By Economist Intelligence Unit | Published November 7, 2012
A fresh wave of energy-focused engineering programmes embraces change and pursues sustainability
In 2005 Susan Hockfield, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), challenged her university to make a significant response to trends in global energy supply, such as exploding demand in emerging markets, and concerns about climate change and the environment. Today, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITei), formed in 2006, is celebrating its fifth year as research coalesces around the new framework. Students can now minor in Energy, as part of an inter-disciplinary course that spans the various schools within MIT. Moreover, a number of start-up laboratories and projects have flowered under the programme, as partnerships have been allowed to form with industry.
Of particular note is the Photovoltaic Research Laboratory, headed by Tonio Buonassisi, who has delivered online lectures about the prospect for an all-solar-power energy system. Indeed, MIT is at the forefront of global online education, having moved an increasing share of its curriculum to the internet for free. The question, given MIT's laudable efforts to distribute ideas---and its early jumpstart into energy-focused education---is how these trends are playing out in the rest of the United States, and internationally.
Justin Ritchie, a doctoral candidate and sustainability coordinator at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, says that "demand for energy-focused engineering programmes is very strong." Ritchie is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina (UNC), Charlotte, where the Lee College of Engineering has been expanding its energy-focused curriculum. The new Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) at UNC aims to capitalise on the regional presence of such global infrastructure groups as AREVA, Shaw, Duke, and Siemens, by preparing graduates for new energy industries. The Center was formed just three years ago- has a meaningful shift in science and engineering education begun to unfold?
Very likely, yes. After a long drought, enrolment in science and engineering education has started to turn positive. This is crucial because, relative to Asia, trends in science and engineering education in the OECD, in particular in the US, have not been encouraging. STEM skills --science, technology, engineering and math-- are increasingly wanted by employers in today's job applicants. The return of manufacturing to the US, driven in part by new oil and gas production and cheap, North American electricity, has highlighted the country's shortage of STEM skills, many of which got lured to the financial sector.
But a recent study from the National Science Foundation (NSF) finds that enrolment in graduate engineering programs has started to emerge from its slumber. According to the NSF, starting around mid-decade the pace of student demand rose strongly. In engineering specifically, enrolment advanced 20% from 2005 to 2010. And despite an overall slowing in 2010, the past decade saw a total increase of 34% in science and engineering graduate enrolment in the US.
One challenge for energy-focused engineering programmes is the lag time between the effort to form new academic concentrations, design curricula, attract professors and students and the disruption and volatility which govern energy markets. For example, countries such as Spain have created booms in renewable power, only to halt such growth with the suspension of incentives.
However, at UBC where another relatively new programme in energy-focused engineering is now attracting strong interest from students internationally, professor Eric Mazzi from the Clean Energy Research Center (CERC) says there's little risk that curricula will become obsolete. "There are so many problems with our societies' energy systems that need to be addressed that there's more than ample material on which to train students. Our goal is to give students the fundamentals that every energy engineer should have for the foreseeable future, such as energy efficiency and the range of alternative energy systems which may emerge in coming years."
An area where professor Mazzi does identify a skill shortage is policy fluency. "Students having gained expertise in some area of engineering need business skills, an understanding of policy thinking, and the ability to manage projects. My opinion is that strong engineering skills combined with these other skills is where more concentration is needed. Our programme is still very much about engineering, but students also have to demonstrate some breadth of knowledge, such as completing our mandatory energy policy course." Professor Mazzi also observes another potential trend at CERC. "More than half of our incoming graduate students this year are international students, from Mexico, Asia, and Europe. This is an increase from the first three years of our programme, when just a quarter were international."
Sustainability also appears as a cohesive theme among energy-focused engineering programmes. Professor Mazzi points to Cambridge University's Centre for Sustainable Development, offering an MPhil in Engineering, in this regard. And UBC's Justin Richie says, "what UBC is trying to do is bring together all undergraduate students under the aegis of sustainability, regardless of discipline." Sustainability could indeed be an optimal focus as it triggers a better set of questions about future policy and investment. Take Bill Gates' widely viewed 2010 TED Talk in which he backed a new push into nuclear energy. Most understand that nuclear power has stagnated for decades. Few engineering students choose the nuclear path, and the retiring class of engineers is not being replaced. But Gates' call for a nuclear renaissance raised questions not just of viability but also sustainability. How sustainable would it be to employ nuclear waste, however ingenious the idea may seem?
Sustainability and climate change may therefore wind up as the twin themes in energy-focused engineering. At MIT's rather hip and forward-thinking SENSEable City Lab---a fascinating, cross-disciplinary think-tank that brings together innovative data gathering, transport design, and energy efficiency thinking---the emphasis is on smarter infrastructure. Earlier in the 20th century, engineers were asked to make our cityscapes bigger, better, and faster. Today, energy-focused engineering graduates may be called upon to retrofit the built environment as it already exists, rather than building from scratch.