A reminder about the imminent climate catastrophe and how we should educate engineers to prepare for it

[The following text is adapted from the after-dinner speech I gave at the University of Edinburgh Engineering Faculty’s away day. It was originally titled ‘How problem-based learning can save the world and make you happy too’. But I have renamed it ‘A reminder about the imminent climate catastrophe and how we should educate engineers to prepare for it’]

Tonight’s engagement is my first since I took a summer sabbatical, which I planned to use to work on a book. Those plans changed in my first week away when I got involved in the Extinction Rebellion summer uprising in Bristol. That experience of direct action and the reaction it caused prompted me to read much more about climate breakdown, models for political change, the implications of societal collapse, the role of engineers to help minimise impacts and deal with upheaval in our own communities and the role of the people that teach engineers.

Joining the dots, there are clear implications in my mind for how we should be teaching engineers. But before we go there, we need to try to engage with the full scale problem we are in. This is not the usual repartee of after-dinner speeches, but we can’t not talk about this stuff any more.

Of course, we get it. I bet everyone in this room understands climate change and is committed to taking sustainable actions in way or another. But do we really get it? Have we really thought about the likelihood of collapse of society as we know it and its consequences?

Deep Adaptation’ is the title of widely cited paper by environment and management academic Prof. Jem Bendell. It gives a thorough summary of recent climate science, why it is reported in different ways, why professional people find it difficult to engage with the full horror of the situation, and how we should prepare for what is coming. To set the scene, I’m going to pull out what I see as the knock-out blows that Bendell gives us.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has consistently underestimated the impacts of increased CO2 on global temperatures and sea levels, and since 2014, those two metrics have seen non-linear growth, consistent with the triggering of dangerous feedback loops. I’ll mention two of these loops.

The first relates to Artic sea ice. The average temperature in the Arctic is now 3.5 degrees warmer than in 1900. Warmer air over the Arctic is pulling the jet stream further north, leading to further warming of the area and accelerating melting of the ice. The September extent of the sea ice in 2018 was 2/3 of what it used to be and the sea ice is likely to disappear completely in a few years time. Arctic sea ice plays an important role in reducing temperatures on Earth by reflecting a proportion of the sun’s radiation back into space. When the sea ice disappears completely, it will have the equivalent warming effect of increasing our global CO2 emissions by 50 percent.

The second feedback loop relates to methane, a greenhouse gas that is ten times stronger than CO2 and that is currently taken little into account in most climate models. Methane is locked up in abundance in permafrost. Melting permafrost will release this methane into the atmosphere. Recent models suggest that when the permafrost releases its methane, the impact will be a five degree increase in average global temperatures, which is likely to trigger a global extinction event. Recent measurements suggest that the release of this methane has begun.

These feedback mechanisms make a mockery of the notion of carbon budgets – that we have time to steadily decrease our emissions while pursing a business-as-usual agenda. It is likely that the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere is enough to lead to the full melting of the arctic and the release of permafrost methane.

The triggering of these feedback loops is likely to lead to mass starvation, disease, extinction of many species, mass migration and war. Soon. And not far away, but here – before we’ve completed HS2, built a third runway at Heathrow or constructed ourselves a fleet of driverless cars.

The words I have just said are hard to accept. I don’t think it is possible for us to fully accept them. I can’t fully accept them. The news is too hard to comprehend. Bendell goes on to look at psychological reasons for this difficulty of coming to terms with existential truths just as these. One reason I think that is pertinent to our professional setting is that to conceive of the type of collapse that is on the cards is to accept a world in which the institutions and organisations within which we derive our sense of self-worth, our sense of being good people trying to do good things, no longer exist. We lose our identity. We can’t identify ourselves in this new world, and so we choose not to think about it. (This form of denial may be something that our students experience too, but I suspect less so because they have less professional reputation at stake, and more of their lives to live.)

So what do we do about it? Councils, organisations, parliament, universities – maybe even this university – are declaring a climate emergency. We now need to act as if it is true. We need to reset the design brief for everything that we do and to start planning for massive change, both to see off the very worst form of climate breakdown, and to deal with consequences of what we have already set in motion by our actions hitherto. By working through the scenarios, we will come to accept, come to terms with, as far is possible, the situation and then we have a hope of creating the best outcome we can.

Rebellion, Transition and Recovery

Bringing my talk back to the topic of the day, the education of engineers, what role will the engineer of the near future have, and how shall we prepare them through the education we provide? To help, I’ve imagined three broad categories of engineering activity that we need in the future: rebellion, transition and recovery.

Rebellion is the act of rejecting the status quo and bringing about a radically different approach. The time for incremental improvements has passed: we need a radical change to our approach in reducing CO2 emissions and preparing for the changes that are coming. Here ‘Rebel Engineers’ have an absolutely critical role to play.

Rebel engineers need to signal the impact of climate breakdown on the engineering infrastructure which supports us. They need to speak truth to power about the scale of the problem, about what we need to do, and what need to stop doing.

My colleague Chris Wise has talked about the idea of an engineer’s ‘Hypocratic Oath’, which I understand to be a pledge and a moral duty to abide by the principle of serving the needs of humans and the ecosystem that support us without compromising the needs of generations to come. The Rebel Engineer would be scrupulous in applying this principle. To do so requires critical thinking, confidence and conviction.

The Rebel Engineer must also start to imagine the brave new world that we are going to engineer. The scientists have sounded the alarm; it’s the engineers’ job to write the plan. The Rebel Engineers must blaze the trail before others are ready to think about it.

