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Sustainability in Engineering Education: A Literature Review of Case Studies and Projects

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Sustainability is complex and demanding to teach and learn in engineering. Several learning activities have been reported in the literature to incorporate sustainability in engineering education. This work reports an extensive literature search about learning approaches on sustainability that use case studies and projects. The most significant works were characterized and analyzed to determine trends and opportunities in the development of learning activities that can be used to incorporate sustainability at different levels in the engineering curriculum.
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15th LACCEI International Multi-Conference for Engineering, Education, and Technology: “Global Partnerships for
Development and Engineering Education, 19-21 July 2017, Boca Raton Fl, United States. 1
Sustainability in Engineering Education:
A Literature Review of Case Studies and Projects
Jaime A. Mesa, MSc1, Ivan E. Esparragoza, PhD2, and Heriberto E. Maury, PhD1
1Universidad del Norte, Colombia, jamesa@uninorte.edu.co, hmaury@uninorte.edu.co
2Penn State University, USA, iee1@psu.edu
AbstractSustainability is complex and demanding to teach
and learn in engineering. Several learning activities have been
reported in the literature to incorporate sustainability in
engineering education. This work reports an extensive literature
search about learning approaches on sustainability that use case
studies and projects. The most significant works were characterized
and analyzed to determine trends and opportunities in the
development of learning activities that can be used to incorporate
sustainability at different levels in the engineering curriculum.
KeywordsSustainability, engineering education, case studies,
projects.
I. INTRODUCTION
Sustainability is a complex term that might have different
interpretations depending on the perspective used to define it.
The definition of the term using narrow scopes makes difficult
to understand it in its whole dimension. The notion of
considering the environment, economy and society in the
study of sustainability in a holistic form is probably the most
comprehensive approach. Nevertheless, the integration of the
three pillars mentioned before is still complex and not well
balanced where the environment is a predominant factor
followed by economic and social factors. As a result, any
sustainable development requires not only deep understanding
of the effect of decisions on the different pillars but also the
knowledge of practical approaches to balance the pillars while
looking for sustainable solutions.
In the particular case of engineering, design for
sustainability is becoming a critical issue. The development of
new products has impacts on the three pillars along the life
cycle of the products from material extraction all the way to
final disposal. Consequently, engineers must be educated with
a solid foundation on sustainability to be able to create new
products and systems in a bearable, equitable and viable way.
Unfortunately, despite some initiatives around the world, the
study of sustainability in engineering is still in the early
stages. The scope of sustainability in engineering is
predominantly about ecology (eco-design) and energy
efficiency [1], and the teaching approaches are mainly limited
to a single pillar rather than the integration of the three pillars
[2]. The call for sustainability and sustainable development in
engineering curricula and other related disciplines is coming
from accreditation agencies around the world including ABET
in the U.S. [3], the European Network for Accreditation of
Engineering Education (ENAEE) [4], Engineers Canada [5],
and Engineers Australia [6] among others. This effort is to
educate engineers capable of tackling global challenges
affecting the ecosystems including climate change,
contamination, and the indiscriminate consumption of natural
resources by finding solutions and creating new products
without compromising resources for future generations while
fostering fair economic growth and human wellbeing. Other
important drivers for consideration of sustainability in
engineering education are international treaties and laws,
which are strict in environmental regulations, and in the
standards for verification of the impact of industrial activities
in the communities. Now industries are looking for engineers
with knowledge on sustainability to comply with the
normative and avoid sanctions while the governments are
looking for engineers to verify compliance and enforce
regulations.
It is evident that effective sustainable practices require the
collaboration among the industry, government, academia and
society. Merely environmental regulations are not enough for
fair economic growth and social welfare. This collaboration
should contribute to establishing a balance between feasible,
viable, legal and desirable factors in the development of
products or systems. Likewise, due to its nature, sustainable
development requires also an interdisciplinary approach in
which technical, economic, regulatory and social aspects are
taken into consideration. This is why a holistic approach of the
three pillars is more conducive to a better understanding of the
sustainability concept rather than consideration of individual
separate pillars. One of the main challenges in engineering
education has been the emphasis on the technical aspects of
problem solving, considering only some economic factors and
practically ignoring the social impact of the solution [7]. This
requires changes in the engineering education paradigm.
However, the rigorous academic plans of engineering do not
provide more room for additional courses. Therefore, the idea
is to incorporate sustainability in the curriculum interwoven
within existing courses using learning modulus and case
studies that can be easily adopted by and adapted to different
engineering disciplines.
