Choosing the right engineering program is just one of many influences on future career prospects for budding engineers. To be competitive amid a changing higher education landscape while also producing top-notch engineers, programs should focus on building a strong foundation (pun intended) in design and critical thinking.
ASCE asserts that civil engineers need to prepare now for tomorrow’s challenges. How can we prepare students to be the problem-solvers of tomorrow, today? I would argue that we do that through shared experiences in activities with “no singular right answer,” and exploration of the iterative art of conceptual design and design thinking.
In my courses at Ohio Northern University, I create activities for students that are fuzzy, nontraditional, and may or may not involve math. Take, for example, my water-energy-society infrastructure nexus course, affectionately shorted to WESIN. I cover the electricity grid, drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, commodification of resources, and many other “big picture” topics. Not only do I cover the grid from a major U.S. infrastructure perspective, I also incorporate energy markets, power generation tradeoffs, impacts on other resources (e.g., water and air quality), and energy policy.
Content alone might not be enough to spark curiosity and innovation, so I include a role-playing game of my own creation called Balance the Grid. Given a standard electricity supplier mix (nuclear and coal baseload, natural gas peaking plants, seasonal hydroelectric plants, and a healthy mix of renewables), I push the students to rapid-fire solve grid-balancing problems over the course of a class period. Scenarios continue to change (e.g., a hot summer day with peak demand, major coal plant is down for maintenance, wind speed is ~0 mph, price of gas just dropped) while students must balance the grid effectively and determine the market price of electricity. End-of-semester feedback included this: “The grid balancing activity greatly improved my understanding of how electricity is supplied to the grid.”
But let us dig deeper …
How might knowledge of grid operations, policy, and resource tradeoffs influence an engineer’s recommendations to a power company? Can tradeoffs in water use (withdrawal and consumption) and power generation at an individual power plant be justified under current EPA effluent standards, and what impact does this have on water resource availability? Using a design thinking approach (especially the problem definition and subsequent ideation phases), I task teams with developing solutions to today’s engineering grand challenges. Working through a truly difficult problem as a team, and developing an action plan, forces students to innovate, create, and communicate.
After an exciting semester of role-playing, discussions, problem-solving, and video-creation projects, it is time for the final exam. Below is a question I included on the previous WESIN final exam. Note the intentional lack of math/equations, as students are required to draw on cumulative information throughout the course and truly act as engineers in the decision-making process:
A coal power plant located in an arid and water-stressed region is investigating the option to retrofit their cooling process from once-through cooling to recirculating cooling or air cooling. Given what you know about withdrawal and consumption (once-through withdraws more water but consumes less water than recirculating), describe how you as an environmental engineer would investigate this opportunity and what factors would weigh into your recommendations. Other key points to note: the recirculating cooling will require additional land purchase, power production would decrease with air cooling (parasitic efficiency losses to run fans), and the cooling water source waters are at an all-time low level. Include/discuss what grand challenge you should consider in your analysis.
How might you have answered such a question on your WESIN final exam? Engineering is more than math and manuals, it is the careful consideration of tradeoffs, regulations, and design such that you not only meet, but exceed, your client’s expectations. It is through iterative design and navigating complicated grand challenges that a great engineer can shine.
If you would like to learn more about my WESIN class, or other interdisciplinary, design-based classes at ONU, feel free to reach out.\
Dr. Lauren H. Logan is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Ohio Northern University. Her background is highly interdisciplinary, with B.S. degrees in electrical engineering and geological sciences from Ohio University (2010), an M.S. degree in biological sciences through the Ecological Sciences and Engineering Interdisciplinary Program from Purdue (2013), and a Ph.D. in civil engineering through the Energy-Water-Environment Sustainability Program from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (2018). Logan’s interdisciplinary background and passion for “thinking big” informs her course development, tasking engineers to think beyond disciplinary boundaries. Her research focus is on thermoelectric power plants, their water use, and impacts on aquatic ecosystems, with ties to engineering, biology, policy, and economics. In addition to her committee work in ASCE-EWRI (Sustainability, and Environmental and Water Resources Systems committees), Logan is a district director for Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, a 4-H volunteer, and serves on several diversity-equity-inclusion committees at ONU. In her spare time she enjoys hiking, watching horror films with her husband, Dan Newkirk, and spending time with her three pets, Gandalf (cat), Gimli (hedgehog), and Greg (cat). For questions or more information on course design, Dr. Logan can be contacted via email: [email protected].
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