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What China Can Teach UT Students about Sustainable Engineering

CEE’s study abroad course in China, Smart Infrastructure and Sustainability Engineering, brings together a wide variety of students from across disciplines within civil and environmental engineering, as well as other majors across campus, to learn together in the largest city in the world. At Tongji University, which is on the forefront of the development of the “Smart Cities” initiative in China, students learn about the fundamental engineering concepts that impact sustainable infrastructure and design.

The focus on sustainability is of great interest and importance for the next generation of engineers, and the urban infrastructure is where we see some the world’s greatest sustainability challenges. The course takes students to the largest city in the most populous country in the world for a life-changing cultural experience and up-close look at world-class urban infrastructure.

Specifically, sustainable engineering refers to the design of human and industrial systems to ensure that humankind’s use of natural resources do not lead to diminished quality of life due either to losses in future economic opportunities or to adverse impacts on social conditions, human health and the environment. China is undergoing the most rapid urbanization in history and makes a great classroom for students with a sustainability focus.

Emily Craig, a senior sustainability major was on high alert her junior year to find a study abroad experience that both aligned with her academic and professional interests and also fit into her relatively short undergraduate timeline, as she still had to complete her “Ready for the World” requirement in order to graduate as a member of the Chancellor’s Honors Program at UT.

Since the course content was not designed to be exclusive to technical instruction, but instead to engage students in an applied, interdisciplinary dialogue about sustainability as it relates to engineering at large, it was a perfect fit for her.

“My time on this trip was one of the single most helpful experiences UT has provided me in answering the question ‘What am I going to do with my degree?’” says Craig. “By placing myself in a civil and environmental engineering environment, I had a chance to understand the work that goes into the creation of the large-scale systems we depend on, systems I hope to in some way manage in my career, as well as the care that goes into their alteration for the purpose of making a more sustainable world.”

For transportation engineering senior Zachary Jerome, experiencing different methods of transportation such as bus, train, and taxi to get around Shanghai was a highlight. He also enjoyed his group’s final presentation: to design a smart and sustainable transportation system for the city of Shanghai in the year 2035. They were able to gain insights about Shanghai through a guest faculty lecture about the Shanghai 2035 Master Plan. “We explored the city using different methods of transportation to get ideas about how we could improve the system, and then presented a proposal with design, implementation, environmental and social impacts.”

Other aspects of the trip were compelling for senior Matthew Lyons studying water resources and structures within CEE. “China’s infrastructure is 20-30 years more advanced than our infrastructure, and that creates a great learning environment for engineers,” he said. He particularly liked visiting the wastewater treatment plants where they were re-capturing phosphorous to help prevent algae blooms. Matthew shared his experiences on the CEE Above Grade Blog, including how he proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Katherine Tatum (senior in the Haslam School of Business) on the Great Wall of China.

Of course, being in China and studying alongside students at Tongji University gave everyone a great cultural exchange, allowing them to expand their horizons and see the world with fresh perspectives useful for their futures. “This class represents the very essence of study-abroad—gaining new perspectives through a truly immersive experience in a completely different culture,” says Associate Professor Qiang He, who teaches the course along with Professor Baoshan Huang. “Our students and their Chinese peers studied together, played basketball together, cooked together, ate together, squeezed into morning rush hour subway together, rode high speed rail together, and together they discussed their values, beliefs, and dreams…….A truly once-in-a-lifetime study-abroad experience!”


Click here for more information about this study abroad experience.