February 9, 2011

Cornell University Offers New Sustainability Minor

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The College of Engineering is offering a new minor in sustainable energy systems to all undergraduates this semester. The minor, which requires the completion of six courses, uses a multi-disciplinary approach to examine affordable sustainable energy.

According to Prof. Paulette Clancy, chemical and biomolecular engineering, the 18-credit minor aims to go beyond technical knowledge and expose students to other subjects that play vital roles in maintaining a sustainable environment, such as public policy, sociology and economics.

“You can’t design a truly novel or transformative energy system without crossing a lot of different disciplinary boundaries,” Clancy said.

A large amount of the work for developing the minor was done by students. Edwin Salazar ’10, M.Eng. ’11 and a group of his fellow students analyzed the University’s lack of sustainable energy systems courses for an engineering communications class project. After the project was completed, they approached Clancy’s department with a proposal for a new minor.

The group researched similar courses in other colleges to determine the best way to implement the minor, Salazar said.

“The faculty’s idea of what was important in understanding energy systems and the undergraduate ideas were very much in sync,” Clancy said.

Salazar lamented that he could not pursue the minor himself when he was an undergraduate.

“If this minor was available when we were students, we would have all done it,” Salazar said. “Energy systems are becoming very important, and we are glad that it is now offered to future classes.”

Before this minor was officially available, Prof. Albert George, mechanical and aerospace engineering, created a course listing that contained many sustainability classes offered at the University. George’s listings helped the University determine the course requirements for the minor.

According to Clancy, the group that started the minor wanted to make sure that prerequisites would not be so difficult that it would repel students with non-engineering backgrounds.

“With the kind of issues facing our society, even liberal arts students need to understand the issues about sustainable energy,” George said.

Clancy said that the current number of students enrolled in the minor was incomplete, as students who are thinking about applying to the minor may not have applied yet. However, she said that one student from the College of Arts and Sciences had already enrolled.

Clancy added that the minor is still evolving and administrators are looking for additional student input to see how it can best accommodate those with liberal arts backgrounds. Faculty are willing to work on cross-listing courses to open up the minor to students following different paths, she said.

While Clancy said she recognizes that the minor is an engineering-led initiative, she hopes that dialogues about sustainability will seep through many colleges and departments on campus.

According to George, the new sustainable energy systems minor would not be difficult for physics and chemistry majors to complete, but he added that there is a need for more sustainable energy-related classes offered for non-scientists and non-engineers.

Interested students can apply for the minor by contacting Student Services at the College of Engineering.

“I hope the minor will attract as broad a group as possible. As students grow up and leave Cornell, they should be able to evaluate what is going on around them,” Clancy said. “These issues are never easy, and their Cornell education should create a foundation for understanding them.”

Original Author: Tajwar Mazhar