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Larry Nies

Professor of Civil Engineering

Engineering ethics: maintaining a sustainable course

When Larry Nies introduced his Engineering for Environmental Sustainability class in 2002, a few colleagues likened the topic to a passing fad. Some students scoffed at the class as nothing more than hippie peacenik propaganda cloaked in green liberalism. Turns out he was ahead of the curve.

What a difference eight years makes. Spiking fuel prices. A colossal oil spill. Developing nations clamoring for their piece of the modern-living pie. Sustainability, once the calling card of the hippie generation, has become more than a bumper sticker on the back of a VW bus. It’s mainstream.

Now, in 2010, nearly all Fortune 500 companies place sustainability front and center in strategic plans. Conserving energy, increasing efficiency, and simply going green translate to bottom-line green. Nies gets e-mails from former “cranky” students who have a newfound respect for the class they once viewed with skepticism.

Just as the concept of sustainability grew in the public social consciousness, so did Nies’ class — doubling in size to about 100 students. The class is more than transference of factual material. It’s not a matter of deriving an equation, doing a calculation, and arriving at a right answer, he says.

“We really started exploring what sustainability means,” says Nies, who focuses primarily on the development of renewable and sustainable energy in his research. “It’s a combination of technical, political, economic, and social issues. There’s a real ethical framework, as well. And there are differences in the way people think about sustainability from culture to culture.”

Students work in groups on an energy and a water project. Nies may ask them, for example, to provide transportation energy for a large urban area, develop a snapshot of how the area looks now, and then project system changes out to 2050. They are also challenged to consider economic and political concerns.

A guest lecturer recently presented on the topic of “conflict minerals.” Coltan, a highly coveted mineral used in capacitors for virtually all things electronic (game players, cell phones, laptops, etc.), has turned the African Congo into a money-hungry and bloodthirsty region. Nies says gangs who control the mineral are so committed to profit and exploitation that they’ve driven the only other major supplier, in Australia, out of business.

“A lot of engineering students designing electronic devices may not think about where the materials come from,” Nies says. “We want them to start thinking about supply chains, environmental lifecycles, and environmental impact. And we want them to think about the economic and social impacts of that supply chain, too.”

Nies takes his subject to heart, putting words into action as one of only two faculty members on the University’s Sustainability Council Steering Committee. This group acts as a liaison for sustainability issues among all campus stakeholders.

And he doesn’t let the hippie, liberal label connected to sustainability bother him. “I don’t really care if someone thinks about it that way,” Nies says. “To me, sustainability goes back to the core values of our country when people like my grandparents were living in the Great Depression. Sacrifice and efficiency were highly valued, and nothing was wasted. There were no ‘disposable’ items. When a chicken went into a kitchen, no part of it left.”

With sustainability classes like the one Nies developed in the curriculum, Purdue students are leaving school with a better idea of what it takes to engineer a healthy world without leaving it in ruins.

Photos by: Andrew Hancock