Some of the Educational Challenges of Ecological Engineering

Ecological Engineering Curricula

Should curricula be offered at the graduate or undergraduate level?

What balance should there be between ecology courses and engineering courses in the curricula? What particular ecology courses should be required? What particular engineering courses should be required? Should there be ABET review of curricula?

Ecological Engineering Course

At what level (graduate, senior, junior, etc.) should an ecological engineering course be taught?

What prerequisites should there be for the course?

Should the course be lecture only or should it be taught with a lab?

How many credits should be given for the course?

What coverage of topical material should be given in the course?

Note: Questions are arranged according to two scales: the entire curriculum for a major and an individual course on the subject.

ecological engineering education

Education in ecological engineering will need to develop for significant advancements in the field to occur. In the present state of the art there are very few academic programs in ecological engineering, and most of these are of recent origin. Existing practitioners are largely self-taught with backgrounds that combine training in ecology and some established engineering discipline, along with on-the-job experience. Ecological engineering is probably more interdisciplinary than any traditional engineering field, and this presents challenges for the evolution of academic programs. Many important questions exist about how to provide training in this new hybrid field of ecology and engineering (Table 9.3). Perhaps the self-organization of curricula and courses taking place at universities in the U.S. and elsewhere will lead to one educational model through natural selection, and it is premature to generalize yet on the best approach for education. In this section some issues are discussed and educational initiatives are explored.


Obviously, an academic program in ecological engineering must consist of some kind of balance of ecology and environmental science with engineering principles and technology. However, many paths are possible and no agreed-upon solutions have yet arisen. Whole new educational approaches are needed and, as discussed in

Chapter 1, no existing disciplines in ecology or engineering can serve as exact models. One possible approach would be to require ecological engineering projects to be carried out by teams of specialists with training in traditional disciplines, but most workers agree that it is possible to educate individuals in this new interdisciplinary field. H. T. Odum, who is the founder of ecological engineering, has written about his experiences in offering an "informal" academic program for more than 30 years (H. T. Odum, 1989, 1994). He suggests that ecological engineering requires at least education through a master's level degree (typically with 4 years of an undergraduate degree and 2 years of a master's degree) to cover all of the necessary coursework. The optimal program may be the combination of an undergraduate engineering degree and a graduate degree that emphasizes ecology and environmental science, though he also notes the success of individuals who entered his graduate program with education in a biologically based undergraduate degree program.

A workshop was held in 1999 at Ohio State Univeristy in Columbus to discuss educational options in ecological engineering, and several different curricula were discussed (Mitsch and Kangas, 1999). These included stand-alone undergraduate degrees modelled after existing engineering disciplines, and graduate degrees that would accept undergraduates with training in either ecology or engineering. The special challenge of a stand-alone undergraduate degree is fitting enough coursework into an approximately 4-year time period characteristic of a bachelor's degree. This coursework must include enough depth in both engineering and ecology to produce a professional who might enter the job market. This will require sacrifices that might result in training that is too weak in either ecology or engineering for an individual to be able to carry out ecological engineering design, construction, and operation. The special challenge of a graduate degree is overcoming the biases of specialized undergraduate training in a relatively short time period, usually 2 years for a master's degree. Also, different tracks of graduate coursework would be required for those entering with an undergraduate engineering degree vs. those entering with an undergraduate science degree, such as biology.

Some of these issues can be addressed by having any educational program formally accredited by an external board of experts. Undergraduate engineering degrees are accredited by the American Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which reviews programs periodically and confers a standardized certification of adequate educational depth and quality. This kind of accreditation allows entrants into an academic program to know they will receive a proper education and allows employers who hire graduates from a program to know that they are employing people with appropriate backgrounds. Accreditation by ABET is accepted as the best approach by those advocating a stand-alone undergraduate degree in ecological engineering, but much work will have to be done to achieve this goal. ABET accreditation requires a certain number of existing professionals to be available to establish review criteria and to carry out the routine accreditation activities. Also, current rules dictate that a field must have a minimum of 50 graduates per year across all universities before accreditation can begin. Because ecological engineering is such a new field, ABET accreditation may have to wait until a critical mass of practitioners is available to meet the formal requirements of the process.

Another process from traditional engineering that may address educational issues is professional certification. This kind of certification is bestowed on individuals who meet certain criteria and who pass a standardized exam. Currently, professional engineering exams in the U.S. are administered by state boards that have different requirements. Most require that an applicant have graduated from an ABET-accred-ited academic program and have worked in the field for several years to develop practical experience. Those who pass the exam are thus formally certified as engineers. Certification documents that the recipient has a given level of knowledge and ability. This option also requires a critical mass of practitioners before exams can be designed and administered and, at least as presently conducted, it requires that ABET-accredited academic programs exist. Other relevant certification models have been developed, such as with the Ecological Society of America and the Society of Wetland Scientists. These are less formal and rigorous than certification as a professional engineer but they could be modified and implemented by a professional society, such as the existing International Society for Ecological Engineering or the new American Society for Ecological Engineering.

