Climate change, biodiversity, poverty, and other aspects of sustainability are huge challenges for society. As engineers we work in almost all industries, from transport, agriculture and construction, to healthcare, manufacturing and software.

However, we have not traditionally been well versed in the broader aspects of sustainability outside the likes of energy efficiency, cost and carbon. How then can we train the next generation of engineers to know and practise sustainability in their professional lives? 

The Engineers Ireland Academic Society webinar on 'Sustainable Education: A Circular Approach' was held on February 22, 2023, with the aim of sharing best practice and encouraging discussion on the topic, from the incorporation of sustainability in undergraduate courses through to how the sustainability ethos can be applied in the workplace. 

Starting the sustainability journey 

The adage 'to manage we must first be able to measure' was seen to also apply to sustainability education. Dr Cormac McMahon and Dr Mick McKeever from TU Dublin spoke about 'Sustainability in the curriculum', and discussed the Transform EDU project, which was funded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

As part of this project, an automated method was developed for mapping sustainability in the curriculum using STARS, a Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance.

Modules were placed into three categories: sustainability focused (where sustainability is the primary and explicit focus); sustainability inclusive (where sustainability is incorporated into a unit or component); and those with no sustainability elements (eg maths).

While keen to point out that not every module has to have a sustainability element, Dr McMahon and Dr McKeever found that using a consistent and standard process for assessing modules can show where and how sustainability is already covered and help to identify areas with potential for further development. The work has resulted in two journal papers, one on the computational approach and another on its evaluation.

This type of systematic mapping can complement the reflective tools already in use, such as the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Toolkit from University College Cork and the SDG Planning Toolkits from De Montfort University.

In a similar vein, Professor Stan Scott of Queen’s University Belfast discussed a student-led audit that was carried out of the education portfolio in Queen’s, in his talk on 'Partnering with SOS-UK, Engineers without Borders (EWB), and Sulitest' to deliver education for sustainable development in EEECS'.

A total of 474 undergraduate and postgraduate modules across the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences were audited by students, who were trained in advance. The students reviewed module descriptions for topics related to the SDGs, the wider aspects of sustainability, and the use of education for sustainable development (ESD) methods.

The work was carried out in collaboration with SOS-UK (Students Organising for Sustainability UK), a student-led education charity, and Prof Scott opined that the partnership with students would be the key to success.

Incorporating sustainability into third level education

Prof Scott also provided suggestions for how to incorporate sustainability into third-level engineering education. To conveniently measure and improve sustainability literacy among staff, the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Computer Science (EEECS) in Queen’s has used Sulitest, an online tool, to conduct an anonymous survey to gauge knowledge and subsequently provide directed feedback and resources.

On the student side, he discussed moves towards contextualising technical content within an ethical, economic and environmental framework; the implementation of the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) programme in a Stage 2 module on Software Engineering and Systems Development has helped students to recognise the wider picture.

Other benefits of the EWB programme are that there is a different design brief each year, which can be delivered flexibly to best meet the needs of a module, and it contributes towards meeting the Engineering Council accreditation criteria. Note that there is also a ROI branch of EWB.

The importance of sustainability in the Engineers Ireland accreditation criteria was emphasised in the talk on 'Guidelines and good practice in embedding sustainability in engineering education' delivered by Dr Richard Manton, who pointed to a wealth of resources covering guidance on the accreditation process as well as best practice examples for teaching sustainability. These include webinars on the accreditation process (Figure 1) and case studies on sustainability education from third level institutions around the island (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Guidance on Engineers Ireland accreditation criteria

Figure 2: Good practice examples of incorporating sustainability into engineering education. Webinars from 2021 and 2022 are available on the Engineers Ireland YouTube channel.

Sustainability in professional practice

Sustainability is not however just an academic or educational exercise. Dr Manton highlighted the overall commitment of Engineers Ireland to sustainability, which has very much increased over recent years, particularly since the declaration of a climate and biodiversity emergency on March 4, 2020, World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development.

The commitment of Engineers Ireland to sustainability is set out in the Statement of Strategic Intent (which embeds sustainability in its vision and objectives), as well as in the Sustainability Framework (which outlines how Engineers Ireland seeks to implement the commitment into each of its actions) and Sustainability Plan (which lists 20 different actions) (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Engineers Ireland’s commitment to sustainability is outlined in the Statement of Strategic Intent, the Sustainability Framework and the Sustainability Plan, which are available on the Engineers Ireland website.

The implementation of sustainability within a company was discussed through a case study of the ESB Group, delivered by Cormac Madden in his talk entitled 'Integrating sustainability into everything we do at ESB: Engineering meets social good'.

His starting point was the work of John Elkington, who in the 1990s coined the phrase 'People, Planet and Profit' – the triple bottom line – to describe the responsibility of companies to consider their social and environmental impacts and to work to have an overall net positive impact.

Madden described how the EU is addressing this in the sustainable finance pillar of the European Green Deal. The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive will require companies to report on their people and planet impacts in their annual reports alongside their financial performance.

The draft European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS) specify reporting across five environmental topics and four social topics that span all aspects of sustainability. Companies’ reported sustainability performance will be externally audited, along with their financials. This means that sustainability will have equal standing with finance, finally giving a balanced view of the triple bottom line.

ESB’s strategy and purpose centre on sustainability and social regeneration, drawing on the heritage of the company. ESB has looked at its key impacts under the EU’s sustainability pillars, focusing on climate, their people, interaction with the community, biodiversity, resource use, and customers.

Working groups are currently drawing up goals to move those impacts towards being regenerative ones. Since ESB’s establishment in 1927 and subsequent rural electrification from the 1950s, electricity has been an enabler of social regeneration. Continuing this tradition, the ESB’s goal is now to bring sustainability into everything it does. This is aligned with the spirit of the company’s founding philosophy “to lighten human burdens, to brighten human lives”.

To finish, it is worth pondering a quote Madden referred to from the former CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, who asked the pertinent question: 'When all things are accounted for, is the world better off because your business exists?'

There were 86 attendees at the webinar on the day and at the time of writing there had been 104 online views of the recording on the Engineers Ireland YouTube channel.

The delegates came from all over the island of Ireland with other attendees tuning in from the UK, Chile, South Africa, and Spain. Attendees included representatives from academia and both the public and private sectors. The webinar was organised by Patrick Flynn, Michelle Looby, Damian Mooney, and Beatrice Smyth. Many thanks to Máirín Ní Aonghusa for the technical support.

The Engineers Ireland Academic Society is a network of academic engineers and engineers in industry with an interest in teaching and learning. Our mission is to promote the professional development of academic engineers and the advancement of academic standards in engineering.

Members share ideas and experiences on career development, the latest teaching and learning methods and the recognition of best practice. Membership of the society is open to anybody who has an interest in the teaching of engineering. To find out more, please click here

Authors: Beatrice Smyth,* senior lecturer in sustainable energy systems, School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Queen’s University Belfast; Patrick Flynn, head of learning development, Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment, TU Dublin; Michelle Looby, senior lecturer in mechatronic engineering, School of Mechanical Engineering, TU Dublin; Damian Mooney, associate professor, School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering, University College Dublin. *Corresponding author email address: