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Materials and Sustainable Development: How to Teach It? What are the Challenges?

By: , Posted on: March 11, 2015

Elec carA “sustainable development” is one that contributes in an equitable way to human welfare, does so in a way that minimizes the drain on natural resources, complies with the rule of law and is financially viable.  Many civil, commercial, government and academic projects claim to do this, and many of them have implications for materials consumption and use – examples are: developing biopolymers to replace those derived from oil, subsidising electric cars, promoting bamboo as a building material and requiring photo-voltaic (PV) panels on new residential buildings.

We refer to them as “articulations” of sustainable development.  But how are they to be assessed?  There is no simple, “right” answer to questions of sustainable development. Instead there is a thoughtful, well-researched analysis of a proposed articulation that recognizes the concerns of stakeholders, the demands it creates for materials and energy the economic, legal and social constraints and its environmental legacy.

Introducing students to this complexity is a challenge,  but important if we want engineers and scientists to influence policy decisions that will affect our future. The aim is not to define a single metric or index of sustainability; rather it is to improve the quality of discussion and debate on projects that claim to be sustainable developments.

It is subject that I have explored with my colleagues Didac Ferrer, Jordi Seglas,  John Ableson and the team at Granta Design. We have created teaching resources for a problem-based approach to the study of Materials and Sustainable Development and have tried them out in Master’s-level courses at the University of Cambridge, University of Illinois, Urbana Champagne and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. This process helped us to understand the difficulties that might arise in teaching such a complex topic and to refine the resources accordingly.

Areas that the students found most challenging included:

  1. Refining the objective; just as you need to refine a project brief, you need to ask questions about the size, location and time frame of any proposed sustainable development before you can analyze it.
  2. Understanding stakeholder perspectives and deciding who is important and influential.
  3. Reflecting on proposed developments in an unbiased, fact-based way, not swayed by greenwash or climate change deniers.
  4. Being comfortable that there may be no right answer.
  5. Having the ability to think laterally and propose other ways to reach the desired outcome that by-pass the difficulties that surface during the first iteration.

To enable students to gain these higher level skills, we have developed a 5-step methodology that the students can work through, supported by example case studies, ready-made templates to structure their work and an engaging, interactive database (CES EduPack) of respected, traceable data on Materials and Processes, Energy Sources and Storage, Nations of the World, Regulation and Legislation. Quick access to reliable data helps the students to go into more depth in their analysis within the short time frame of a course.  The methodology and case studies are described in a new book Materials for Sustainable Development.

materials and sustainable developmentWe continue to refine the methodology, the case studies and the resources to support them. We are always keen to hear from you about your experiences of teaching this challenging topic.

Michael’s new book Materials and Sustainable Development is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code “STC215” at checkout and save 25% on your very own copy!

About the Author 

mike ashby 1Mike Ashby, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, is the author/co-author of a number of texts on Materials and of over 200 papers in the Materials field. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, the Royal Academy of Engineering and a Member of the American Academy of Engineering.  Mike co-founded Granta Design in Cambridge and remains part of the team putting together teaching resources and driving the development of CES EduPack forward.

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