How have engineering courses adapted to the pressing need for sustainability? Are we engineering a better world? – EdexLive

Published: 25th August 2021     
Four different streams of engineering seem to have varying levels of incorporation of environment-conscious technology in syllabi. We dig in deeper
Representative Image | Pic: Freepik
Not that we were on the lookout for any more distressing news, in what is already a world ravaged by the pandemic, but the IPCC’s sixth Assessment Report basically doomed us to a bleak future thanks to human-induced climate change and global warming. For a planet crumbling under environmental and socio-economic distress caused by thoughtless exploitation of precious resources, it’s (and it has been) high time for us to take corrective action.
And there’s hope. Gen-Z is considered woke. This is a generation that has a Swedish schoolgirl as their spear against climate change. This is also the generation that might have the last shot at saving us from apocalypse at the hands of a climate catastrophe. You would think that when we have reached what scientists are calling a ‘state of climate emergency’, the youngsters who are supposed to salvage this situation for us, are being given the ammunition they need in their education and in the industry.
As we explore various streams in the field of engineering in this context, it is likely that the situation in classrooms right now varies by quite a degree. How are engineering colleges coping with the need for change? Are we up to speed on enabling students to lead environment-conscious, sustainable industries in the future? Where do we stand on the skill gap between traditional methods of teaching and new-age technology suited for building better ecosystems?
Stream: Civil Engineering
Green building, as a concept, has been around since the late 1990s, when sustainable methods were employed at every stage of construction to create a settlement in Germany. The Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) was established in 2001 to regulate construction in the country, and provide certifications for green construction. Its plan was to ensure 10 billion sqft of land in the country is covered by green buildings by the year 2022. In August 2020, the IGBC announced that it had achieved 75 per cent of that goal, with around 7.50 billion sqft of land covered by green buildings. Matrusri Engineering College, Hyderabad, Telangana, is a member of the IGBC, and Prof G Manohar from the Civil Engineering Department of the college seconds the Council’s claim that India is a top-tier participant of the green buildings initiative. “If we speak about the syllabus in particular, the last three years have brought a lot of changes. We have started following the AICTE-approved syllabus that makes ample space for concepts such as environmental engineering, green building technology and disaster management,” says Prof Manohar.
Professors Sugandhini HK and Nagabhushan B from the Department of Civil Engineering at Manipal Institute of Technology say that the shift in the use of sustainable building practices has indeed brought changes to the syllabus being offered to the students. Changes were implemented in areas such as ‘reuse, reduce and recycle’ of construction and demolition waste, fly ash bricks, green cement and industrial by-products. “Institutes like IGBC and Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (GRIHA) are playing a pivotal role in building technical capability in India,” they say.
The challenge then lies in creating an ecosystem for implementing green building in the country. Although the IGBC’s projects do invite some cheer, and reports also suggest that the impact is extending into the residential sector. Incorporating a system for rainwater harvesting is compulsory in the state of Tamil Nadu, and all across India, 18 lakh homes are said to have received the green building rating from IGBC.
The synergy between the industry and education needs to be bolstered, believe the professors. They suggest measures to improve production, marketability and availability of green building products, so that such construction can happen at a large scale to gain the trust of the public. “Massive awareness and training of field engineers and personnel in contemporary construction practices should be encouraged by offering certificate courses or short-term training programmes,” they add.
Prof Manohar sends across an important message when he states that the changes in the way teaching civil engineering is approached in the last few years has contributed to creating an ecosystem for students to be more conscious about the importance of green building. “We started off by providing these concepts as electives, but this is the need of the hour, and it can’t be left up to the interest of the students anymore,” says the professor.
Stream: Mechanical and Electrical Engineering
The internal combustion engines have been around for almost 150 years now. They have evolved over the years, and exist now in the form that we see in any petrol or diesel motor today. The concept of electric vehicles has also been around since the mid-1800s. However, as the world dove headfirst into fossil fuel consumption, the efforts put into developing the alternative (electric and hybrid automobiles) simply couldn’t keep pace. However, in the 1990s, awareness about the impact on the environment of carbon emissions from vehicles began making a mark on the public conscience, driving interest in the EV market once again.
Today, EVs are said to make up around 6-7 per cent of the total sales of vehicles. Start-ups have cropped up by the dozen across the EV ecosystem, and governments are providing subsidies aplenty to boost research and infrastructure. “Research in the field is still required because the current system of using lithium-ion batteries might not be sustainable given it is not a readily available resource,” says Prof G Madhumitha, Assistant Professor in Department of Mechatronics Engineering SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.
Mechatronics is a hybrid stream of engineering that combines mechanical and electrical engineering. The department was first introduced at SRM in 2008, and it is a branch that facilitates the study of relatively new technology such as Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Electric Vehicles. The study of technology involving EVs doesn’t inspire confidence at this point, however. Prof Madhumita says that at this current stage, the inclusion and basics of the concept are restricted to interested students delivering projects on the tech, participating in competitions, and such extra-curricular activities. “What is so far taught in engineering is very specific to the branch. But specialising in one particular field will not serve the purpose when it comes to Electric Vehicles,” says the professor, adding that integrated engineering and a multidisciplinary approach is required. Battery management is a challenge when it comes to EVs, and therefore, the basics of electrical engineering are also required. “As a core discipline, so far, it has only been provided as an elective. Designing a new course like how Automobile Engineering emerged from the umbrella of Mechanical Engineering would probably serve the purpose better,” she explains.
