Regenerating engineering education

Dr Pamela Dugdale

Regenerating engineering education

Dr Pamela Dugdale

For the past 20 years I’ve taught Physics, Engineering and Applied Maths in Further and Higher education establishments in NW England. Throughout that time I’ve always been passionate about sustainability and how best to embed the subject into my lessons.

This interest probably took root during my PhD project investigating materials that would improve solar power efficiency. Since then I’ve worked on a number of sustainability science projects, including the removal of toxic chemicals from electronic devices, and the use of thermal energy stored in disused coal mines to heat homes.

I regularly involve my students in this research, and facilitate their own investigations into potential local sources of tidal, wind, geothermal and osmotic power. My students and I have also worked with the Royal Society and a local university to investigate the effects of cloud coverage on the performance of solar panels – confirming my belief that students learn best by getting stuck in to real-world problems.

Recently I’ve been working to identify more opportunities to embed sustainability in physical and engineering sciences taught in UK sixth form and further education colleges. The intention is that this work will support course designers, leaders and teachers as they develop new educational frameworks for the scientists and engineers of the future.

Sustainable goals

For the purpose of my study, the meaning of sustainability follows the United Nations definition of sustainable development: “[it] meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED, 1987). This working definition is further informed by the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs, 2016), which are “the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. The 17 Goals are all interconnected, and in order to leave no one behind, it is important that we achieve them all by 2030.”

Target 4.7 of the SDG Global Monitoring Indicators has the requirement to “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development.” (UN, 2020). Whilst I believe that this requirement is very important for all students, it’s particularly relevant to engineering students, who are the inventors, innovators and all-round problem solvers of the future. So how do students leaving school at 16 take their first steps towards a career engineering a better world?

Examining the examiners

There are two main Further Education pathways for engineering: A-levels (Highers in Scotland) and the vocational BTEC route. In both cases the design of Level 3 curricula in the UK is guided by examination boards specifications from the likes of AQA, Edexcel (Pearson), OCR, Eduqas and Cambridge.

These organisations have a huge influence on what is taught in the classroom and can therefore enhance or restrict teachers’ opportunities to embed sustainability in their lessons. As part of my recent MSc in Sustainable Energy Solutions, I examined the specifications produced by the exam boards for key words such as sustainable, environment, climate, renewable, recycling and pollution. The findings give some insight into opportunities for teaching sustainability.

A-level Physics specifications, for example, make few references to these sustainability themes. The Eduqas A-level Physics scored above the average on ‘Environmental’ and ‘Renewable Energy’ themes due to its optional ‘Energy and Environment’ module. The BTEC vocational courses score more highly than A-level courses against the identified themes. Overall, Level 3 Engineering scores higher than any other specification, although it’s a longer document than those for A-level Physics, and most of the content is optional.

In any case, it’s apparent that our current curricula do not meet the UN’s stated aim of

Target 4.7 (above) on the need for students to acquire the required skills through “education for sustainable development”.

Finding a way forward

For the A-level pathway, I would recommend a programme of study designed with sustainability at its heart. This could be an A-level programme of Physics, Maths and Environmental Science as a package of study, for example as part of an engineering professional honours programme, as already offered by some FE colleges.

The Environmental Science A-level is a strong option. While not currently offered by most schools and colleges, its content is geared towards developing engineering students’ analytical and problem-solving skills, whilst giving them the background knowledge required to make more holistic decisions about materials, energy, and environmental and social impact.

I believe that increasing the number of students studying this existing qualification is the easiest and most efficient way to rapidly increase sustainability literacy amongst engineering students. This could, and should be supported by engineering institutions such as WES, IET, IMechE and ICE. University engineering departments should also list Environmental Science as one of their preferred subjects on UCAS and in-course advertising material. Ultimately though, the best way to get schools and colleges to offer a new course is through student and parent demand.

Supporting the educators

For the Vocational BTEC pathway it’s clear that some attempts are being made by the exam boards to increase references to sustainability in the specifications. However, the successful inclusion of new ideas and concepts is driven as much by the expertise and approach of those delivering the content, as it is the content itself.

I would propose that for the sector the key challenges will be providing sufficient teacher support and CPD on sustainability themes, and ensuring that sustainability is framed positively and enthusiastically in the classroom to prevent its teaching feeling like a ‘tick box’ exercise.

In addition, a strong grasp of sustainability themes must be presented to students as an opportunity for excellent career development and a cornerstone of being a good and valued engineer.

Overcoming entropy

But why stop there? Having spent the last thousand words championing the idea of sustainability in engineering education, I’ll conclude with the call to go even further. I think there’s a risk that the concept of sustainability could begin to feel passé. It could even be framed as working hard to maintain the status quo, and that might be dispiriting to students (especially those familiar with the concept of entropy!).

Let’s move beyond framing the need for innovative change as ‘sustainability’, and instead towards regenerative engineering. This is a whole-system approach which focuses on restoring, renewing and revitalising energy and materials to create better overall solutions. Regenerative engineering focuses on defining and solving a problem, rather than reducing or mitigating the environmental harm from a particular process, project or widget.

All of which makes it a far more inspiring and compelling proposition, not just for the students heading into a world full of genuine engineering challenges, but for those of us lucky enough to teach them.

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United Nations (2020) Quality Education [online] Available from: <http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/ >

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2016) About the Sustainable Development Goals [online] Available from: <https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/ > [20th July 2020]

World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987) Our Common Future Ch2: Towards Sustainable Development [online] Available from < http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm>