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First-of-its-kind dual degree combines engineering and sustainability


skerlos,Professor Steve Skerlos, one of two ESS Program CoordinatorsNovember 6, 2007

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Engineers with an ecological outlook will be the product of a new dual degree program between the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering and its School of Natural Resources and Environment.

The Engineering Sustainable Systems (ESS) degree program will educate engineers who integrate the principles of sustainability into their work as professionals. In real terms, that means civil and environmental engineers who minimize the watershed impacts of a new road, chemical engineers who can adjust biofuel recipes to use less water, and mechanical engineers who design more fuel efficient vehicles using greener manufacturing processes. Those are just a few examples of what’s possible at the intersection of these disciplines.

It is the first such dual-degree program in the nation.

“ESS engineers will have a deep understanding of the natural environment in which their technologies operate,” said David Munson, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “They will be skilled in diagnosing and predicting environmental problems as well as solving and preventing them, and that is vital to the future of the human race.”

The issues facing the generations of tomorrow are increasingly interconnected and must be tackled in a “systems thinking” way, said Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment. She listed climate change, urbanization and habitat degradation as key challenges.

“This degree seeks to marry the best of engineering with the best of environmental design to reduce our human footprint on this planet,” Bierbaum said.

Engineering professor Steven Skerlos and sustainable systems professor Gregory Keoleian are ESS program coordinators. They explained how a graduate of the new program would differ from a traditional engineer.

A typical mechanical or chemical engineer with a master’s degree might consider a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle a sustainable technology because it uses much less gasoline.

“But the graduate of the ESS program would say that approach is not sustainable unless our electricity infrastructure is much different than it is today,” Skerlos said. “The ESS graduate would also know how likely it is that this infrastructure will change, the time scales on which it could occur, if at all, and the most cost-effective engineering designs for vehicles to take advantage of a cleaner electrical grid.”

Keoleian said ESS engineers would go beyond modeling the benefits of biofuels and renewable energy to examine the big-picture impacts and challenges of new technologies such as plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.

“They would understand the challenges of intermittent renewable electricity integration into the grid, land area requirements for biofuels production, and the life cycle environmental impacts related to production, use and retirement of a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, including the battery system,” Keoleian said.

Graduates will complete all the requirements for two degrees: a master of science in engineering and a master of science in natural resources and environment. It’s a 54-credit-hour degree that could take between two and 2.5 years to complete. The first students will start in fall 2008.

Initially, three tracks are available. Mechanical engineering students will take classes in sustainable systems and focus on sustainable design and manufacturing. Chemical engineering students will also take sustainable systems classes, but their focus will be on sustainable energy systems. Environmental engineers will take classes in aquatic sciences to focus on sustainable water resources. All engineering departments can partner with the School of Natural Resources and Environment to offer additional tracks in the future.

U-M has offered a dual master’s degree in business and natural resources and environment through its Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise for 13 years. Bierbaum sees the new ESS degree as the next step.

“Achieving environmental goals requires sound environmental, business and engineering practices,” she said. “Designing an ecological and sustainable future for the nation and the world will come naturally to the new generation of environmental engineers we will train with this new degree.”

The School of Natural Resources and Environment’s overarching objective is to contribute to the protection of the earth’s resources and the achievement of a sustainable society. This is the only environment school that successfully incorporates design principles, social science and ecological science into one shared degree. Students can choose to specialize in one of nine areas; initially, the ESS degree focuses on two of these—sustainable systems and aquatic sciences. Faculty in the School come from more than 18 academic disciplines. SNRE hosts the Center for Sustainable Systems ( ), which provided the leadership for this new ESS degree with the College of Engineering. SNRE also manages the ERB Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise ( ), along with the Ross School of Business, which offers a joint MS/MBA degree. The School also plays a key role in the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute ( ). Through research, teaching, and outreach, SNRE is generating knowledge and developing policies, techniques and skills to help practitioners manage and conserve natural and environmental resources to meet the full range of human needs on a sustainable basis. The Web site is ( ).

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