The agenda is changing, and will continue to do so (thanks in part to the role of the Rebel Engineers). Soon I think we will be in the midst of a great transition away from a growth-centred world to one that is obliged to live within its means. This period will be the domain of the Transition Engineer. In essence the job description will be the same as today, applying engineering thinking to serve humanity, but the need for ingenuity will be greater than ever before, the technologies that they will be using are unclear at this stage, and the working context will be unfamiliar.

The Transition Engineer needs a solid grounding in first principles and the ability to apply these in a wide range of contexts; she needs greater levels of ingenuity, and the ability to quickly adapt to changing contexts. The Transition Engineer is a generalist.

Even if the Rebel and Transition Engineers play their part, we have to accept that some sort of breakdown of society as we currently understand it is heading our way. The Recovery Engineer is the person on the ground, in communities, helping people to survive and meet their daily needs.

The Recovery Engineer takes the qualities of the generalist and first principles thinker and adds to it the ability to act independently. This world is quite possibly one in which all the current institutions, organisations and supply chains that we take for granted today may no-longer exist. The Recovery Engineer needs to be able to work in a community and think on their feet.

Future skills

Taken together, these three types of engineer of the near future need to be able to think critically, to ask questions, to identify problems and work both independently and collaboratively to solve them. These are skills which are best developed through inductive learning methods.

Unfortunately, in my experience, it is still the case that a lot of engineering education proceeds on the basis of knowledge transfer and verification. Crudely speaking, we define a corpus of knowledge that engineers must pick up, then conceive of theoretical problems to check whether or not they have done their homework.

This approach, while easier to assess, comes with a number of problems. Firstly, it teaches recall, not the ability to seek out knowledge when needed. Secondly, it can be demotivating for students – research shows that when students can define their own learning objective, for example in self-led student projects, they are more motivated to learn. Third, the system tends to promote point-scoring rather than reflection and collaboration. And finally, it assumes we know what we need to teach.

On this last point, as experienced people we do have valuable insights into what it is useful to know about; however, we have to acknowledge that the previous generation haven’t managed to take sufficient action on climate change to prevent this emergency, and so why should the next generation trust us to be fully informed about what they need to know. I look back on my own work to produce a guide in 2012 on embedding sustainability in the civil engineering curriculum and now realise it was timid in comparison to what we should have been educating students about then.

The potential for problem-based learning

Problem-based learning takes a different approach to traditional teaching, putting learners in control of their learning and transforming teachers into guides. I think there is a strong case to be made for adopting problem-based learning principles at the core of engineering teaching in order to create the autonomous, collaborative, critically thinking engineers that the near future requires.

In the last three years I have been doing lots of work developing training for staff in problem-based leaning, learning in particular from Prof. Søren Willert at the University of Aalborg in Denmark as part of the EU Erasmus+ funded Enginite programme.

(There has been lots written about problem-based learning and there is a risk that we can get stuck in a discussion about different approaches and acronyms for particular sub-pedagogies. There is clearly a place for such examination, but above all what I am exalting teaching staff to consider is how far they can go to give students ownership of their learning, and to encourage teaching staff to develop a reflective practice to understand what is and isn’t working.)

The approach to problem-based learning that I advocate goes broadly as follows:

  • Let the students own their learning by allowing them to define the problems that they want to work on. Of course there can be some negotiation here to keep problems aligned around broad course objectives, but the overall ownership rests with the student.
  • Guide students towards solving meaningful problems – problems that are not too easy nor too hard.
  • Work with real problems, not theoretical ones. Go and find them in the community.
  • Travel with the students on their learning journey. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answer: your role is to be an expert on process.
  • Help the students reflect on what they have learnt and the success of their learning strategy, and reflect yourself on the successes of your teaching strategy.
  • Help students identify – to use Søren’s phrase – the ‘exemplarity’ in what they have done, that learning which could be transferred to other situations.
  • Repeat, asking students to work out what problem they want to solve next.

In this teaching model you are teaching process and not content. Your job is to be intensely focused on where the student is going, and to help them understand what they have learnt, and ultimately to assess them on their process and not what they have learnt. In doing so, you are building the ability to ask the right questions, to develop learning strategies, to collaborate, to take initiative and to be reflective.

The approach will help train the Rebel Engineer in critical thinking and self determination and should build confidence to challenge the status quo. The Transitional Engineer will develop a practice that mixes first-principles working with working on a range of problems, building their capacity as a generalist. And the Recovery Engineer adds to these skills the ability to work in communities with real people on real projects in real ecosystems.

Our well-being as teachers

The problem-based learning method above has benefits for us as teachers too and I think it can boost our wellbeing in a number of ways as we continue in our important role.

The approach requires us to be reflective, and this is a benefit that has the potential to extend beyond the realms of our teaching into our personal lives. It’s an approach that recognises the learning in every situation, and builds self knowledge too. The approach also unburdens us from having to be an expert on everything the student is learning. This means in practical way we spend less time doing prep, but is also frees us up to explore more topics.

We have seen in Economics departments students rejecting traditional teaching based on infinite growth models, and I foresee students rejecting engineering teaching that is training them to design, build and operate business-as-usual engineering infrastructure that also assumes models of limitless growth. I believe students will get the consequences of the climate emergency faster than the teachers, and I think it will be more fulfilling as teachers to be working with that change rather than against it.

Finally, I think a problem-based learning curriculum would be more motivating for all. In my experience, when students are motivated about what they are doing they don’t care about grades, they are working with a passion. I can think of few more fulfilling prospects than working with a group of engaged, motivated students to make a positive contribution to the world.

References

Bendell, J. (2018). Deep Adaptation : A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy IFLAS Occasional Paper 2. Retrieved September 5, 2019, from http://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf

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