An effective incorporation of sustainability in the
curriculum should require taking into consideration three
aspects awareness, knowledge and applicability that students
should develop in their engineering education following the
heart, head and hands learning model [8]. Awareness implies
that students should be prepared to be aware of and sensitive
to the importance and need of sustainability issues taking into
consideration the three pillars. This is important since is
related to the interest and motivation of the students in the
topic. The next level is knowledge where students should be
able to distinguish the different pillars and recognize
indicators to be considered in the solution of engineering
Digital Object Identifier (DOI): http://dx.doi.org/10.18687/LACCEI2017.1.1.241
ISBN: 978-0-9993443-0-9
ISSN: 2414-6390
15th LACCEI International Multi-Conference for Engineering, Education, and Technology: “Global Partnerships for
Development and Engineering Education, 19-21 July 2017, Boca Raton Fl, United States. 2
challenges including specifications for decision-making
processes. This step is important since allows students to
frame and model the problem considering sustainable
parameters. Finally, the third constituent is applicability where
students should be able to use concepts, principles,
methodologies, indicators and tools for sustainable solutions.
Currently, there are different approaches that try to add or
consider aspects of sustainability in the engineering curricula;
however, each approach is unique and the contents and
methodologies vary depending on the instructor and the focus
of the program. Besides, there is no a unique recognized
strategic approach to effectively prepare engineering students
to find sustainable solutions. Because of the diverse literature
in the topic, it is necessary to establish trends and characterize
the existing works to determine trends and patterns that can be
eventually use across different disciplines in engineering.
Consequently, the aim of this work is to synthesize and
classify the works on sustainability in engineering education
based on case studies reported in the literature to encourage
future use and future research and contributions in this field.
II. LITERATURE REVIEW METHODOLOGY
An extensive literature review was carried out related to
sustainability in engineering education in the last 15 years.
Peer review articles were reviewed and classified according to
specific topics of interest, and taking into account different
type of works and approaches developed by different
universities around the world.
In order to make a complete characterization of previous
works, a systematic method was used as described in Figure 1.
This method considered a database revision taking into
account key concepts including sustainability, engineering
education, design and development of curriculum, and courses
focused in sustainable development. International Journals
related with engineering education were reviewed and most
meaningful works were selected for an in-deep analysis.
Figure 1: Characterization methodology employed
The works selected in the first step of the characterization
methodology employed do not represent the full amount of
works developed in engineering education for sustainability;
however, they represent the most important contributions
published in the topics considered in this study. The work
presented here is focused on undergraduate engineering
programs; thus, the approaches focused in high school and
postgraduate programs are not considered in this analysis.
Specific multidisciplinary projects and extemporaneous
programs oriented to engineering design in sustainability but
not added into curriculum are also excluded in this paper.
Characterization criteria were selected from analysis of
previous works [9], [10], [11], and considering the most
representative aspects associated with the development and
modification of curriculums and courses focused on
sustainability. Criteria used for characterization are
summarized and explained in Table 1.
Table 1: Characterization Topics established
Topic
Description
Categories
Type of Approach Type of method in
which sustainability is
addressed.
Curriculum Integration:
Sustainability is integrated
into the curriculum through
topics in existent courses.
Stand-alone Courses:
dedicated courses related with
sustainability topics.
Engineering Area
Engineering Discipline
in which approach is
applied.
General, Industrial,
Mechanical, Civil, others
Interdisciplinary
Scope
Consideration of
different disciplines or
different from the
specific engineering
area.
YES: The approach considers
interdisciplinary.
NO: The approach does not
consider interdisciplinary.
Sustainability
Dimension
Consideration of
Environmental,
Economic and Social
aspects.
Environment
Economic
Social
Region Region where the
approach was
developed.
North America
Europe
Australia
Asia
Africa
Case Study /
Applications
Tasks or activities for
application of
sustainability
Various
III. CHARACTERIZATION OF RELATED WORKS
After establishing the characterization criteria, existing
literature is reviewed to classify the selected works according
to the topics and categories defined. This analysis provides
important information about tendencies, lacks and
opportunities for future work on sustainability in engineering
education. Table 2 summarizes the characterization of 33
selected works from an initial group of 60 papers resulting
relevant according to the literature review methodology. These
works are listed primarily by author, and sorted according to
the publication year from newest to oldest.
