Adding Sustainability Content to An Existing Course

Professor of the Practice Linda Franzoni, Mechanical Engineering, was one of seven Duke faculty who participated in a CIT Fellowship program in Fall 2011 focusing on Sustainability in Teaching Practice. This post summarizes some of Franzoni’s teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Franzoni and the other CIT Sustainability Fellows are part of the larger group of Trillium Fellows, faculty who are committed to incorporating sustainability content into their Duke courses in alignment with Duke’s 2009 campus Climate Action Plan. For more about the Trillium Fellows, contact Charlotte Clark.

In early Fall 2011 I met with Charlotte Clark (Faculty Director of Sustainability) to go over my syllabus for EGR 10 (Introduction to Engineering) which is a course designed to introduce freshmen to engineering and to help them differentiate between the four engineering majors that we offer at Duke.  As I went over the course content, Charlotte was able to help me see ways in which slight differences and/or additions to the course would make it possible to easily incorporate sustainability content into the course.

For example, the students take mini-field trips typically on or around campus to see examples of engineering that exist all around them.  Charlotte suggested adding the Duke Farm and the SONOCO recycling plant to the list of field trip options that the students could choose from (Duke’s Chilled Water Plant & new Steam Plant were already on the list).  Transportation was the only issue that needed to be resolved for the new additions, and that was easily handled with volunteer drivers.

Another class period  involved dissecting products and discussing the engineering decisions that go into the design process.  In the past, we had not considered the life-cycle analysis associated with the product being dissected.  Incorporating a life cycle analysis into this class made the students think more critically about those design decisions and how they affect sustainability.  We began the “product dissection class” with a guest lecture on the life-cycle analysis of orange juice by comparing the environmental cost of delivering the same quantity of orange juice to the customer by different methods:  whole oranges squeezed at home, lunchbox size boxed containers, wax carton (1/2 gallon-size), glass bottle, can of concentrate, etc.  After a lively discussion and debate over what is the most environmentally-friendly method of delivering orange juice to the customer, the students were more aware of the issues that need to be considered when designing a product, in general.  We then proceeded to dissect various brands and styles of cell phones.  In addition to the usual questions about electronic components, materials used and why, mechanical parts (flip phones, in particular), we added questions about how best to package / ship the cell phones, how to reuse/recycle/dispose of old cell phones (and batteries), and more generally are there better ways to design a more environmentally friendly cell phone.

These slight modifications to an existing course demonstrate how easily one can add sustainability content into a course whose primary learning objective is not sustainability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *