Bitten by the Green Design Bug

Engineering students flock to sustainable design, and schools aim for green waters.

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Thomas Edison's now ubiquitous incandescent light bulbs will soon be a dim memory, phased out by 2014 because they use too much energy. The great light hope to replace them is the kind of bulbs made from light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. More efficient even than their green rival, compact fluorescent bulbs, many LEDs can last about 20 years. But if you take into account how much energy is needed to manufacture them, are LEDs still a sustainable option.

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Ask Mary Ashe, a graduate engineering student at Carnegie Mellon who's working on a research project that's assessing the life cycle of LEDs. Ashe, 22, will earn a master's in civil and environmental engineering with a concentration in green design in May. "I feel like I am at the cutting edge," she says.

[Read more: Engineering Student Finds Way to Make a Global Impact]

Indeed, she is. A sustainability sensibility is sweeping through and transforming the curricula in America's colleges of engineering, as more educators emphasize the importance of designs and solutions that rely on renewable resources. Eighty percent of respondents to a recent survey of U.S. engineering schools by the Center for Sustainable Engineering said they have introduced sustainable engineering material into their classrooms.

Study coauthor David T. Allen, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas–Austin, says sustainable engineering is "very much in growth mode." Its goal is to use resources in such a way that current needs are met without robbing future generations of the same ability. Concern over global warming and greenhouse gas emissions is a major force driving the trend. Developing renewable energy sources that don't damage the environment is a key task, as is finding better ways to recycle and reuse materials so that the waste streams that feed landfills become mere trickles.

The private sector may be driving interest as much as public policy is demanding it. Many industries are looking to raise their green profiles to meet consumer demand for sustainable products as well as to meet regulatory requirements. Nearly all car parts, for example, must now be salvageable. Industry needs engineers who can come up with products and parts that are designed from the get-go to be easily recyclable.

A big incentive for companies is the growing pile of government money aimed at green research. The National Science Foundation, the main federal agency funding engineering research, has over the past two years placed sustainability at the heart of its Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation grants, backing many renewable-energy and clean-water projects. "Those are areas where the NSF thinks there will be growth. It's a clear signal," Allen says. As resources shift, academic researchers "will need and want more graduate students" who understand sustainability issues, adds David Munson, engineering dean at the University of Michigan.

Feel-good engineering. Finding them won't be a problem because the biggest driver of all is student demand, particularly at the graduate level. "Students have asked us to deliver more courses in this area," says Brian Thorn, an industrial and manufacturing engineer at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The push is coming from "students who want to engage in what I call 'engineering that you can feel good about,' " he says. Today's engineering students are reacting to having grown up in environmentally "perilous times," dominated by climate change and America's addiction to nonrenewable fossil fuels, Munson says. "You have to go back several generations to find a group of students this interested in doing something good for society."

Consider Ashley DeVierno, who is working on a master's in sustainable engineering at RIT. Her father has a degree in marine biology, and she grew up in Florida, near the endangered Everglades swamplands. "So, I had an interest in environmental issues early on," says DeVierno, 24, whose thesis will focus on eliminating waste from small consumer-electronic products, like iPods and cellphones. On the other hand, Jeremy Guest, 27, a civil and environmental engineering doctoral student at Michigan, didn't get bitten by the green design bug until his third year in grad school, when he took a course in sustainability. "It opened my eyes," he recounts. With a fellowship from the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, Guest is researching how to recover potable water, nutrients, and energy from waste water.