerly an elective course, will become core to the second year program. “Sustainable Energy Systems” and “Water and Wastewater Treatment” are now core to third year, and several new electives including “Sustainable Buildings” and “Infrastructure for Sustainable Cities” have been added to our roster for the coming year.

Professor Chris Kennedy, Chair of the Academic Planning Committee, expands on the initiative’s purpose. “We should be teaching our students the technical skills to manage society’s material and waste flows in a sustainable manner, reduce the environmental ‘footprint’ from civil engineered systems and supply energy from renewable sources.”

For Professor Bill Vanderburg, part of the problem has been the intensive specialization that has been promoted in certain disciplines in the past. “Each discipline and specialty must be equipped with a ‘map’ showing its connections to everything else, but especially the negative consequences that tend to be associated with its practices. More preventively oriented practices can improve the ratio of desired to undesired effects of design and decision-making to create ways of life that are more sustainable across the board, as opposed to ameliorating symptoms (such as global warming). This groundbreaking has fired the imagination of many students.”

The Sustainability Initiative has also supported several student-driven projects and research in sustainability.

The Sky Garden, a project created, designed and carried out by graduate students Kyla Smith, Sarah Wilson and Heather Wray, includes an organic rooftop garden on top of the Galbraith Building. Grown with heritage seeds, the space on our rooftop will provide an educational test
ground for future green roof projects in Canada, not to mention fresh veggies!

It is one more decisive step toward sustainability that we hope will serve as a model for engineers about to embark on their professional careers.

As always, alumni are encouraged to take part in all our projects. Support our students, tell us what you are doing, and get involved!

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