söndag 29 september 2013

Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD13)


I attended the 6th international conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD13) this past week (Sept 22-25). It's the first time ever that I've been in Cambridge. The timing was unfortunately not the best as this is also the very busiest period of the year with lots of teaching - I had to bring work with me and I didn't have any time to go see the city. Instead I just hang around Robinson College where they took great care of me and the other attendees. I lived in a student room and all meals were included in the conference fee.

I attended the same conference three years ago at Chalmers in Gothenburg and it in fact resulted in one of my very first blog posts. At that time I was very much an observer, this time around I was instead the first author of a paper and the co-author of a second paper. Beyond that I also suggested/inspired two other persons to contribute to the conference with a paper, so I guess I have been instrumental in making three papers come about as well as "bringing" four persons (plus me) to the conference.

The conference theme was "Re-thinking the engineer". My (and my co-author Elina's) background differ from most others attendees since we come from a school of computer science. I do in fact believer we were the only people (out of 150) with that particular background. Most everyone else came from engineering programmes where sustainability and sustainable development in one way or another is (or can be) a "more natural" part of the education (construction, energy, transportation etc.). That's not really the case in computer science and media technology as it doesn't come naturally to our students to think about and to study sustainability. So how do we put together a course that makes an impact and that touches our students? That is our challenge and that is what our paper was about.

As to the conference, I have a hard time determining if it primarily wants to be a prestigious academic conference where people go to present research results or a conference for the mutual exchange of experiences among teachers who care about sustainable development and "happens" to work at an engineering university. I asked and someone said "both", but that's just the problem because it's hard to be two things at the same time. If the purpose is to exchange experiences and go back home with five or ten new ideas to implement in your course, in your program or at your university, then perhaps one-way delivery of yet another paper should be bracketed and more interactive ways of clustering and disseminating ideas should be emphasized.

It does as a matter of fact feel to me like that ought to be the future of the conference, since most attendees don't really do rigorous pedagogical or psychological research, but rather are more happy-go-lucky authors of papers that in one way or another allow people to take a step back and reflect upon their own practices and their own experiences. I would say that quite a few papers do not really live up to very high academic standards in the discipline of, well "teaching sustainable development to engineering students". Quite a few papers deal with "what we are doing [or have done] at university X". That really does sound like an invitation to a conversation rather than a great starting point for an academic paper.

As to networking, around 10% of the attendants (15 persons) came from Sweden, but only from two different universities - KTH and Chalmers. Despite the fact that the previous conference was organized by Chalmers, people from KTH outnumbered Chalmers by a factor of two to one. Although it's a bit absurd to go away in order to meet people who work next door, it was still a nice opportunity to network with some interesting persons from KTH that I didn't know before.

I did read a dozen or so papers from the previous conference and have a new list of papers that I would like read based on the presentations I heard. One paper in particular ("Beyond the fear of catastrophe! Motivating students and lecturers for education in sustainable development") sounded like it perhaps was a riposte to my own paper and our papers probably should have been in the same session instead of two days apart!

When I presented our paper I flew through no less than 26 powerpoint pictures in 15 minutes. The presentation was appreciated (long applause, many questions) and people also stepped up and grabbed the 10 complimentary printed paper copies I had brought with me. Since I presented on the first day of the conference, several persons also referred to the presentation when I talked to them later at the conference (it is otherwise of course impossible for me to keep track of who listened and who didn't. Josefin also did a fine job of presenting "my other paper" (the paper she for the most part wrote).

Since I had to work, I skipped a few keynotes and invited speakers. As BP (!) was a sponsor to the conference, there were two speakers from BP there. I did hear Chief Scientist Ellen Williams talk about what BP looked for in engineering students and I also learned that BP cares a lot about the environment and does a huge amount of work in trying to create a better, more sustainable world. Right. I did however miss the plenary speaker Lord Browne. He was born 1948, stated to work for BP in 1966 (at the tender age of 18) and he did, as far as I can see from his bio, work for BP (in a variety of countries and positions) until he retired. Apparently he sounded very very close to a climate change denier, but he was also very slick and very well prepared for difficult questions about BP and fossil fuels. Several conference attendees wondered why he had been invited and/or why BP chose to send him to the conference. There was a pretty huge mismatch between what the 150 conference attendants believed in their heart of hearts and the talk that Lord Brown delivered ("No worries, mate. Coal is pretty bad, but clean natural gas will save us.")

The next EESD conference will be held in Canada in 2015. That's a long trip. I think there is a high chance I will save some carbon emissions by not going there.

PS. I now (Dec 26, 2013) read that a former BP geologist warns that the age of cheap oil is long gone, that global oil production is declining at 4% per year and that this brings the danger of "continuos recession" that will "break economies". "A shortage of oil will affect everything in the economy. I expect more famine, more drought, more resource wars and a steady inflation in the energy cost of all commodities". It's funny how it's always "retired geologists" or some such who write about these things as it would sound the death knell of inflated oil company stock prices if an oil executive said the same. Anyway, it sounds plausible to me.

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