Sustainability master’s helps professional engineers grow in new directions

Posted on 02. May, 2013 by in Academic Departments, Alumni, Economic Impact, Engineering Professional Development, Issues, Magazine, Students

Graphic of tree sitting on booksAs energy & CO2 leader for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Steve Skarda spends most of his time working on renewable energy issues. But even on his own time, he thinks about sustainability. “It’s a personal passion for me,” he says. “I love it a lot. I took a car and converted it to an electric vehicle.  It was a perfect project for me because it was a hands-on technical project while also matching my personal interests.”

Skarda grew up on a farm near Green Bay and earned an electrical engineering degree from Marquette University. In January 2013, he became part of the inaugural class in the new online Master of Engineering in Sustainable Systems Engineering (SSE) program at UW-Madison. He learned about the degree from a UW-Madison alum who works in his office.

The Department of Engineering Professional Development announced the degree in May 2012. The department created the degree in response to requests from both public and private sector partners for help finding professionals to fill sustainability leadership roles in their organizations. “And, many of our partners told us that they need professionals who have a solid engineering foundation and solid preparation in business and environmental science,” says Carl Vieth, EPD director of corporate education. “As we looked around, we were unable to find an engineering master’s degree program that filled this unmet need.”

SSE is designed to prepare mid-career engineers with knowledge in sustainable engineering practices they need to be leaders in managing systems that impact the quality of water, land, air, energy, economics and society. “We see the degree as a stepping stone to career advancement, as well as personal enrichment,” says Vieth. “For many engineers with an interest in sustainability, it would be very difficult to craft a master’s program that combines engineering, business and environmental science coursework—let alone to have such a program that is totally online. Through SSE, these professionals can enhance their competencies without interrupting their careers.”

SSE also focuses on the technical aspects of three specializations: energy production and distribution, facilities and built environment, and infrastructure.

It’s the perfect fit for Skarda, who is one of eight students in the inaugural class. He spends most of his workday focused on renewable energy and conservation. He wanted to spend more time focusing on sustainability while broadening his leadership role within the company. The online master’s program allows Skarda, who works full time, the flexibility to fit the coursework to his schedule. “I love the job I have leading Procter & Gamble’s renewable energy efforts, and I am proud of the results we have achieved on reducing our footprints in energy and CO2,” he says. “However, when I thought about my future career, I realized I was missing some of the fundamental skills in the broader sustainability world. I needed to build competency in sustainability outside my direct area of expertise in energy, such as waste, water, and transportation. I wanted to fill a larger leadership role in sustainability, but I didn’t have the background in it. So when I saw the sustainable systems engineering curriculum, I thought, ‘That is a great fit.’”

Skarda quickly experienced the benefits of his coursework while attending a meeting with a company that is paving the way toward a sustainable energy future for the United States. The goal was to brainstorm how Procter & Gamble might accelerate its existing
strategies in renewable energy—and the conversation included terms familiar to the sustainability lexicon, such as material metabolism, industrial ecology, and sustainability frameworks. “I was listening to this and I realized I had just discussed those concepts in class last week,” Skarda says. “They were using a language I understood. I knew exactly what they were talking about and was able to more fully participate and contribute to the conversation.”

In addition to the flexibility of online coursework, the program follows a new flexible curriculum model, says Marty Gustafson, SSE program director. The degree teaches a skillset that can be applied across many industries and applications. “We teach, at the very beginning, a set of core competencies in sustainability. It gives students foundational skills and helps them understand applications of sustainability. From there, they figure out which direction they want to go. They choose the electives to best fit their careers. That can mean specializing or going for breadth. It’s up to them,” Gustafson says.

The flexible curriculum not only allows students to shape the degree to fit their careers, it also helps faculty understand what topics need to be explored in the coursework. Since the students are working in industry and dealing daily with sustainability issues, faculty are able to adjust the curriculum to improve its relevancy. “It really brings some urgency to the learning,” Gustafson says. “It’s been really exciting. We just had a case study regarding environmental ethics. A woman taking the one-credit class had direct knowledge of the issues. In fact, she was attending our online conference from an airport and was heading to a meeting with the EPA to talk about the issue we were discussing, which was environmental testing. That type of firsthand knowledge and real-life problem solving just doesn’t normally happen in a regular graduate classroom.”

It does, however, happen more and more frequently. Procter & Gamble is among a growing number of organizations for which sustainability has become a strategic imperative, says Vieth. Many of those companies are being required to set aggressive sustainability goals, and report their sustainability performance. “Global supply chains and regulatory imperatives, especially in the European Union, are driving manufacturers to new levels of sustainable activity,” he says.

Effective engineering is critical to achieving these aggressive targets. “Professionals from SSE will have major impacts on the lifecycle performance organizations—ranging from transportation systems, facilities and supply chain to product design, manufacturing, and end-of-life retirement,” says Vieth. “This particular set of organizational competencies will ultimately come to define who will play well into the future—and SSE grads will be leading those who succeed.”

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