Engineering education in sustainable development

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 1 September 2004



Mulder, K. (2004), "Engineering education in sustainable development", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 5 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Engineering education in sustainable development

Engineering education in sustainable development

About the Guest Editor.Karel Mulder received an MSc from Twente University (1987), and a Doctorate from Groningen University (1992) in Business Administration. Since 1992, he has been employed by Delft University of Technology (DUT) as senior lecturer. He founded the Technology and Society Department of The Royal Dutch Institute of Engineers. His research interests focus on technological innovation and sustainable development. Since 1998, he has been DUT’s project leader to implement sustainable development in all engineering programmes. In 2002, he organised the first Engineering Education in Sustainable Development (EESD) conference and he is currently engaged in the second EESD conference in Barcelona. E-mail:

Technology has long been regarded as the cause of all global problems that we face today: climate change driven by our fossil fuel energy technologies, degradation of ecosystems by our sheer unlimited technological exploitation, pollution by technologies that were designed without any regard to their health and environmental effects. Moreover, technological enabled industrial societies were regarded as the cause of global and local inequity and exploitation.

However, there is always a counter argument. The number of people that live in relatively good conditions today is unprecedented in world history. Those that argue in favour of a society that resembles the historic ones that dealt far better with nature, tend to forget that living conditions in those societies were rather poor: famine and various diseases that are now easily cured, kept the life expectancy below half of that of the citizen of modern industrial countries. Illiteracy was common, and culture was only for the happy few.

We are now confronted with the challenge of maintaining the favourable conditions that have been realised in rich countries, while creating scope for less developed nations to improve their living conditions in the way they prefer, and drastically cutting down on resource consumption and emission to avoid a global environmental crisis. Without the contribution of our modern technologies, the job cannot be done. However, sustainable development is not the specific task of only the engineer.

Why a special issue and a special conference for engineers? Science is aimed at generating true knowledge, engineering is about changing the world. Therefore, the world of technology is far more directed towards changing our society than the sciences and the arts are. It is therefore especially important that we teach engineers to be engaged with the problems of society. Often, engineering deals with its responsibilities by defining three separate stages (society is responsible for the demand of technology, the engineers create it, and society is again responsible for its application). This self-proclaimed docility is empirically untenable and morally doubtful. However, sustainable development is not a technological problem so the engineers must learn to be susceptible to non-technical issues, and must be able to communicate with the citizens involved and other experts. The world needs engaged engineers that are willing and able to contribute to sustainable development. The Engineering Education in Sustainable Development conference will be held again in Barcelona, 27-29 October 2004[1] and in 2006 in Lyon.

This special issue on “Engineering education in sustainable development” contains seven papers that were presented at the conference with the same title that took place at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, 24-25 October 2003[2]. The first paper, by Nicholas Ashford, MIT, addresses the question what type of changes in general should be made in engineering education to make the engineer fit for the job of contributing to sustainable development.

Ferrer Balas et al. describe how the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona implements sustainability by a central university plan and a coordination office. Bryce et al. take a more sociological approach in analysing the process within the University of Technology Sydney by which sustainable development became a leading theme in its education. How to convince lecturers to introduce sustainable development into their engineering courses? Peet et al., Delft University of Technology, address this question and point towards interaction with individual lecturers, instead of directives or “teach the teachers”, as key for success. Hadjamberdiev, Arabaev University, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, addresses the question how sustainable development should be taught in a country that differs in many respects from Western industrial societies: by the magnitude of problems that were left by the Soviet system, by local cultures that are threatened, and sometimes also led to conflicts, and by the compelling need for development. Cecilia Lundholm addresses the question how civil engineering students interpreted an ecology course. The article argues that it is important that environmental issues are dealt with from natural science, social science and philosophical perspectives, and that these different perspectives should be explicitly addressed on a meta-level. Finally, this special issue contains an article regarding the development of solutions and mitigation measures for the problem of arsenic drinking water contamination in Bangladesh. Crelis Rammelt and Jan Boes describe how Delft University of Technology civil engineering students play a role in the project. Conclusion: the students learn far more from these projects than the project benefits from the students.

Karel MulderDelft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands

Notes1. All abstracts and some presentations available at

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