While discussions about accreditation and certification need to continue, they may be premature because both require a critical mass of practitioners. This group either does not yet exist or, at least, has not yet emerged from the many disciplines related to ecological engineering (see Table 1.6). Indications from the workshop on education (Mitsch and Kangas, 1999) and from the growth of the journal Ecological Engineering suggest that many universities are developing academic programs in ecological engineering and that these programs will generate a critical mass of practitioners soon. The existing programs combine training in ecology and engineering with traditional university core requirements of humanities, social sciences, history, and other disciplines. Most curricula include several ecology and/or environmental science courses, such as general ecology, population and ecosystem ecology, and applied ecology, along with electives from fields such as aquaculture, bioremediation, and restoration ecology. Required engineering background includes thermodynamics, fluids, and principles of design, along with the associated mathematics, physics, and chemistry characteristic of traditional programs. Specialized requirements include a basic course in ecological engineering, ecological modelling, some form of economics for design evaluation, and a practicum course that involves a group experience in an actual design. Examples of design seminars are given by Biermann et al. (1999) and Yaron et al. (2000). This kind of curriculum requires participation by a number of faculty with different skills. As noted in Chapter 1 the best environment for this kind of curriculum may be in agricultural or biological engineering departments in which existing faculty have training in engineering with biology. Environmental engineering departments are another logical location for an ecological engineering academic program. Other situations are also possible such as the more liberal arts approach advocated by Orr (1992a, 1992b, 2002), but there is a growing consensus for academic programs in ecological engineering to take on some modification of a traditional engineering curriculum.

The Ecological Engineering Laboratory of the Future

What is the best learning environment to train ecological engineers? Because of the special interdisciplinary nature of the field, a new kind of lab may be required that generates both ecology and engineering experiences. The ecology side must provide knowledge and skills dealing with biodiversity as the building blocks of design. It must also provide a whole system perspective necessary to create domestic and interface ecosystems that perform useful functions. The engineering side must provide access to existing technologies in terms of machines and electronics, with an emphasis on the design process itself. Considered below are two historical and two existing models for perspective on the ecological engineering laboratory of the future.

Thomas Edison's "Invention Factory"

Thomas Edison, sometimes referred to as the "Wizard of Menlo Park," was one of the great American inventors. Although best known for his work on the incandescent light, he produced many useful devices in his lifetime, as witnessed by his more than 1,000 patents. These devices were the products of his "invention factory" which evolved as a kind of institution through three physical complexes over his adult lifetime of 55 years. It was a place where he developed a method of invention that involved the organized application of scientific research to commercial ends. This work was especially significant because it took place before engineering formally emerged and broke into academic and professional disciplines, and it became the forerunner of modern industrial research and development. At its peak, Edison's invention factory realized his prediction of "a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so." Because Edison was privately supported, either through venture capitalists or companies he created himself, his inventions had to make a profit. Thus, his institution was half research lab and half factory.

Edison's work began at Menlo Park, NJ, where he operated from 1876 to 1881. Work here focused on early telephone designs, the phonograph and, of course, the electric lighting system. He temporarily left the invention field to develop electric lighting as a commercial industry but returned in 1887 when he built a larger lab in West Orange, NJ. Emphasis in this lab was on five product lines: musical phonographs, dictating machines, primary batteries, storage batteries, and cement (Millard, 1990). Edison worked in the West Orange lab until his death in 1931, but he also established a small lab at his winter home in Fort Myers, FL. This was the "green laboratory" where he worked on alternate sources of natural rubber, primarily in the years just before his death (Thulesius, 1997). Remarkably, each of these labs exists as a public museum: the Menlo Park lab was moved to southeastern Michigan and reconstructed by Henry Ford at Greenfield Village in Dearborn (Figure 9.15), the West Orange lab became a national park, and the green laboratory became a museum administered by the City of Fort Myers.

The Menlo Park lab was where Edison achieved the fame that continued to develop throughout his life. It also was where he established a method of invention

FIGURE 9.15 Views of Menlo Park at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI.

that was the product of his creative genius (Pretzer, 1989). The Menlo Park lab began in 1876 with a simple two-story frame structure that contained an office, machine shop, and lab. It was expanded to six buildings in 1878 to work on the electric lighting system. These included the main lab building, a separate and enlarged machine shop, the office/library, and three small buildings that housed essential skills and materials that were constantly needed (a glasshouse, carpenters' shop, and the carbon shed). Most of the principal work took place in the main lab which was filled with chemicals and mechanisms used to conduct experimental projects in the spacious, second-floor work room. The machine shop was also a critical part of the overall lab in producing experimental devices for the continual process of testing and redesign. As noted by Israel (1989),

By adapting the machine shop solely to inventive work Edison and his assistants could rapidly construct, test, and alter experimental devices, thus increasing the rate at which inventions were developed. In this way the laboratory became a true invention factory.

