A Renewable
Piece of Paper


Certificate programs usually teach a student how to do something. But arguably more important than the "how to do" is the "how to do in an environmentally conscious and sustainable way." A new program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, makes an effort to educate students in the ways of green power and subsequently issue them a Certificate in Engineering for Energy Sustainability.

To make such a program meaningful, its designers have included courses outside of those of traditional engineering, since a lot of what gets done in the world of sustainability happens outside the usual practices of product development. "Take the hybrid vehicle," says Giri Venkataramanan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, who helped develop the certificate. "There's a segment of highly success vehicles in the past 10 to 12 years, not because we invented something new. We had the technology for 30 years. Many things had to come together to make it happen. Engineers can't solve these problems alone."

Course Credits

This summer the first cohort of students with the certificate will be graduating. To earn it they've had to take 16 credits of courses with a green emphasis. At least three of those credits must come from a "liberal studies and sciences" category that includes courses such as American Environmental History, Environment and Global Economy, and Resources and People.

Another three credits must come from more typical engineering courses with a green slant, Wind Energy Site Design and Construction, Biorefining, and Core Competencies for Sustainability, to name a few. The remaining credits are earned from a capstone course where students engage in hands-on projects such as working with the City of Madison to find ways to reduce energy consumption, or signing up to work at an appropriate summer internship.

Finally there's a seminar that "brings the students together—it helps them think beyond their discipline."

Sustainability Goal

Building such a certificate from scratch, which would have meant introducing new courses, wasn't really an option. The University of Wisconsin has a "highly decentralized culture," says Venkataramanan. "The faculty have a very strong say, and the deans and administrators have very little they can do to tell faculty what they can do and what to teach." Another problem was the usual: money. "We looked at the bean counting structure on our campus and we recognized that there was a technique we could use, assigning sustainability credits to different courses run by different faculty."

Courses that already jibbed with the program that Venkataramanan and his colleagues had in mind were given an additional sustainability slant. In essence, students simply have to take enough credits of existing environmentally-friendly courses to earn their certificate.

"A lot of time it's preaching to the choir," says Venkataramanan. "They are already sensitized. The certificate adds a line on their transcripts, rather than just saying 'I'm an electrical engineer with an interest in sustainability.'"

But as the program gains more attention and grows—and brings in funding—new courses may be added. And eventually Venkataramanan hopes to build a sustainable laboratory. "We need like a playground on campus where we can validate and understand by making mistakes in a controlled setting—a place where we can take risks that are not in the real world."

Until then, students are at least being "sensitized to sustainable literacy," says Venkataramanan. "The core faculty believes the way we practice engineering has to change, but it won't happen overnight. It's a small step."

Michael Abrams is an independent writer.

The certificate adds a line on their transcripts, rather than just saying ‘I’m an electrical engineer with an interest in sustainability.'

Giri Venkataramanan, professor of electrical and computer engineering, University of Wisconsin


August 2012

by Michael Abrams, ASME.org