For EVs to be a mature technology, it might take a couple more decades. However, Prof Madhumita believes that the study in the subject is catching up at a decent enough pace. “Syllabi are dynamic in engineering. They are changed every three to four years based upon regulations. Initially, lab courses and electives are given for emerging technologies, and that is where we are at right now with EVs. There is, however, good demand from the students, requesting a proper structure for study and development in EVs right now,” the professor shares.
Stream: Chemical Engineering
“The curriculums have to train students so that they are employable. They come here to be able to find work. It is incumbent upon us to make sure they are employable tomorrow,” says Prof Subbu Raman, from the Chemical Engineering department of a premier engineering college in Hyderabad. Research for fossil fuel alternatives is neither new nor nascent, according to the professor. The richest countries in the world are those that hold crude oil reserves.
“These are the countries ready with viable energy alternatives once their reserves run dry. And therefore there can be no paradigm shift away from fossil fuels in the curricula for the next couple of decades at least,” the professor says, adding that we can rely on solar energy and hydrogen-based energy alternatives for now, which are already being taught to the students.
Prof Gautham Jeppu, a Chemical Engineering professor from Manipal Institute of Technology, Karnataka seems to hold a similar viewpoint that one simply cannot deny market realities. “In India, 70 per cent of energy comes from coal, 10 per cent comes from hydroelectricity projects, six to seven per cent from renewable sources, and just about three percent from nuclear power. The economy runs on it, and we simply cannot stop,” says Prof Gautham
A peek at the CE syllabus of another leading engineering institution from the South reveals this past vs present paradox. ‘Process Integration For Petroleum Industries’ and ‘Environmental Impact Assessment And Management Plan’ are listed one after another in the course structure. Prof Gautham says that at MIT, students are offered minor specialisation in two fields: Petroleum Engineering and Environmental Pollution Control. “There’s probably 40 per cent of the students who opt for the latter,” says Prof Gautham, emphasising the fact that the students are ready to learn.
Biofuels are being touted as an alternative to fossil fuels of late. In Europe, 50 per cent of the palm oil imports are for usage as biodiesel. However, both professors vehemently oppose the viability of this option. “In order to produce one kg of oil, we need two to three kg of seeds. Plus, these crops have a long gestation period, and are likely to push countries into choosing between food and fuel cultivation, while depleting forest reserves,” says Prof Gautham. Prof Subbu Raman adds that there is also the fact that biofuels do very little to help with the emissions, and simply burden the land. He cites hydrogen as a better alternative energy resource, while Prof Gautham, who is currently researching biogas himself, also believes in the efficiency of that technology, that will allow people to convert waste into fuel.    
Stream: Agricultural Engineering
If you were to ask Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu, Director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, if the education in the stream has kept up with the need for upscaling and innovation, the short answer is, “no”. While we were a little taken aback by the prompt reply, Dr Raman goes on to explain that the agricultural education system in India is based on the land grant model of the United States. The government allots land to the university, which then works with the farmers to optimise technology for that particular area.
Dr Ramanjaneyulu says that the research system in this case was made accountable to the local farmers. In India, when this system was brought, the universities ended up copying the technologies that the US was developing. “In the US, the average land area under cultivation is 100 hectares. In India, it is one hectare. Also, they have a shortage of labour, and they need large-scale machinery to make up for it. Shortage of labour was never an issue with India,” he says.
The math definitely doesn’t seem to add up. For India’s land size, smaller equipment that didn’t consume too much power would have been ideal. “The large equipment is contracting the land,” he adds. They also contribute to the massive rates of pollution caused by burning stubs, because the harvesting systems simply aren’t made to clear out the crop in one go. “There was also no focus in making chemicals relevant to the natural ecosystem here,” claims Dr Ramanjaneyulu.

Also, India depends on its Monsoon heavily to irrigate the land. To support that, irrigation systems such as smaller water harvesting structures such as tanks and canals were required to increase the groundwater table, and instead, investment was pumped into large-scale dams, which environmentalists say has done more harm than good.
“Irrigation-intensive agricultural systems are supported even now. Paddy gets subsidies, but millets don’t. And there is a skewed bias towards certain technology. Households in Punjab and Haryana are in debt because of machines. Punjab has one of the lowest groundwater levels in the world, but we still don’t move away from the wheat and rice system,” says he says, calling it an institutional failure of the education system and public policy.
“Feedback system has failed. We fail to consider what might work for the farmers and what doesn’t because those who study Agricultural Engineering merely sell the technology to the farmers. They are unaware of the implications and ground realities,” he says, rueing the resistance from agricultural universities in changing that.
If technological development in agriculture in India requires a rehash of the past, then what do we make of the current trends in farming such as organic and hydroponics? Dr Ramanjaneyulu believes that organic farming systems were developed by the farmers of India, with very little inputs from the universities. And hydroponics, he believes, are not exactly required or suited to the ecosystem of the country. While such methods have been gaining ground in the urban landscape, they have very little application in the larger agricultural sector.
So what next? “Take away the monopoly of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in education, and make it more open source, inviting feedback and knowledge from the farmers themselves,” says Dr Raman.
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