Sustainable engineering in the 21st Century

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New interdisciplinary major prepares Stanford engineers to build sustainable urban, coastal and freshwater systems

Nearly half the people on Earth live in coastal areas, and more than half live in cities. The numbers are expected to grow dramatically, and a changing climate’s effect on rising seas and extreme weather will likely take a greater toll. Who will build the infrastructure to sustain these vulnerable cities and the natural resources that they depend on?

To meet the need, the Stanford School of Engineering is rethinking what it means to be an engineer in the 21st Century.

The school’s innovative new environmental systems engineering major, within the civil and environmental engineering department, allows students to specialize in sustainable design and construction of urban infrastructure; sustainable design, management and protection of water supply systems; and mitigation and adaptation to the impacts of urban areas on coastal waters and vice versa.

“We want students to understand the relationship between the environment and urban areas,” said Lynn Hildemann, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We want them to understand how to balance it.”

The major is designed to shape agile communicators with broad outlooks on political, social, economic and environmental landscapes. In addition to the strong technical foundation that Stanford engineering is renowned for, the highly flexible major exposes students to a wide range of disciplines from biology and physics to English and art.

“People may wonder why we offer a course like studio art,” said Martin Fischer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy. “It can teach an engineer to really connect with humanity. That’s critical because engineering that’s devoid of empathy is not what we need.”

Anja Malawi Brandon embraced the major as a junior. “With this major, you have all the skills to continue as a professional engineer, but you’re also prepared to pivot into academia and other tracks,” she said.

Interested students can explore the new major through introductory seminars that open windows into real-world applications. Recent seminar field trips have included visits to San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal project, a landfill gas-to-energy facility and a wastewater treatment and reclamation plant.

“We see this as the future of civil and environmental engineering,” Hildemann said.

Find out more about the major:

Last modified Thu, 22 Oct, 2015 at 15:02