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In addition todedicating a large portion of their college careers to making a difference in rural villages of Central America, Margaret Garcia ’07 and Benjamin Flath ’07 have worked toward making innovative changes in the engineering curriculum in college classrooms.

The civil engineering graduates had been heavily involved with Lafayette’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter, which has worked for the past few years to create a sustainable drinking water system for the people of Lagunitas and La Fortuna in Yoro, Honduras. The chapter has been so successful it received national media exposure last year for being one of six college and university teams from across the nation to be awarded a $75,000 grant through the Environmental Protection Agency.

Taking the experience they gained from EWB, Garcia and Flath teamed up on a project to integrate sustainable engineering into college courses. The students came up with the topic as part of a required semester project in the Civil Infrastructure Systems Management course led by Kristen L. Sanford Bernhardt, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

They presented their project “Integrating Sustainability Topics into Civil Infrastructure Management Courses” at Engineering Sustainability 2007: Innovations that Span Boundaries held in April through the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Sustainability Initiative. The national conference brought together scientists and engineers from academia, government, industry, and non-profits to share the results of cutting edge research directed at creating a more sustainable environment.

“Ben and I have a strong interest in sustainable and environmentally friendly design,” explains Garcia. “So when assigned an open ended project for infrastructure management class we looked for ways to incorporate our interest. Infrastructure management deals with the maintenance and management of civil infrastructure such as roads and water systems throughout their entire lifespan. Because infrastructure management looks at sustaining projects over time, we felt that this course was an ideal place to integrate sustainability principles into the civil engineering curriculum.”

Sanford Bernhardt gave her full support to the project and developed an extensive contact list of faculty members around the country who teach and conduct research in the areas of infrastructure management and sustainability.

“This was not one of the listed suggestions,” says Sanford Bernhardt of the assignment. “It was entirely their idea. I encouraged them to pursue it because of their academic and practical interests in sustainability and because I am interested in integrating sustainability concepts into my course. In fact, I will be attending a workshop sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Engineering later this summer.”

Garcia and Flath corresponded with infrastructure management professors nationwide, reviewed literature, and pulled from their own experiences to develop assignments, readings, and projects that incorporate the ideas of sustainability into a course on infrastructure management.

Sanford Bernhardt then suggested that the team present their work at Engineering Sustainability 2007.

“When we heard about the Mascaro Conference in Pittsburgh, we thought it would be an ideal place to present our ideas,” states Flath. “The conference was on green development and one of its categories of focus was educating future generations about sustainability.”

The students developed a poster to visually demonstrate their research and gave multiple presentations to various students and professionals, customizing each presentation to suit the background of the audiences.

“As the world grows and develops, it is clear we are going to continue to stretch our natural resources,” asserts Flath. “Using the principles of sustainability will allow us to meet our needs during our lifetimes without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

“While these principles have been around for a long time, they are severely under-used,” he adds. “The best way to encourage sustainable development is by spreading the knowledge. The engineers of the future hold a key role in this and we think it’s a great place to start teaching sustainability.”

According to Garcia and Flath, their demonstrations resulted in contacts from a professor and two authors who requested copies of their work. They also hope to publish the results in an academic journal.

“We hope that this work can facilitate teaching the concepts of sustainability,” expresses Garcia. “We feel that learning sustainability concepts as an undergraduate engineer is essential.”

The experience the students have gained from this project and their academic careers at Lafayette have proven to be invaluable.

“Both are interested in careers involving sustainable engineering,” notes Sanford Bernhardt. “The project itself stimulated their thinking about what is important, how it can be taught, and one aspect of what is involved in being a faculty member. They had significant presentation experience before this conference, so they were well prepared. At the conference, they were able to make professional contacts that they may be able to capitalize on as their careers develop.”

She adds that she thoroughly enjoyed working with the motivated scholars.

Flath, who will attend Carnegie Mellon University and pursue a master’s degree in civil engineering, appreciates the opportunities Lafayette provided to him.

“This project is along the same lines as the coursework I will be doing next year,” he says. “What work at Lafayette has prepared me most for is the drive and responsibility of independent research. I think the professors here are great at encouraging students to go beyond what we do in class, whether it be for a different angle on a semester project, or even something outside of class like Margaret and I did. I know there are many schools where you don’t get the interaction with professors like we do here and I think that is the biggest part of my motivation to do work like this research project.”

Garcia has secured a position as a civil engineer with ARUP, a design planning and consulting firm that has a strong focus on sustainable design.

“I know this project and others like it have prepared me for that type of work,” she says.

Garcia previously conducted EXCEL research with Arthur Kney,assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, on environmentally friendly methods of water treatment; worked with Sharon Jones, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of A.B. engineering, to revamp a course on Global Information Systems; and interned at Langan Engineering and Environmental Services. In addition she presented a paper on EWB’s work in Honduras at an American Society of Engineering Education conference in Brazil and studied abroad in Madrid, Spain.

Garcia was a finalist for the George Wharton Pepper Prize and received the Leroy D. Nunery ’77 Intellectual Citizenship Award at this year’s annual Diversity Awards. The honor is given to a student whose research on important social, political, or economic issues advances knowledge and involves the student in activities within a community. She also received the Carroll Phillips Bassett Prizefor civil engineering at this year’s Honors Convocation and is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa undergraduate honors society. She was a member of Students for Social Justice, QuEST, and the crew team.

Flath will be working at the O’Brien and Gere engineering firm this summer. Early in his academic career he studied abroad at the International University in Bremen. He also was a member of the Arts Society and the all male a cappella group The Chorduroys.

Categorized in: Academic News