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Department Heads Conference Addresses Effect of Sustainable Development on Curricula

July/August 2010 Volume 35, Number 7/8


This year’s National Civil Engineering Department Heads Conference, held at Carnegie Mellon University on May 26–27, was largely concerned with the educational aspects of engineering in support of sustainable development. Kathy J. Caldwell, P.E., M.ASCE, the Society’s president-elect, described ASCE’s efforts to remain at the forefront of this type of engineering to an audience comprising approximately 80 civil engineering department heads from various universities throughout the United States. Other speakers at the conference, the sixth to be held in this series, discussed how environmental stewardship is affecting education and described how they have integrated its principles into their curricula, their research, and their outreach efforts. The conference also included a forum on abet evaluation and accreditation.

Caldwell emphasized that ASCE is striving to become a leader in engineering geared toward sustainable development. To this end the Task Committee on Sustainable Design (now the Committee on Sustainability) developed a definition that includes what Caldwell designated “the triple bottom line.” The committee’s definition states that “sustainable civil infrastructure provides environmental, economic, and social well-being, now and for the future.” She also explained that the committee has been divided into subcommittees that will work to promote ASCE’s efforts to achieve the triple bottom line. In particular, the subcommittees will address such topics as professional development and training, communications and outreach, developing projects in such a way as to embody environmental stewardship, and ensuring that the Society’s own operations are exemplary in this regard.

The subcommittee dealing with professional development and training will focus on professional certification. It is developing a one-day course that will serve as a foundation for a six-course program leading to professional certification in engineering that conforms to the principles of sustainable development. This subcommittee is also drawing up a list of existing professional development courses that deal with sustainable development and is working with all of the academies established by Civil Engineering Certification, Inc., to revise their certification requirements so as to include training in this area.

The subcommittee concerned with communications and outreach will endeavor to organize material pertaining to environmental stewardship in engineering and disseminate it to the Society’s members, to government and nongovernment organizations, to other stakeholders, and to the public.

The subcommittee on developing projects that adhere to the principles of sustainable development is currently designing a Web-based rating system for projects, and it is planning to unveil the system at the Board of Direction meeting scheduled for October.

The subcommittee on Society operations is working to obtain certification for ASCE’s headquarters building, in Reston, Virginia, through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (leed) Green Building Rating System. “By looking at our existing headquarters building within the sustainability initiative, we hope to have a pilot project that others can look to and use as an example for a program to achieve—not only the leed certification for existing buildings but also to employ principles of sustainability during its daily operations,” Caldwell said.

Other speakers at the conference discussed the way in which engineering geared toward sustainable development is affecting education. For example, David A. Dzombak, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and the faculty director of the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research there, discussed the purposes of that institute. He explained that it fosters interdisciplinary research initiatives and provides graduate fellowships. It also focuses on pursuing environmental education initiatives and supporting extracurricular environmental education opportunities. Furthermore, it coordinates the university’s “green” initiatives and oversees programs for university alumni and the community, according to Dzombak, and it also works in concert with the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.

In lieu of a university-wide institute, Kauser Jahan, P.E. Ph.D., Aff.M.ASCE, a professor of civil engineering at Rowan University and the chair of the school’s civil and environmental engineering department, recounted how she established a series of workshops, or “clinics,” on sustainable development for students in the civil and environmental engineering department. “These are courses that all our engineering students take during their eight semesters of study,” she said.

The objectives of the workshops, according to Jahan, are to give students an understanding of the need to apply the principles of sustainable development while working in a multidisciplinary environment. One of the workshops for sophomores, for example, encourages students to help the university develop a plan for limiting its greenhouse gas emissions. (The school has pledged to reduce its emissions by 2011.) To support and chronicle the civil and environmental engineering department’s efforts in this area, a Web site ( is being developed to acquaint current and prospective students with the types of environmental issues that engineers encounter.

To measure the extent to which engineering geared toward sustainable development is finding reflection in curricula nationwide, Chris Hendrickson, Ph.D., Dist.m.ASCE, described a survey undertaken by the Center for Sustainable Engineering, which comprises Arizona State University, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Texas at Austin, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Syracuse University. To establish a benchmark assessment of trends in the area of sustainable development, Hendrickson explained, the center surveyed four-year abet-accredited colleges and universities in the United States and collected data on courses and curricula, on centers, institutes, and conferences that concern themselves with sustainable development, and on certain other activities. Of the 286 departments that responded, 59 dealt with civil, architectural, or environmental engineering, he noted, and these 59 reported the highest total number of courses dealing with sustainable development and environmental stewardship: 64. (Hendrickson said that the number of institutions and departments offering courses in this area has probably increased since the survey was taken.)

Hendrickson also noted that only 10 percent of the departments dealing with civil, architectural, or environmental engineering offered six or more courses relating to sustainable development. According to the survey, the courses deal with such themes as energy and power generation; life-cycle assessments; business and economics; industrial ecology; systems, metrics, and information management; and water. A full report of the survey, which was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, may be viewed at

The final portion of the conference was spent discussing accreditation by abet, Inc., and reaccreditation by that group, which occurs every six years. To help department heads understand what is required of them and to encourage them to participate as abet evaluators, Al Estes, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, a professor of civil engineering at California Polytechnic State University, described the process from an abet evaluator’s perspective. He also offered a number of tips to streamline the process and ensure that departments reapplying for abet accreditation are prepared. His presentation was followed by a forum that included Estes and Richard Lyles, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE, who discussed the purposes of ASCE’s Committee on Curricula and Accreditation.

For programs undergoing accreditation reviews, Estes advised those in attendance to carefully examine the paperwork before it is sent to the evaluator, particularly the requested transcripts from graduating classes. “One of the difficulties is that those who graduated probably came from a previous catalog year, and the catalog that you are evaluating the program on is the most recent one. So there are going to be some discrepancies,” he said. By examining the transcripts, he explained, department heads will be able to find and explain discrepancies right at the outset.

Estes also recommended that when developing a self-study document, departments examine the following abet documents: the one listing the engineering accreditation criteria, the engineering self-study questionnaire, and the program evaluator’s work sheet. He also urged the department heads to ensure that the tables, charts, and other data displays in the institutional self-study, which is to be included as an appendix, are consistent with those in the main body of the self-study, which is to be submitted to the evaluators. Further, he counseled them to distinguish between their program’s objectives and its outcomes. According to Estes, the abet criteria define an objective as “what you expect your graduates to be able to do three to five years after graduation,” whereas outcomes are “what you expect your students to be able to do at the time of graduation.” Estes also recommended that, with respect to the self-study, departments should form conclusions from their own data, should describe the changes that have been made since the last evaluation and explain how they relate to the current assessment, and should compile six years of data if applying for reaccreditation.

Encouraging all of the department heads to become evaluators, Estes noted that, as he saw it, the best way to prepare his own department for an abet evaluation was to evaluate other departments. “It is a lot of work...but it is an incredible way of seeing what another department is doing,” he said. He also emphasized that abet is a self-policing agency. “We are abet,” he said.   

—Brett Hansen