15th LACCEI International Multi-Conference for Engineering, Education, and Technology: “Global Partnerships for
Development and Engineering Education, 19-21 July 2017, Boca Raton Fl, United States. 3
Table 2: Characterization of works related with development of curriculum and courses in Engineering Education for Sustainability
Author Type of Approach Eng. Area Region Case Study and/or
Applications
Interdisciplinary
Scope Sustainability
Dimension
Curriculum
Integration Specific
Courses
Yes
No
Env
Soc
Mueller Price & Robinson 2015 [12] * Civil
North
America
Progressive Course
Projects
* * * *
Pearson Weatherton 2015 [13] * General
North
America
Multi-disciplinary
Senior design Project
* * * *
Nazzal et Al. 2015 [14] * Industrial
North
America
Senior Design
Project
* * * *
DuPont & Wisthoff 2015 [15] * Mechanical
North
America
Case Study Projects * *
Sieffert et Al 2014 [16] * Civil Europe Case Study Project * * * *
Balan & Manickam 2013 [17] * Chemical
North
America
Case Study Project * * * *
Lockrey 2013 [18] * General Australia Case Study Project * * * *
Enelund et Al. 2012 [19] * * Mechanical Europe Progressive Projects * * *
Nagel et Al 2012 [20] * General
North
America
Case Study Projects * * * *
Rydhagen 2011 [21] * Sanitary Europe Lectures & Projects * * * *
Filipkowski 2011 [22] * General Europe Lectures & Exercises * *
Alahmad et Al. 2011 [23] * Arch. Eng
North
America
Case Study Projects
and Workshops
* * * *
Arasat et Al. 2011 [24] * General Europe Case Study Project * * * *
Dempere 2010 [25] * Materials
North
America
Case Study Project * * * *
Filion 2010 [26] * Civil
North
America
Projects &
Competitions
* * * *
De Vere et Al. 2010 [27] *
Mechanical &
Industrial
Australia
Progressive Course
Projects
* * *
De Vere 2009 [28] * General Australia
Progressive Course
Projects
* * * *
Manoliadis 2009 [29] * Civil Europe Case Study Project * * * *
Lehmann et Al. 2008 [30] * General Europe
Project problem-
oriented
* * * *
Lundqvist & Svanstrom 2008 [31] * * General Europe Case Study Projects * * * *
McAloone 2007 [32] * Mechanical Europe
Progressive Course
Projects
* * * *
Chu 2007 [33] * Civil Asia
Problem-based
learning Project
* * * *
Kevern 2007 [34] * Civil
North
America
Case Study Projects * * * *
Jerlich et Al. 2007 [35] * General Europe Research Projects * * * *
Fox et Al. 2006 [36] * General
North
America
Research Projects * *
Kamp 2006 [37] * General Europe Case Study Projects * * * *
Oakes et Al. 2006 [38] *
Product/ industrial
design
Europe Case Study Project * * * *
Mulder 2006 [39] * * General Europe
Progressive Course
Projects
* *
Boks & Diehl 2005 [40] * Industrial Europe Role Game Project * *
Vezzoli 2003 [41] * General Europe
Application of
Software Tools in
courses
* * * *
Siller 2001 [42] * Civil
North
America
Design-related
Course Projects
* *
Coles 2001 [43] * General
North
America
Project &
Competition
* *
Quist et Al. 2000 [44] * General Europe Case Study Projects * * * *
15th LACCEI International Multi-Conference for Engineering, Education, and Technology: “Global Partnerships for
Development and Engineering Education, 19-21 July 2017, Boca Raton Fl, United States. 4
IV. FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
Table 2 provides information about the characterization
criteria tendencies and motivations since year 2000. As it can
be seen from the results, there is a growing tendency in the
development of curriculums and courses oriented to
sustainability in engineering. After 2005, the efforts and
concerns about this topic were taken into account by
universities around the world with more emphasis considering
the increment in the number of publications in the field (See
Figure 2).
Figure 2: Publications during the last 15 years in the study topic
Following with the analysis of the data founded, the
results of each criterion employed are described below.
A. Type of Approach
A review of the literature shows that there are two main
approaches to introduce sustainability topics in engineering
education. The first approach consists of introducing topics in
existing courses through the addition of modules and/or
learning activities related to sustainability. This approach is
identified in this work as curriculum integration”. The second
technique is the development of specific stand-alone courses
on sustainability identified here as “course specific”.