Moreover, Edison adopted the machine shop culture into his invention process. This was a unique work culture "that stemmed from craft traditions of the pre-industrial era, traditions that stressed the skill of the worker and preserved the dignity and independence of his work" (Millard, 1990). The American machine shop was an innovative institution that evolved in the early 19th century with the industrial revolution, as noted in the following quote.

Most of the early shops worked almost entirely on special order rather than for a broad, competitive market requiring mass production and standardization. This was true partly because the designs of the products made, steam engines, machine tools, and locomotives, had not yet fully evolved. The shop frequently was an experimental laboratory which developed and perfected industrial and mechanical processes and equipment (Calvert, 1967).

Machine shops supplied machines, advice, designs, and repair services. They also provided a unique social environment in which information was shared between shops and within shops as a kind of educational network. Included in the machine shops were lathes, drills, milling machines, and planers used to cut and shape iron and steel with great precision. These were machines that made machines, and they were the backbone of America's industrial revolution.

Connections between Edison's invention factory and a modern ecological engineering lab are through analogies. The important connection is Edison's spirit of invention and his method, which can be directly applied. New ecosystems must be invented to provide specific functions in ecological engineering. It can be contended that the Edison spirit of invention exists in several leading ecological engineers such as John Todd and Walter Adey, and an educational goal is to instill this quality in the next generation of students.

The New Alchemy Institute

The New Alchemy Institute was initiated in 1969 through the shared discussions of John Todd, his wife Nancy Jack Todd, and William McLarney. It became a small, nonprofit organization dedicated to research and education on renewable resource technologies. Although the official goal was grandiose, "To Restore the Lands, Protect the Seas, and Inform the Earth's Stewards," the institute produced a number of very practical technologies and provided education to many through workshops, tours, and publications. As a formal organization, New Alchemy lasted for more than 20 years; it has evolved into new organizations with similar goals.

In the early 1970s the Institute became centered at a 12-acre (4.8 ha) farm on Cape Cod, MA, where work focused on development of technologies that support low-cost, year-round food production and energy-efficient shelter design (Figure 9.16). Examples of projects included intensive agriculture, aquaculture, tree crops, and renewable energy alternatives using solar and wind power. These were full-scale experimental projects in alternative technologies. The living machine, which was described in Chapter 2, is a good example of these designs. Another important invention was the bioshelter which is a solar-heated building that links a variety of

biological elements together for food and energy production and biological waste treatment. Large bioshelters were called arks and several were built in different locations.

In many ways the New Alchemy Institute was an "invention factory" in producing ecological engineering designs. The living machines of New Alchemy are analogous to the machine tools of Edison's labs, which were described earlier as "machines that made machines." Also, New Alchemy fostered a social organization somewhat analogous to the machine shop culture, with a sharing of information and value systems among participants. A final similarity is dominance by a big thinker. Although New Alchemy had an egalitarian structure involving many individuals, John Todd does emerge as a dominant figure that was somewhat analogous to Edison in providing inspiration and organizational skills. Todd left the Institute in the early 1980s and started a new organization called Ocean Arks International in which he continues some of the work started in the New Alchemy Institute. However, unlike Edison's operations which were driven by profit and capitalism, the New Alchemy Institute was a nonprofit organization driven by the goal of fostering sustainable development.

The Waterways Experiment Station

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station (WES) in Vicks-burg, MS, is a national lab with many activities related to ecological engineering (Anonymous, no date). Although the scale of WES is much larger than could be achieved at an individual university, it provides an existing model for perspective on the ecological engineering lab of the future. WES consists of five engineering labs along with various administrative and technical support units (Figure 9.17). It was established in 1929 with emphasis on hydraulics, after the disastrous 1927 flood on the Mississippi River. Various missions were added to the lab over the years, including a significant military role after World War II.

The environmental lab at WES already is involved with a variety of research lines that relate to ecological engineering such as aquatic plant control, simulation modelling, and wetland creation. The association of these activities with the other engineering labs, especially the geotechnical and hydraulics units, makes WES an ideal location for the development of ecological engineering technologies. Somewhat of a paradigm shift may be required, however, for the Corps of Engineers to become heavily involved in this field. Past work of the Corps has not always demonstrated the holistic thinking inherent in ecology, though as noted in Chapter 5 they have initiated several programs that are moving in this direction. It remains to be seen if the Corps of Engineers will become a leader in the field of ecological engineering, which it is clearly capable of, or continue to generate environmental problems that require ecological engineering solutions.

The Olentangy River Wetland Research Park

Perhaps the closest model for the ecological engineering lab of the future at a university is the Olentangy River Wetland Research Park on the Ohio State Univer-

Office of technical programs and plans

Engineering development

Wave dynamics

Instrumentation services division

Special assistants

Waterways experiment station

Executive office x

Hydraulics laboratory

Hydraulic analysis

Hydraulic structures


Geotechnical laboratory

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