Students Want to Make a Difference? Here’s How
The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals offer an ideal platform.
Opinion by William E. Kelly and J. P. Mohsen
Sustainable development and sustainability have played an increasingly important role in engineering education over the past 20 years, but more needs to be done. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer educators an ideal platform to inspire engineering students at all levels who want to make a difference in their communities and the world. Launched a year ago, the 17 goals engage engineers and scientists in trying to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, from hunger and lack of sanitation to income inequality and widespread yet preventable diseases. They provide a context for much of what engineers will do over the next 15 years, the period set to reach the goals.
There is an incorrect perception that the SDGs apply only to developing countries. In fact, the number one target—extreme poverty, currently defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 a day—persists in parts of the United States. Its causes and solutions can be explored. For example, the failure of Baltimore’s public transportation infrastructure to adequately serve poorer areas has been found to contribute to poverty. Sustainable Development Goals 8, 9, and 11, which address decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation, and infrastructure; and sustainable cities and communities, are relevant here. Baltimore is one of three cities working with the Sustainable Development Action Network at Columbia University to develop a local sustainable development plan.
Each goal has several targets, bringing the total number of targets to 169. For some goals, the ways that engineers from various fields can make major contributions are quickly apparent: agricultural and biosystems engineering, Goal 2: zero hunger; biomedical engineers, Goal 3: good health; environmental engineers, Goal 6: clean water and sanitation; electrical and mechanical engineers, Goal 7: affordable and clean energy; civil engineers, Goal 9: infrastructure. Goal 12, sustainable consumption and production patterns, could fit all engineering disciplines, but in particular agricultural and food engineering, and industrial engineering. While the connection between engineering and other goals is less obvious, a careful review of the associated targets reveals ways that engineers can help. Such is the case with goals about reduction of poverty as well as empowering women and girls. The SDG’s can be introduced in freshman engineering classes or covered in more depth in senior-level courses. To gain a basic understanding, faculty members and students can turn to the U.N. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform and to webinars put on by engineering societies.
Countries are expected to report their progress on meeting the goals; the first 16 country reports were delivered at the UN High Level Political Forum in July 2016. U.S. progress toward the goals can be viewed on the web site http://sdg.data.gov/. In addition, USAID has set up an innovation exchange website to encourage and support technological solutions. Research opportunities for faculty abound. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), working with the State Department, recently held a roundtable for engineering and scientific societies to facilitate collaboration and sharing.
There are many ways to provide input to the U.N., which recognizes the importance of engaging young people in achieving the SDGs and in putting countries on a sustainable trajectory beyond 2030. For engineering faculty and students, the primary route is through the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), a member of the U.N.’s Science and Technology Major Group. The American Association of Engineering Societies represents the U.S. community as the national member of WFEO.
Skeptics who question the point of setting targets might be surprised at the progress recorded in the U.N.’s last challenge of this kind, the Millennium Development Goals. For instance, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015, and child mortality has dropped by more than half over the past 25 years.
Now is the time for engineering educators to start a campus discussion on how engineering programs—and universities and colleges more broadly—can contribute to meeting the goals. It is up to us, the engineering education community, to create awareness among our students and alumni. Activities built around the goals not only will help make the world safer and healthier, but promise to produce better engineers and global citizens.
William E. Kelly is a former public affairs director at ASEE and former dean of engineering at Catholic University. J. P. Mohsen is a professor and chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Louisville and past ASEE president (2009-2010).