Partnerships & events | 01 September 2022

‘Engineers are part of the solution’: How future engineers are taking on the climate challenge

Change happens when everyone is on board. When all cross-sections of community – from industry to local government to businesses to stakeholders – are united.

That’s the premise on which the Water Engineering subject at Swinburne University unit is built. Designed to embed climate-conscious thinking in the next generation of engineers, this subject is at the forefront of sustainable engineering education.

To learn more about the significance of this unit, we chatted with our General Manager and the subject’s Guest Lecturer, Sehon Pellew, and the unit’s coordinator, Dr Scott Rayburg.


A future of purpose-led engineers – it starts in this unit

The engineering of our cities has a radical impact on our planet, either supporting or harming animals, plants and biodiversity. Yet traditionally, engineering education has undervalued this, primarily focusing on teaching technical know-how. But with the climate crisis escalating, academics and the broader industry have realised the need to reframe the role of engineers in addressing major social challenges. Subjects like Water Engineering at Swinburne University are leading the way.

The subject is an opportunity for students to reimagine conventional engineering practices through a sustainability lens. While the unit has existed as a pipeline design subject for many years, its scope has expanded to include an investigative process, where teams of five research a different sustainable technology – whether that’s a rainwater tank, stormwater harvesting or green roof – before coming together to devise a plan of implementation. On top of learning about these technologies, students must factor in council and water authority requirements, as well as pricing. In the end, the top teams are invited to pitch their proposal to our Millar Merrigan leaders.

While water engineering is still at the subject’s core, the subject now includes other aspects of sustainability. This expansion was an essential and inevitable transition for Scott, whose area of expertise is in Urban Heat Islands (UHI).

“My research area is UHI. So I know that vegetation is one of the best ways to combat climate change effects and cool the environment. That’s why I was eager to encourage students to consider rain gardens, street trees, green walls and green roofs, on top of water engineering practices such as stormwater harvesting,” says Scott.

This multifaceted approach to teaching students about sustainability is essential, and emerging as industry best practice. We know that countries must draw on various tools to address the impacts of climate change. On top of the subject embodying a comprehensive outlook, it is also highly practical, which Sehon considers distinctive from other engineering subjects.

“Most university projects only touch on a small part of land development, which is quite disconnected from the industry. But in this unit, students see how an entire project comes together. They’re also engaging with progressive ideas that are at the fore of sustainable engineering discussions”

On top of this, Scott adds: “The students’ proposed developments must be within a specific price point. This creates another complexity that reflects the real world: At the end of the day, the developer must walk away with a profit.”

These converging elements make the subject pioneering in sustainable engineering education. We’re thrilled to be behind it, both with Sehon as a lecturer and our leaders comprising the chosen industry panel.

Acknowledging engineers’ potential for good

To solve the climate crisis, we need systemic change – across all industries. As Scott notes, engineers can, and must, be part of the solution.

“We have to accept our responsibility in these global challenges… we engineered the structures and the power plants. We made the decisions, often backed by corporations or governments, to preference certain technologies,” says Scott.

While some may perceive this as a burden, Scott’s lens is more optimistic, as he believes it affords engineers the power to enact positive change.

“I want my students walking out of the door challenging the status quo – and recognising the need to do things differently. These students are the people who will be running the companies in 10 to 20 years. If they’re already thinking differently now, they’ll bring these new ideas to positions of power.”

These new sustainably-driven ideas are imperative, especially after the 2022 findings from the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, which emphasised the need for comprehensive and escalated action against greenhouse
gas emissions.

As Sehon says, “We know the engineering industry must transition to net zero. We also know that we can have the biggest impact here by influencing the next generation of engineers, by fostering a new mindset where the default position is one of sustainability.”

Developing clever, enduring solutions to these complex climate issues requires a generational and educational shift. This unit facilitates both – reframing an engineer’s position to champion social impact.

Using partnerships to power positive change

At Millar Merrigan, we know we have a responsibility to use our position for good. That’s why we’re thrilled for our leadership team to advise on the students’ proposals in this subject.

On top of this partnership, we’re also championing sustainability through internal collaboration with our planning, urban design, landscape architecture and building design teams to achieve desirable outcomes for individuals.

If you’re looking for advisors at the forefront of sustainable engineering, we can help. Talk to our experts today.

To learn more about this important subject, read the guide here.

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