A new program in sustainable engineering : a platform for integrating research and service into the classroom through global engagement Brennan, Rachel A.; Riley, David R.
Currently 2.5 billion people, over one third of the Earth’s population, are affected by water scarcity and are without sanitation. The majority of humanity is concentrated in coastal communities: approximately half of the world’s population lives within 200 kilometers of a coast. In many developing countries, raw wastewater is discharged into coastal waters without being treated, in the belief that these discharges do not significantly affect the environment. In reality, these contaminants not only threaten human health, but also often contribute to the loss of marine animals which local peoples often rely on for food and income. In the future, continuing population growth and economic development will increase the demand for water and the severity of pollution. There is a clear and overwhelming need for sanitation and water purification in developing coastal communities, but it is not afforded by conventional, energy-intensive and chemically-intensive water treatment or fossil-fuel-based energy systems. In high-poverty equatorial coasts, the stable temperatures, steady winds, and predictable solar input greatly facilitate sustainable practices for water treatment and energy production. We have recently begun to develop a new cross-disciplinary program in Sustainable Engineering at Penn State that empowers coastal communities in the Caribbean to improve their quality of life and protect their natural resources. In this program, senior-level engineering courses train undergraduate and graduate students to design and deploy ecologically-designed wastewater treatment plants with renewable energy systems in collaboration with faculty-led research teams and community participants. These courses are strategically designed to be training and recruitment tools to help prepare the local student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) for the project, and to provide students at all levels with challenging, immersive, hand-on experiences that augment their research and education in sustainability. This work is significant because it is one of the first international, multi-disciplinary programs in Sustainable Engineering in North America, and utilizes a student outreach organization (EWB) to mobilize the resulting efforts to engage developing coastal communities with the assistance of practicing engineers. The longevity of this program is supported through cross-disciplinary research, course development, and mentoring of EWB projects containing interdisciplinary, multi-component systems. Future partnerships in the areas of wind energy, coral reef resilience, food systems science, economic development, and eco-tourism are planned to further enhance the program.
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