In this study, 55% of the works reviewed in the literature
employ the curriculum integration technique. This approach is
considered especially in universities with different engineering
programs (Civil, Mechanical, Industrial, and Chemical among
others), and is usually used in common engineering basic
courses that provide an early perception and global vision of
sustainability issues. The other 45% uses stand-alone courses
traditionally developed in specific programs; however, in most
cases, these courses are not a required course in the
curriculum and courses are used as technical electives.
In the category of curriculum integration, it is common to
find projects that evolve throughout the program. This is
considered a powerful learning approach since students get
involved in sustainability in a progressive way from basic
concepts to application of principles in the solution of design
challenges. This technique also provides opportunities for
critical thinking and teamwork in interdisciplinary fields.
B. Engineering Area
An analysis of the literature shows that Civil (21%),
Mechanical (12%) and Industrial (9%) engineering are the
programs with more sustainability educational initiatives
documented. Nevertheless, most of the works founded in the
literature corresponds to general engineering programs or
transverse courses designed as common requirements for all
engineering programs in a university. It is important to
highlight the incidence of sustainability in civil and
architecture engineering, and other close related programs.
This is because the design of buildings is one of the most
advanced fields in terms of sustainability in which the use of
renewable energy, eco-materials and principles of eco-design
are a common denominator. Figure 3 shows a percentage
distribution of this criterion in the most important engineering
programs.
Figure 3: Distribution of sustainability education initiatives by
Engineering Fields in 33 works analysed
C. Interdisciplinary Scope
Due to the nature of sustainability, knowledge from a
variety of disciplines and aspects from different engineering
field should be considered in engineering education for
sustainability. In the literature reviewed, 66% of the cases are
oriented to interdisciplinary tasks, requiring instructors from
other programs and, in some cases, participation of students
from other engineering disciplines. This is particularly
common in course projects where it is necessary to find a
design solution taking into account different engineering and
design fields.
Universities with many engineering programs have a
great advantage because the availability of instructors and
students from different programs that can work together to
enrich the learning experiences and projects. Institutions with
one or only few engineering programs can develop projects
involving other disciplines such as science, business,
humanities and social sciences. Participation in open
competitions, workshops, or multi-campus projects working
0
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
Publications
General
46%
Industrial
9%
Mechanical
12%
Civil
21%
Others
12%
15th LACCEI International Multi-Conference for Engineering, Education, and Technology: “Global Partnerships for
Development and Engineering Education, 19-21 July 2017, Boca Raton Fl, United States. 5
with students from other institutions and fields is another
option to provide the diverse knowledge needed for
sustainability; however, this approach requires a higher effort
from organizers and institutions.
D. Sustainability Dimensions
One of the most challenging issues in sustainability is
defining and measuring economic and social indicators in the
development of products or systems. Therefore, it is difficult
to include those dimensions effectively in learning activities
because of the complexity of moving from the theoretical
definition of economic and social impact in sustainability to
the practical application of those pillars to the solution of
engineering challenges. However, an analysis of the literature
reveals that most of the works consider the three main pillars
of sustainability including concepts related to ethics, cultural
analysis, critical thinking, and socio-political issues among
others. In this criterion, 75% of the works reviewed consider
the three domains of sustainability despite the challenges of
dealing with them due to the lack of standards. This holistic
consideration has been significant in recent years. The absence
of economic and social dimensions was evident in the early
2000s when only the environment was the primary focus of
sustainable design.
Some researchers have used surveys in their projects to
measure the social impact considered by students in the
solution of the projects. The surveys evaluate the level of
understanding of the social dimension of sustainability. When
students can identify specific social issues, they can consider
that dimension in the projects. This practice generates
awareness about the need and requirements associated with
social issues from early design stages.
E. Region
Europe (UK, Denmark, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, and
Sweden among others) with 49% and North America (USA)
with 39% are the regions with leading the publication of
initiatives on sustainability in engineering education followed
by Australia with a 9% of participation and Asia with a 3%
(See Figure 4). It is important the advances of European
universities in incorporating sustainability in their curriculum.
Even some European engineering programs have alternative
degrees and postgraduate opportunities focused specifically in
sustainable development. It is important to highlight here that
South America, Central America and Africa have not
significant participation in publications showing the
implementation of sustainability into engineering education
tasks.
The literature review suggests that developed countries
are more committed to incorporate learning activities on
sustainability in their engineering curriculum. However, since
sustainability issues are global in nature, there is a need of
contribution on this effort from the developing countries for
an effective global impact.
Figure 4: Region distribution of 33 works analysed
D. Case Study / Applications
This aspect refers to the approaches used to introduce the
concepts of sustainability and sustainable development in
specific learning activities in different engineering programs.
