Canadian Consulting Engineer

Education: TEACHING THE UPSIDE OF DOWN

The current crop of student engineers face daunting challenges in the decades to come. The universities responsible for preparing them for this future also face a challenge since the future, with the ...

October 1, 2008   By Interview By Rosalind Cairncross, P. Eng.

The current crop of student engineers face daunting challenges in the decades to come. The universities responsible for preparing them for this future also face a challenge since the future, with the advent of globalization, is rushing up very fast. Beyond the technical and non-technical skills that globalization demands of engineers, lie the imperatives of the rapidly changing planet, which is suffering from multiple disruptions to its systems, some of them caused by the unsustainable engineering practices of the past.

The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering has introduced a number of courses to give students an appreciation of the physical and social environment in which they will be working. The courses also give them a clear understanding of the engineering profession’s effect on society and the natural environment, and of the engineer’s duty to serve the public interest. One of these courses uses a somewhat unusual text –Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization — as the text for a fourth year course. 1

According to Homer-Dixon the world, compressed and accelerated by globalization, is a tumultuous and unstable place, driven into relentless ferment by the negative pressures of globalization. There is environmental stress caused by climate change and population pressures; financial upheaval; energy, food and health crises causing social upheaval; and probably a few other crises not yet dreamt of. In other words, the world that current batches of engineers will live in, design in and design for, is likely to be quite different from the one they, or we, have lived in so far. Since some of the effects of climate change can be traced to engineering design in the past, future designers will need different approaches.

Professor Douglas Reeve, P. Eng., chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry at the University of Toronto, teaches the course that uses Homer-Dixon’s book. I interviewed Professor Reeve in Toronto.

RC: WHAT DO THE STUDENTS THINK OF THE HOMER-DIXON TEXT?

DR: Some understand its messages very well, some don’t. I really want them to get the overarching themes and get an appreciation of their responsibilities as engineers in the context of this book and the future of the planet.

One of the overarching themes is that their personal and professional choices, their design and problem-solving choices, will make a difference in how the planet turns out. The planet is finite and we are reaching the finite limits of the planet very fast in terms of the consumption of oil, of the ability of the climate to absorb C02, of food production and population. Unless we as a society figure out how to manage our behaviour, the planet is going to be in serious jeopardy. They need to consider their own and their immediate sphere’s resilience [to these effects]. Resilience is a word that Homer-Dixon uses very well. I think that particularly young people, who think they’re invulnerable and immortal, don’t understand resilience, their own personal resilience or the resilience of systems they are engaged in or seek to design and participate in.

RC: WHICH OTHER COURSES FOCUS ON SUSTAINABILITY?

DR: There are some technology and society courses. But I fear that engineers, particularly in Canada, are too limited in their appreciation of things beyond the immediate technical solution. We as a profession too often simply provide a technical analysis and a technical solution without entering into the messy business of policy and politics.

RC: ARE STUDENTS SUFFICIENTLY EXPOSED TO DIFFERENT TECHNICAL APPROACHES TO PROBLEMS?

DR: I have to defend my institution and say Yes, we give them a good engineering training, give them different exposure to design and problem solving. We now have design in first year which is very good at tossing students into open-ended engineering design problems. In Chemical Engineering we have changed the curriculum to incorporate a third-year team design course. We have had a Capstone design course, which covers all the disciplines, for designing a chemical plant for many years. Other departments also have Capstone courses.

RC: WHAT ARE EMPLOYERS LOOKING FOR?

DR: Employers are certainly looking for someone who is technically competent, technically excellent. But I’ve undertaken a fresh perspective to recognize the importance of leadership capability. Leadership is very much a buzzword, but what it does come down to is getting things done. That’s a nice definition of something that we can analyze, can teach and can encourage students to learn. Leadership ability, a quality that the traditional engineering education does not necessarily provide, increases the ability of students in the workplace. Some employers who have been exposed to this leadership development program are very clear that the capacity of a student to get things done is changed by this program.

RC: IS THERE A DANGER THAT THINGS SOMETIMES GET DONE IN THE OLD WAY?

DR: I think there is no danger inherent in being efficient or being effective. Now, efficiency and effectiveness, absent values, is dangerous. An essential component of leadership is understanding your own values and the values of the institution within which you work, having among those values, a deep understanding of the primary responsibility of an engineer, and that is to society. As engineers, we have it written in our Act that we have a primary responsibility to society so I’m very clear that we should all be efficient and effective, but we need to do that in a context of values that support the betterment of society. Inherent in the vision of leadership development is a set of ethics –values for the betterment of society.

RC: WORKING FOR THE BETTERMENT OF SOCIETY IS THE NOBLE GOAL, BUT CRITICS WOULD SAY ENGINEERS MOSTLY WORK FOR THE COMPANY OR THE CLIENT.

DR: That’s where we need to change the understanding of engineering students about where their responsibilities lie. We need to give them the tools to extend their influence beyond the merely technical so they’re not just serving the technical interests of the client. So they understand the broader needs of society and they have the tools to do something about it, to be effective, to be powerful.

RC: THERE IS A QUOTE ATTRIBUTED TO EINSTEIN: [THE] SIGNIFICANT PROBLEMS WE HAVE CANNOT BE SOLVED AT THE SAME LEVEL OF THINKING WITH WHICH WE CREATED THEM.” SOME INTERPRET THIS TO MEAN THAT THE SAME PEOPLE WHO CAUSED THE PROBLEM CAN’T SOLVE IT. IF SOCIETY NEEDS DIFFERENT SOLUTIONS FROM THE TRADITIONAL ONES, HOW DO WE CHANGE?

DR: The problem is being inside the box. How do you understand the world so that you can operate outside your own frame of reference, outside the box?

That’s partly why I think we need to transform engineering education. We engineers have created a lot of problems, and so if we transform education then the engineers going out of here will be capable of using their analytical and problem-solving skills in a way that is good for society. I believe that it is possible to transform the educational system and for that matter transform the profession so as to understand the nature of the problem and the nature of the solution beyond traditional engineering.

———

1 Editor’s footnote

Thomas Homer-Dixon is a Canadian academic whose writings and ideas on the impact of environmental stress on world stability have been widely circulated in the media and government policy circles. The Upside of Down (Knopf, 2006) won the 2006 National Business Book Award. Homer- Dixon is currently a professor in the Centre for Environment and Business in the Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo.

———

“… i’m very clear that we should all be efficient and effective, but we need to do that in a context of values
that support the betterment of society.”


Print this page

Related Stories

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*