(405d) Project-Based Learning for Sustainability and Life-Cycle Assessment

Authors: 
Davis, B. J. - Presenter, The Cooper Union


Sustainability is a very hard concept to define, defying the traditional disciplines of ecology, economics, sociology, and engineering. Even harder is the task of explaining to undergraduate chemical engineering students what sustainability means and how it relates to their life experiences to date. These students, familiar with rigid concepts from chemistry, physics, mathematics, and other hard sciences often have a very difficult time approaching a concept which is inherently "fuzzy" and does not have right or wrong answers.

How do we engage and teach these students? How do we get a student, who at this point in his or her intellectual development believes that there are only correct and incorrect answers, to consider the question of whether the paper and plastic bags they are trained to make are good or bad for the environment? (The answer to that question, of course, is ?It depends.?)

In my talk, I will outline the motivations and goals of my course "Sustainability and Pollution Prevention" at The Cooper Union, which is based on a similar course at The University of California, Los Angeles. The course is primarily inquiry-based, with two month-long open-ended assessment projects forming the bulk of the work product.

In the first project, the students learn a fuzzy-logic based assessment model (grounding them in their comfort zone of rigid concepts) and apply that model to assess the sustainability of a corporation or industry of their choosing. They explore their chosen entity's impacts on land use, water resources, air emissions, and biodiversity, while also considering things like employee health and wellness, revenue and economic viability, good corporate policies, and research and development work.

In the second project, the students (hopefully now more comfortable with open-ended questions) perform a life-cycle assessment on a product or process of their choosing. This can be related to their work on their capstone design project or on a completely different product that the student has been able to collect data about.

My hope is that this talk will inspire others to offer a similar course at their institution to engage and challenge chemical engineering students to think about social, political, and economic issues. These topics, related to their traditional coursework but not always formally addressed in class, are essential to their development as future engineers and citizens.

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