After analyzing the 33 works referenced here, the most
common approach is the use of case studies, some of them
focused in problem-based learning (PBL). Universities with
high advanced curriculum integration in sustainability demand
many course projects in which students demonstrate the use
and application of sustainability topics (mainly in design-
oriented projects). Interesting activities such as competitions
and interdisciplinary projects are proposed with the aim of
motivating students to create multidisciplinary teams from
different engineering programs and using sustainability
principles for the solution of engineering challenges.
Cases and projects sponsored by the industry have a
significant impact in the study of sustainability since students
can develop awareness, knowledge and ability to apply
sustainability principles in real situations affecting industries
and communities. However, this approach requires strong
collaboration between industry and academia.
V. FUTURE TRENDS
Even though the literature review reveals the growing
efforts to create particular learning approaches and specific
learning experiences on sustainability, there is still a need to
create methodologies based on the use of standard
sustainability indicators in engineering education to meet
minimum sustainability requirements in the curriculums.
Engineering accreditation agencies around the world are
requesting the inclusion of sustainability as students learning
outcome; however, engineering accreditation is not mandatory
and is not an additional requirement for professional practice
in many parts of the world. Therefor this request from
accreditation agencies even tough is important, it is not
enough. It is necessary to demand the integration of
sustainability into engineering curriculum from higher
government agencies.
15th LACCEI International Multi-Conference for Engineering, Education, and Technology: “Global Partnerships for
Development and Engineering Education, 19-21 July 2017, Boca Raton Fl, United States. 6
This paper summarizes approaches in engineering
education focused on curriculum and course modifications to
introduce sustainability. Nevertheless, it is inferred that other
experiences and works have not been published. In the next
few years, it is expected that more work is done and reported
around the world, especially in places such as South and
Central America, Africa, and Asia.
Undergraduate programs in United States and Europe
show a significant progress in curriculum modifications to
introduce sustainability and this tendency is expected to
continue growing not only in those regions but also in
Australasia and Asia. As many Latin American institutions are
looking for international accreditation of their engineering
programs, it is expected that this will result in more
institutions in that region incorporating sustainability in their
curriculums. Additionally, more postgraduate programs on
sustainability are expected to arise in response to the need of
more specialized workforce in the field.
VI. CONCLUSIONS
Published case studies analyzed in this paper show
differences among different undergraduate approaches in
engineering education taking into account sustainability. The
differences in curricular contents, application methods and
dimensions considered are significant and reveal the need of
standardization and methodological frameworks for the
effective incorporation of learning activities on sustainability.
The literature review also reveals that the use of case
studies and projects are common practices to provide learning
experiences to engineering students on sustainability.
However, it is necessary to integrate interdisciplinary projects
in collaboration with the industry in order to develop real
problem-based projects. This collaborative approach will
facilitate the definition of sustainability indicators and
specifications that are necessary for the understanding of this
complex topic. Case studies and projects connecting students
with real situations trigger student interest in the topic
resulting in learning experiences that are more effective.
Hence, the active collaboration among academia and industry
is seen as a key element for a successful integration of
sustainability in engineering education.
The UNESCO Roadmap for Implementing the Global
Action Program on Education for Sustainable Development
[45] has identified priority areas and strategies for a
transformation in education for sustainable development.
Some researchers have proposed the formulation of a
methodological framework based on the recommendations by
UNESCO even though there are no specific learning
initiatives stipulated. The roadmap document has a significant
value since it contains valuable information that can serve as
an adequate complement for learning initiatives on
sustainability in engineering education.
The characterization and analysis presented in this paper
will be used to determine commonalities in approaches and
concepts with the aim of proposing a methodological
framework for the incorporation of sustainability in
engineering education at the different levels from introductory
to advance courses. ACKNOWLEDGMENT
This work has been partially supported by
COLCIENICAS through the PhD National Scholarship
Program No 617-2 Contract UN-OJ-2014-24072.
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Development and Engineering Education, 19-21 July 2017, Boca Raton Fl, United States. 7
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... Here, sustainable development This is also the reason why we focused our research on the topic of education for sustainability in higher engineering education. Although there are many studies targeting similar topics regarding the universities' role in developing and enhancing sustainability-oriented competencies [2,7,[14][15][16][17], few of them are solely focused on analyzing the approach that technical universities have towards integrating sustainability and sustainable development into their curricula [11,[18][19][20][21][22][23][24]. ...
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