Building a better world: My journey into sustainable engineering

Building a better world: My journey into sustainable engineering

Fuelled by her childhood curiosity, Professor Kathryn Terzano’s journey into Engineering stems from a deep love for people and the planet. As a town planner turned lecturer, she’s now imparting her passion to a new wave of engineers who are keen to explore sustainable solutions for a brighter tomorrow.

On #NationalEngineeringDay, Professor Terzano walks us through examples of the transformative powers of sustainable engineering, some life changing engineering innovations, and offers a glimpse into the new Sustainable Engineering MSc launching in September 2024.

What is sustainable engineering?

Prof. Terzano: Sustainable engineering is the way in which we design, build and maintain our world to minimise harm to the environment, economy, and society. It goes beyond just sustaining the world by creating products and systems that actively benefit it.

For instance, a rainwater harvesting system can be designed to efficiently distribute water, to prevent flooding. On a more familiar note, consider the humble lightbulb – many of us now opt for CFL or LED bulbs, which are far more efficient than the once-standard incandescent bulbs found in most households until very recently.

What are some real-life examples of sustainable engineering that have led to positive change for people and the planet?

Prof. Terzano: There are SO many! But I’ll draw upon an example found in many developing countries because the impact can be enormous – not only life-enhancing but life-changing too.

The introduction of solar-powered microgrids that are used in rural, off-grid areas is one example. There is a positive chain reaction where these kinds of engineering innovations lead to improvements in health, equity, education, and so on. If you’d like to see how these things are interconnected, you can read more about the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

What recent engineering breakthroughs or trends do you find promising or exciting?

Prof. Terzano: You’ve probably heard of modular homes – they’re nothing new, but their design is ingenious, and things are only getting better in this space.

If you’re unfamiliar with modular homes/buildings, they’re essentially pre-manufactured homes made up of several interchangeable components – essentially like giant puzzle pieces that fit together to create a structure. They can be constructed partially or fully on-site and their speedy build time often leads to significant cost savings for homeowners.

Picture of solar farm in the US

Engineering innovations, like solar microgrids are a vital energy source for many rural communities

Thanks to sustainable design, these homes are now more environmentally friendly (and attractive!) than ever with components often made using recycled and recyclable materials. We’re on the brink of some exciting advancements when it comes to choosing materials for these types of constructions too. Engineering research is now paying special attention to how we dismantle the structures once they’ve had their time and how we can reuse the individual components for an alternative purpose – I’m really excited about this!

Big questions, endless possibilities, and a need for some budding engineers to help us get there!

Tell us about your personal journey into engineering?

Prof. Terzano: As a child, I was a tinkerer, taking things apart that, to the dismay of my parents, I couldn’t always put back together – the family’s Commodore 64 computer in the mid-1980s springs to mind immediately – oops!

Curiosity for how things work is a pretty important trait within science and engineering. I was also hugely into science fiction, including sci-fi inventions that probably can’t ever actually work, for example, teleportation, but especially those inventions that have (like ‘communicators’ on Star Trek that we now have in the form of mobile phones).

As for my professional career, I’m a trained town/city planner, educated through a School of Architecture at a large university in the U.S. There I spent about a decade or so teaching planners about sustainability and the built environment (i.e. human structures where we live work and play) before moving to the UK to pursue a lecturing position at the University of Bristol where I now teach the next generation of sustainable engineers.

Terzano at Lavender Farm

Prof. Terzano visiting a lavender farm in Arizona

Planners typically work alongside built environment professionals, including civil and structural engineers, but I was inspired to focus my teaching on sustainable design within engineering because I’m optimistic and excited about the positive impact that engineers can have on the world – from designing renewable energy solutions right through to sustainable product development.

My teaching and engineering realms will positively intersect next September with the launch of a new Sustainable Engineering MSc here are the University of Bristol. The programme offer those with an engineering or STEM-related background the opportunity to learn how to design and build sustainable solutions and structures. I can’t wait to get stuck into teaching, supporting students while they work on the next big thing!

I’ve just released a new book called ‘Human Dimensions of Civil Engineering‘ too. It’s for engineers who want to get a handle on the social and cultural aspects of their career. The book helps balance their technical skills by looking at engineering in a bigger picture. It dives into social, cultural, economic, historical, and political factors, giving engineers a broader perspective.

Can you tell us some more about the new MSc?

Prof. Terzano: Sure – the MSc focuses on developing skills and knowledge in sustainable engineering (I guess the clues in the title really!). There are four core units that later support a research-based dissertation project which you’ll get to do as part of a group. Group work is a true reflection of what the working world of engineering is like, and so the programme has been designed in the same way.

Students gather to discuss group project

Group work empowers students for real-world success

The content has been designed to help you understand complex challenges in creating sustainable systems as well as how to deliver real solutions using engineering tools and software that you’ll often find in industry too.

What is most unique to the programme is the opportunity to tailor this programme to your needs and what you’d ideally like to specialise in. You’ll get to choose from three pathways which include ‘Civil Engineering and the Built Environment’, ‘Renewable Energy’ or ‘Product Development and ‘Advanced Manufacturing’.

Are there any practical elements to the course?

Prof. Terzano: The course certainly has some practical elements, which include workshop and laboratory time. The group dissertation in particular will allow you to take part in applied work, deciding on topics in collaboration with fellow students. An example could be working together to design a hybrid energy system for residential use. The research project is designed to help you engineer innovative and practical solutions for a better tomorrow.

What career outcomes would you expect from this course?

Prof. Terzano: This MSc will prepare you well for professional roles in your chosen engineering specialism. You may wish to explore careers in civil, structural, or mechanical engineering, or even consider a consultancy role in renewable energy, for example. You’ll find more information on the MSc and what to expect on the course on our website. Be sure to check this out beforehand, as course units can change from time to time.

Your final piece of advice for aspiring sustainable engineers?

Prof: Terzano: Go for it! The world needs people who are excited to make a real difference, who want to tackle tough challenges and come up with new solutions. Not only is it possible, it’s essential.

While these challenges can often leave us feeling overwhelmed, we have a choice. We can choose to stand back and do nothing, or act and see what good we can accomplish. There is also a growing need for engineers who truly understand complex sustainability issues, and have the talent and drive to propel solutions forward for the benefit of us all.

*The course information and statements contained within this blog are correct at time of publication.