March 25, 2022

UCalgary launches new sustainable systems engineering bachelor’s degree

Schulich students add Indigenous studies, science, agriculture and circular economy to engineering knowledge
From left: Jocelyn Hayley, David Wood and Marjan Eggermont pose for a photo while discussing their new program. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The Schulich School of Engineering is hoping a new program will give students a greater appreciation for the “big picture.”

Its new Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Systems Engineering will take a multidisciplinary approach to bring different engineering disciplines together to design, integrate and manage complex systems over their life cycles.

“If I build a road, that’s great, but how does that impact how communities talk to each other?” says Dr. Jocelyn Hayley, PhD, head of the Department of Civil Engineering. “How does it impact the water systems? How does it impact caribou? It’s more than just a road.”

Hayley says the program will build off a systems approach to engineering, incorporating all disciplines with four main focus areas: sustainable systems for environment; cities and communities; energy and resources; and food, agriculture and biomass.

Defining the program’s vision

Hayley’s first conversations about the new program began in her own department, but, as the discussions deepened, she realized there was a need to bring in other areas of expertise.

Several brainstorming sessions and whiteboards full of information later, the faculty asked Dr. Marjan Eggermont and Dr. David Wood, PhD, to form the Sustainability Transformation Task Force to develop the program.

“In my view, a sustainable systems approach is the only way to transform our society,” says Eggermont, BA’91, BFA’96, MFA’98, PhD’18, who heads up the committee. “In my own work, I have been doing sustainability research and teaching for the past 15 years, so I was ready and bursting with ideas.”

They narrowed it down to the four areas of focus and came back with a program that received enthusiastic support at all levels of approval.

“It was a really tricky thing because we looked at things like a minor in sustainability or a focus on environmental systems,” says Hayley. “It’s an area that’s so hard to figure out because it can encompass so much.”

Energy equity for all

Having worked in engineering faculties for more than 40 years, Wood has always taken pride in trying to get students to think about energy equity for all communities.

He believes the new program will take that mindset to the next level, citing an example of wind turbines being built unsustainably, meaning they will have to be replaced in a short amount of time.

“It’s about thinking of the totality of it all,” Wood says. “How do we do engineering in such a way that preserves the environment and reduces greenhouse gases, as an example, at the beginning of the process, instead of tacking it on at the end?”

Another key aspect of the new program, in his eyes, is the focus on Indigenous studies, so students understand not just the physical but also the cultural impacts of any project.

“I think it’s staggering that we’re a professional engineering faculty and we will have courses like this,” Wood says. “It’s extraordinary.”

Industry wants to do better

As with any new program or department, industry leaders were consulted on the idea and, according to Eggermont, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

My sense is that the engineering community is ready for this and that there is a movement in changing the paradigm. How we interact with this planet has to shift if we want our species to survive.

Wood adds a lot of effort went into engaging with people inside and outside the University of Calgary, particularly with the Arctic Institute of North America.

“There’s a very strong realization that we have to do better in terms of the environment and there’s a widespread recognition that the industry needs to change,” he says. “There’s a pull from industry, but also from students, to make this change.”

A forward-thinking program

Students will benefit from those collaborations as the program will open the door for more hands-on experiential learning, which has Eggermont excited.

“They are opportunities to help students get the knowledge and skills they need to solve the very complex problems in our near future and do this in an environment of collaboration, stubborn optimism and a focus on the common good,” she says.

Hayley says she sees that mindset in students every day, so adding the new program won’t just be attractive to them, but also to future students who might not have originally thought about engineering as a career choice.

“It’s about inclusion, equity, Indigenous engagement and people wanting to make a different in the world,” she says. “It requires creativity, judgment, empathy and a real understanding that this is a forward-looking program.”

Eggermont and Wood were joined on the Sustainability Transformation Task Force by students Caroline Dawoud, Robyn Paul and Temitope Phillips; staff members Tanya Brucker, BSc’06, MBA’15, Gillian Ayers, and Lauren Kelba; and faculty members Dr. Joule Bergerson, PhD, Dr. Sean McCoy, PhD, Dr. Elena Rangelova, PhD’08, Dr. Kerry Black, PhD, and Dr. Andy Knight, PhD.