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The Power of Integration: Engineering, Geoscience, & Sustainability

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions and presentations at the 2013 Engineering, Sustainability, and the Geosciences workshop.

Interdisciplinary teaching in itself is a powerful tool for preparing students for the workforce and is a mechanism to engage students in thinking critically about how systems interact. The integration of engineering, geoscience, and sustainability present a unique opportunity for students to work together to solve problems related to sustainability issues. In order to integrate engineering and geoscience, one must understand that these two disciplinary cultures approach and solve problems in different ways. However, with careful planning and design, integrating these two disciplines is a powerful approach to teaching about sustainability issues.

Two Cultures

Engineers and geoscientists have different ways of approaching and implementing problem solving. Engineers tend to approach problem solving from a quantitative perspective, and to focus on efficiently finding an appropriate solution to a problem. Geoscientists, on the other hand, are more apt to focus on understanding the problem, looking at the history of the problem and engaging in critical thinking about different possibilities or outcomes. Neither approach to problem solving is 'right' or 'wrong,' but it is useful to identify that the two cultures exist in order to overcome integration obstacles and begin to build respect for and to capitalize on the strengths of each way of thinking. Further, bringing together the geoscience understanding of process, engineering focus on design, and social science understanding of policy issues is a strong approach to looking at and addressing sustainability issues.

Points of Intersection

The first step toward integrating engineering and geoscience is in identifying and building from common ground. There are several sustainability-related key concepts that bridge the engineering and geoscience divide. These include:

  • Risk and reliability, including design criteria (e.g., sizing, resistance, capacity), disaster/hazards planning and mitigation
  • Systems thinking - cradle-to-grave, life-cycle assessment
  • Ethical responsibility and public safety, including ensuring a supply of potable water, ensuring safe reliable food supply; soil conservation, urbanization
  • Multi-criteria decision making (Triple Bottom Line, Five Pillars)
  • Construction, materials, and infrastructure - green manufacturing, product substitution, life cycle, planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance, and decommissioning
  • Finite natural resources - water, land/soil
  • Environmental quality - air, water, soil - fate and transport, impact assessment
  • Transportation - logistics, including hazards, economics, equity
  • Restoration - water/wastewater treatment, air pollution control, stream channel rehabilitation
  • Urban and community planning in general as well as anticipating and in response to natural hazards
  • Coastal geology/engineering: climate impacts, sea-level change, coastal aquifers
  • Improving public science and engineering literacy
  • Energy - including energy policy, priorities, sustainable development, usage, and managing the transition from carbon-based energy to the next generation
  • Adaptation and mitigation strategies for the effects of climate change

Once you have identified common concepts related to your course or program, you can start building course material to integrate these topics. For example, Gretchen Miller (Texas A&M University) describes how she uses uncertainty and risk to integrate geoscience and engineering into her course in her essay Uncertainty and Risk: Bringing the Geosciences into the Civil Engineering Classroom.

Methods such as team teaching, interdisciplinary research projects, field projects, and service learning projects can be designed to utilize expertise from different types of thinkers. Projects such as the Engineering for Change forum may also provide new ideas, networking opportunities, and guidance for projects that you and your students can undertake.

Essays related to integrating geoscience and engineering:

The essays below were selected from those contributed by participants of the Engineering, Sustainability, and the Geosciences workshop held in March 2013. The entire collection of participant-contributed essays are available from the workshop's essay collection.

Example Activities and Courses

Get inspired! The faculty-contributed course descriptions and activity examples provided below highlight some of the ways you can integrate geoscience and engineering in the classroom. Use them to get ideas for your own classroom, modify them to fit your course, or use them as they are.

Course Examples

A full list of course descriptions that integrate geoscience and and engineering are available in this course collection.

Activity Examples

A full list of activity examples that integrate geoscience and and engineering are available in this activity collection.