REINFORCING SUSTAINABILITY AND RESEARCH THROUGH LABORATORY PRACTICES IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Universities make a significant contribution to the sustainable development of our society, which means they have a special social responsibility, in particular with regard to student training and awareness in this field. Thus, education for sustainable development is crucial for empowering students to take part in shaping a sustainable future. The practical ways of including sustainable development in the technical disciplines of science, technology and engineering require linking teaching activities to their core operations. Particularly, if engineers and managers are to provide and manage sustainable innovations for future societies, they have to think and act over and above purely technical and economic considerations. Therefore, sustainable engineering involves a life-cycle perspective, embracing ecological, economic and socio-cultural aspects, not just technical ones, which should be reinforced in higher education.
Nevertheless, although universities are seeking to respond to this social demand, sustainability practices appear to be fragmented, and there is a lack of knowledge on strategies and successful examples.
Sustainability can be applied across the board at a university, from the classroom to laboratories, in transport, catering services, and even toilet facilities; in other words, across the entire campus.
This work introduces an experience that links laboratory research activities and student awareness and training on sustainability. The activities were carried out in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of the Basque Country (Spain). The students selected were enrolled in the first year of the degrees in Mechanical Engineering, Industrial Chemical Engineering, and Industrial Electronic and Automatic Engineering during the 2015-2016 academic year.
First, a brief questionnaire on the basics of sustainability was administered to the students to assess their command and perception of this subject. A laboratory practice on operating a biofilter was then conducted, with the aim of showing future engineers how to deal with environmental pollution problems through sustainable technological alternatives. A biological reactor or biofilter is a system whereby certain pollutants are eliminated by the action of microorganisms attached to a solid support material. It is now one of the most cost-effective and sustainable off-gas treatment technologies due to its minimal energy requirements and low environmental impact. By operating a biofilter themselves, students can more readily conceptualize the links between sustainable technological development and personal involvement and responsibility.
The integration of sustainability in engineering education is essential for the future decision-makers and change drivers to successfully make the transition to “sustainable societal and technological patterns”.