By Henry Louie, Ph.D. and Phillip Thompson, Ph.D., P.E., Seattle University

Seattle University students in Zambia on a KiloWatts for Humanity trip (photo courtesy of Seattle University)

 

Undergraduate engineering students Reeha Rauf, ’25, ’Adrian Rivera, ’23 and Enrique Rodriguez, ’22, work in the Humanitarian Engineering Applications Lab group with Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Henry Louie at Seattle University (Seattle U). Their research, part of a three-year National Science Foundation-funded project, aims to improve the performance and reduce the cost of residential solar power on the nation’s Navajo Reservation. These off-grid solar systems serve some of the more than 10,000 homes on the reservation, where power lines have not and may never reach.

“What I like about this research is that it is practical and will improve people’s lives. We are aiming for sustainable designs, which also means understanding the culture and social context in which the off-grid systems will be used,” says Rodriguez, who is majoring in electrical engineering.

This research project is just one example of how sustainability is woven into the undergraduate engineering experience at Seattle U. “In addition to economic considerations, we ask our students to reflect on the potential societal and environmental impacts of their projects,” says Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Phillip Thompson, director of Seattle U’s Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability. “We have students consider the triple-bottom-line in the classroom, in our senior design capstone experience, and through undergraduate research projects. We also set an example as a university by prioritizing sustainability in our decision-making.”

The University’s commitment and leadership in sustainability is evident in its #3 ranking among 650 master’s degree institutions by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. In 2021, the University was ranked #14 in Sierra Magazine’s annual “Cool Schools” ranking. And Seattle U was the first university in Washington State, and the first Jesuit university in the United States, to fully commit to divesting its endowment from firms that own coal, oil or natural gas reserves by 2023.

Students in all three of Seattle U’s engineering departments (Civil and Environmental, Electrical and Computer, and Mechanical Engineering) learn about the importance of sustainability in engineering design and decision-making throughout the curriculum. To engineer a more just and sustainable future, students need to go beyond considering just the technical and economic aspects of a design. Traditional engineering courses, such as thermodynamics, are rich with problems and projects that challenge students to produce designs with environmental and social considerations in mind.

Seattle U students engaging in aquaponics in Peru (photo courtesy of Seattle University)

 

A common theme in many courses is a realistic design project that is sustainability-focused. For example, Global Engineering Economics, which is required of all undergraduate engineering students, has student teams develop a plan for an engineering-related business that works in the developing world. Whether their plans are for bicycle-powered cell phone chargers or drinking water treatment systems, the students must first evaluate their business’ triple-bottom-line.

There are also more unique elective offerings in our departments: while courses in renewable energy are becoming more commonplace in undergraduate engineering curricula, Seattle U also offers specialized courses on sustainability. In Civil and Environmental engineering, students may take a course on Sustainable Engineering that focuses on sustainable building design. Electrical engineering students can learn about designing sustainable renewable energy in energy impoverished settings in a course on Off-Grid Systems in Developing Countries.

Engineering students also encounter sustainability from perspectives outside their technical disciplines. Through the University’s core curriculum (as part of the Jesuit liberal arts tradition), engineering students may take classes such as Ecocriticism and Sustainability, or Social Justice and the Environment.

The capstone engineering design experience offers another touchpoint for students to engage with sustainability. Seattle U’s Project Center matches senior engineering student teams with industry and nonprofit sponsors to solve real-world problems. Many of the projects are sustainability-focused. This year, mechanical engineering students are tasked with reducing the energy consumption of a group of historical structures and exploring renewable energy sources for Seattle’s iconic St. James Cathedral. Meanwhile, a team of electrical engineering students are working with Tacoma Power, a local utility firm, to design and evaluate a renewable energy solution to power an island community in the Puget Sound. In the Civil and Environmental engineering department, students are working with Pallet—a social purpose corporation that helps cities to transition homeless communities into permanent housing and employment—to identify best practices for rapid-response modular shelter layouts and to implement off-grid technologies that promote social well-being.

Seattle U students engaging in aquaponics in Thailand (photo courtesy of Seattle University)

 

The opportunities for students to engage with sustainability extends beyond the classroom. Since 2004, Seattle U’s Engineers for a Sustainable World chapter has worked with communities in Haiti, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Peru, Thailand and Zambia on projects ranging from aquaponics farming to housing. To date, more than 20,000 people have benefited from their safe drinking water projects.

Seattle U also maintains close ties to local nonprofit organizations that are sustainability-focused and have an international impact. KiloWatts for Humanity (KWH), a nonprofit organization started by Seattle U faculty and staff, implements solar-powered energy kiosks in rural Zambia. Engineering students, mentored by and working closely with KWH’s volunteer-practitioners, are involved in several aspects of the project, from electrical system design and community surveying to in-country system commissioning. These experiential opportunities can have a transformative effect on students, who can see firsthand the enhanced importance of sustainability in at-risk communities.

Seattle U’s commitment to preparing engineering students to build a more just and sustainable future reflects what Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, or ‘On Care for Our Common Home’: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”

Henry Louie, Ph.D. is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Seattle University. Phillip Thompson, Ph.D., P.E. is a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and director of the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability at Seattle U.