UM-Dearborn is infusing sustainability into its engineering programs

July 3, 2024

Part of being a great engineer these days is understanding the environmental and societal impacts of your work. But how do we train students to be holistic engineers?

A colorful collage graphic featuring an EV, EV charger, wind turbines and solar panels
Graphic by Violet Dashi. Images by Marianna and KUA g Gear via Adobe Stock

The days when engineering was thought of as a purely technical discipline are disappearing fast. For sure, engineers still need strong foundational knowledge in math and science and discipline-specific technical training. But there’s a growing movement within engineering education to ensure we’re training engineers who can also think deeply about the environmental and societal impacts of their creations as a fundamental part of the engineering process.  

At UM-Dearborn, this emphasis on creating holistic engineers is already taking a number of forms, from sustainability-focused classroom projects and research, to a new course in trustworthy AI, to undergraduate and graduate programs in human-centered design, a discipline that blends traditional engineering with skills borrowed from art, anthropology and sociology. Now, sustainability is poised to take an even broader role within the College of Engineering and Computer Science, say Associate Professors Alireza Mohammadi and Samir Rawashdeh. The robotics experts and frequent collaborators recently landed a $200,000 grant from the Lemelson Foundation to support CECS faculty who want to incorporate sustainability-focused projects into their courses. “In talking with the people at Lemelson, we realized if you want this to become part of the culture and not just an occasional or fringe thing, you have to reach a critical mass,” Rawashdeh says. “Sustainability has to be something students are hearing about in multiple places, across courses, across programs for them to internalize that this is part of what engineering is all about.”

Specifically, the Lemelson funding will enable Mohammadi and Rawashdeh to award minigrants to faculty who want to add course modules or projects that incorporate the Engineering for One Planet Framework, a set of fundamental environmental sustainability-focused learning outcomes developed by Lemelson and VentureWell, with input from stakeholders in academia, industry and nonprofit organizations. For example, in a smaller-scale antecedent to this larger Lemelson-funded initiative, Rawashdeh and Mohammadi used a minigrant to add sustainability-focused modules to two of their robotics courses. “It was an interesting challenge because the overlap between robotics and environmental issues isn’t obvious,” Rawashdeh says. But as they read up on it, they got all kinds of ideas — from robotics applications for environmental industries, like recycling, to end-of-life e-waste management strategies for robotics components, including their valuable lithium-based batteries. In Mohammadi’s course, the students optimized control algorithms for their lab’s fleet of mobile robots so that the machines would consume less energy while doing the same amount of work.

While the primary goal of the initiative is to develop a more environmentally focused mindset among engineering students, Mohammadi says emphasizing sustainability in CECS programs could also make engineering disciplines more attractive to a broader range of students. “The younger generation cares more about environmental and social issues, and engineering is absolutely a profession where you can make a large impact on society,” Mohammadi says. “But we don’t often describe it that way. So showing them how they can shape the world in a way they care about might make students who’ve never considered engineering before think about it as an option.” To match students and employers, they’ll also be hosting several industry events, where employers can talk with students about their sustainability-focused opportunities and students can showcase their work. 

Interested faculty can apply now for minigrant funding by contacting Mohammadi or Rawashdeh. They’re hoping to fund projects in 10-16 courses over three years. 


Story by Lou Blouin