by Meredith Dault
When Dr. Joshua Pearce came to Queen's two-and-a-half years ago to teach in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, he arrived with a very particular job title: renewable energy engineer. At the time, he recalls, it was specialized field, but in the last few years, that's changed -- a lot. "In three years it's gone from being unusual, to being expected," he explains.
That's why Pearce, an assistant professor who is cross-appointed with the School of Environmental Studies, is excited to be welcoming the first cohort of students into the university's new collaborative master's program in Applied Sustainability this September. "There's an enormous interest in sustainability in younger generations," he says, explaining that the program has been spearheaded by both student demand and faculty interest. "Industry has also been incredibly interested in this -- it has an enormous need for students trained in the field."
A collaborative undertaking involving faculty from the University's six engineering disciplines, students in the program will work towards either an M.A.Sc (four courses plus a thesis) or an MEng (seven courses plus a project) in chemical, civil, geological, mechanical and materials, electrical and computer or mining engineering with a designation in applied sustainability. The program's goal will be to expose students to the implementation of sustainable engineering solutions within the broad context of sustainability theory. As such, every student in the program will be required to take two core courses in sustainability issues, with the rest catering to their area of specialization -- everything from energy technology and fresh water systems, to resource management and policy studies.
In fact, explains Dr. Bruce Anderson, a professor in Civil Engineering with a cross appointment to the School of Urban and Regional Planning, it's that connection to policy that sets the new program apart. "Engineering students are good at devising solutions," he says, "but the application of those solutions...that's where we need to create the grounding in policy." After all, he explains, it's the only way to implement real change when it comes to solving some of the planet's most serious problems - from water shortages, to renewable energy use and sustainable material cycles. "In the real world," adds Dr. Pearce, "it's not good enough to just have a technical solution. Engineers need to know how to implement them."
"Our water systems are an example of a non-sustainable practice," says Dr. Anderson, who specializes in source water protection. "And our water problems aren't going away. They are increasing. We are at a point in history when more people are living in cities than in rural areas. But those cities will not be survivable if we doing re-engineer our water systems. It has to do with supply and demand, but with water, there won't be any more supply without taking an extreme course of action."
When it comes to engineering, says Dr. Pearce, sustainable practices are about "designing or engineering systems so that we can provide for our needs while continuing to preserve the life support system of the planet indefinitely." Both Drs. Pearce and Anderson agree that ultimately, it's about creating long-term strategies for change.
And they're confident their new program will graduate broad-minded engineers who are up for the challenge. "In traditional mechanical engineering for example, you might learn about something like an internal combustion engine - and that's important," explains Dr. Pearce, "but the program will also be investigating the bigger picture. We're looking at things like how to create a sustainable transportation system - and that's a problem that can't be solved by just improving the efficiency of the internal combustion engine."
The program's graduates will be snapped up by the job market, too: "If you look at jobs at the Ministry of the Environment, for example, engineering students grounded in policy would be more desirable," says Anderson. After all, says Dr. Pearce: "We're not just training engineering students. We're training engineering students who are capable of creating positive change."