Advancing Sustainability through Collaboration

I was on a panel recently at the ASEE 2022 Annual Conference titled “Tackling Climate Change through Education, Research, and Industry Collaboration” with Lisa Kempler of MathWorks, Dr. Mary Gilliam of General Motors and Mark Smith of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office. During the panel, we discussed the importance of collaboration when it comes to tackling climate change.

As STEM professionals, we have a direct impact on ensuring sustainability of our resources and the future of our planet. If you examine the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), each requires future “problem solvers” to have a solid foundation in STEM education. However, just as important is cooperation among all stakeholders, including politicians, businesspeople, sociologists, etc., because none of these goals can be achieved by science and technology alone.

Understanding the bigger picture can lead STEM professionals to making more sustainable choices in their projects.

During the panel, Kempler mentioned the issue of bridges melting due to rising temperatures, which relates to SDG 9: Build Resilient Infrastructure, Promote Inclusive and Sustainable Industrialization and Foster Innovation. As the climate crisis becomes more urgent, we will need to update our infrastructure and the materials used to make it sustainable. To accomplish this, engineers must collaborate with researchers who are experts on heat-resistant materials that are still appropriate to use in the respective infrastructure.

Collaboration in the workforce is the only way we will solve the climate crisis and achieve the UN SDGs. An architectural engineer, for example, needs to be able to effectively collaborate with architects and civil engineers for projects to be completed in a sustainable manner. Without looking at a project holistically, we may miss opportunities to develop the best solution.

Collaboration is key to be able to choose sustainable options in a project, in school or in the field.

This concept needs to go beyond the STEM fields to be effective. Without looking at the bigger picture, professionals can miss opportunities to choose more sustainable options or processes to complete a project because they are missing important information with which they may not be familiar.

During the panel, Gilliam brought up the role the humanities play in educating others about the impact climate change has on communities. She made the point that social responsibility plays a big role in the SDGs because sustainability includes both the environment and the people living there. Those working in the humanities, such as sociologists, are likely to be experts on communities and their needs. Collaborating with them will help engineers to better understand the impact their work will have on those communities while trying to achieve the SDGs. Improving engineers’ understanding of concepts such as social responsibility is also important to foster more effective communication and collaboration. We need to integrate more social sciences into a STEM student’s educational experience.

Introducing projects that include collaboration among multiple disciplines into the STEM curriculum would also be valuable. By working on projects with others from different STEM fields — in other fields entirely — students gain a deeper understanding of how that project creates a more sustainable solution to a complex problem. When they enter the workforce, they will already have some experience working with others to ensure sustainability in their real-world projects.

We need to work together between disciplines to achieve sustainable solutions and solve the climate crisis.

A topic I often bring up with the faculty is the importance of ethics within an engineering education. I sometimes hear that teaching ethics is the responsibility of the philosophy department, even though engineers will likely encounter ethical dilemmas throughout their careers. Our member society National Society of Professional Engineers provides a Code of Ethics for Engineers that details the importance of an engineer’s “adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct.” Learning about ethics while still in school will benefit STEM graduates as they enter their professional careers.

The climate crisis is the issue of our lifetime, and it isn’t going to be solved with a “siloed” approach. We need to work together between disciplines — STEM and others — to achieve sustainable solutions. Collaboration should be our top priority among industry, research and academia, because if we cannot save our planet, nothing else really matters.

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Michael Milligan

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.