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What is Sustainable Engineering? | An Introduction for Students

All life on Earth depends on the environment and the natural resources that come from it; water, food, plants, minerals - these basic elements are imperative to the survival of humankind as we know it and the generations that will follow us in the future. 

There are over seven billion people on Earth. And each day, these billions of people use the resources to help us survive and live with ease. 

Some resources that are being used cannot be replaced once used. In addition, the use of some resources can go on to have negative impacts on our wider environment, such as pollution, which can also lead to additional problems with these natural elements that we so critically rely on. 

But for the world to continue providing us with these resources we require, we need to interact with our environment in a way that ensures there will be enough resources for us and for generations to come in the future. 

Sustainability confronts these problems, finding ways to protect and conserve our natural environment to ensure we can live our lives, without ever having to worry about not having enough resources for the future. 

And sustainable engineering has a huge part in helping make sure the processes and systems that we as individuals and larger corporations use, does not compromise our availability of resources for future generations. 

As a subject, sustainable engineering degrees continue to grow in popularity, with data suggesting that student interest in this and other closely-related subjects has tripled in recent years: with a future that depends on sustainable engineering, it’s easy to see why.

But if you’ve never heard of the subject before, what exactly is sustainable engineering? Similarly, if the prospect of a job in sustainability in the future interests you, what exactly could your career look like? Read our introduction to the subject to find out more. 

What is sustainable engineering?

Sustainable engineering is “the process of using resources in a way that does not compromise the environment or deplete the materials for future generations.” (Source: UNESCO)

As the very name suggests, it’s all about designing and operating daily systems in such a way that the energy and resources that they use are sustainable - that is, they are used at a rate that doesn't compromise the natural environment and its ability to be used by future generations to meet their own needs.

You may not have ever realised it, but sustainable engineering actually impacts every single aspect of our daily lives. From the water that runs through our taps to the process of removing and breaking down the rubbish you throw in your bin - sustainable engineering is crucial to ensuring life as we know it can continue with ease for many generations to come. 

Common focuses within the world of sustainable engineering include the following:

  • Food production and preservation
  • Housing and shelter
  • Waste disposal and management
  • Pollution reduction
  • Water supplies
  • Energy development and consumption
  • Transportation
  • Restoring natural resource environments
  • Improvements in industrial processes

What’s the future of sustainable engineering for students?

In a century marked by the changing impacts of climate change, it should come as no surprise that sustainability is a field of study that appears to be growing amongst the student population.

According to research by StudyPortals, an increasing number of students have pursued their interest in the subject at a higher level of education, with universities around the world also increasing the number of sustainability-related degrees they have available to them. 

For those with an interest in pursuing the subject at an undergraduate or postgraduate level, there are rising opportunities available to you. And, with an increased interest in climate change from the media and global leaders, you can expect these opportunities to continue to grow over the coming years. 

If sustainability is a subject that piques your academic interests, you should definitely consider a role in sustainable engineering or a related field, to see what positive impact you can have on our world in the future. 


What does a sustainable engineer do?

The overall responsibility of a sustainable engineer is to design technologies and implement various processes and systems that can prevent and control a range of environmental risks, as well as restoring and even reversing environmental damage. 

Often referred to as ‘environmental engineers,’ sustainable engineers use their strong foundations in science, geography and engineering to promote and provide a healthier environment for the globe. 

From analysing and improving the risk of flooding and drainage in high-risk areas, to searching for more sustainable solutions to the way we dispose of waste products like water, plastics and industrial waste, you’ll be concerned with issues such as climate change, pollution, energy crisis, and how to deal with an ever-increasing population.

Daily responsibilities of a sustainable engineer:

A sustainable engineer’s daily responsibilities will be dependent on the industry and specific job role they have. With that being said, there is still plenty of overlap between the responsibilities of various sustainable engineering roles - and your daily tasks could include:

  • Data collection: From a range of sources and sites, including site assessments and third-party reports. 
  • Evaluate environmental impact: Using the data you have collected, to assess and evaluate the impact of various projects and commercial operations. 
  • Report writing: Presenting your findings and recommendations to other stakeholders, including the costs, remediation plans and health and safety considerations.
  • Communicate: With local residents and organisations to share details of projects and minimise their impact on the local community.
  • Implement: Manage and supervise the daily tasks of sustainable processes and remediation schemes. 
  • Offering advice: To companies, organisations and councils on how to preserve and prevent future difficulties.
  • Liaise and advise: With clients and local authorities regarding planning aspects of projects and their sustainability.
  • Travel: Sustainable engineering often requires a lot of site work and travel. Your hours could be irregular, and you could be required to work away from home sometimes.

What qualifications do you need to become a sustainable engineer?

Mostly, sustainability engineers will be required to have a degree in engineering as it is most relevant to their area. However, given the combination of science, geography and engineering knowledge needed for the role, you don’t necessarily have to have studied an engineering degree to secure a job in the industry. 

You could study any other related subject, such as a science or environmental discipline:

Although most graduate schemes don’t require a postgraduate degree, a Masters in an area related to Environmental science or engineering will provide you with a greater depth of knowledge which may make you more attractive to potential employers.

What skills are needed for sustainable engineering?

The training and daily responsibilities of a sustainable engineer demand a whole range of research skills from individuals. From being able to collect data, to applying it to the development of new processes and systems that can be used around the world - your skill base will need to be varied and adaptable if you are to excel in this role. 

More specifically, you’ll need to be strong at:

  • Data research: Collecting, analysing and manipulating data from a variety of sources.
  • Report writing: Collating your findings into a single report to be shared with other people.
  • Presenting and communicating ideas: Discussing your findings with other professionals, and convincing stakeholders to take action to improve their processes.
  • Time-management: You’ll often have strict project deadlines which you cannot afford to miss.
  • Creative resolution: Using your background knowledge in science and engineering to overcome environmental issues and provide sustainable solutions. 
  • Organisation: Managing different phases of projects and tracking large volumes of data.
  • Passionate: About challenging the norm to improve the world for generations to come. 


How can I find out more about sustainable engineering?

We know sustainable engineering isn’t a subject most schools have on offer, but it’s also one that’s rising in significance and soon to be a leading force in helping resolve the current climate crisis. 

With promising prospects for passionate young minds, you should take some time now to immerse yourself in the subject and see if it’s an industry you may want to work in one day.

Explore current media

With the endless opportunities of your smartphone; TV subscriptions; magazines; podcasts, YouTube videos and more - it’s never been easier to access a whole range of media and learn about a topic of your choice. And for sustainable engineering, it’s no different. 

As mentioned earlier, sustainability and climate change are two of just some of the very hotly-debated topics in the media at the moment, with news channels, documentary-makers and social media users becoming increasingly involved in the discussion.

For those wanting to learn more about the subject, there’s never been a better time. With just a few clicks (or swipes) on your electronic devices, you can access thousands - if not millions - of literature and media to educate you on the topic.

Immerse yourself in the topic as much as you can - read articles, research papers and books. Watch interviews with scientists, sustainability experts and engineers to learn more about the work that’s currently being done. You can even try and find some documentaries on the subject too if you want. 

Of course, just remember that media can often be subjective, and you should always apply your own logic, understanding and opinion on topics to anything you watch or read online. Sustainability especially is a topic which has varying degrees of opinions, and so you should never watch anything and take it as a hard fact. Although, having said that, learning how to understand and draw from differing opinions is something that you’ll become very familiar with if you do pursue a career in sustainable engineering.

Either way, it’s not a bad idea to get well-versed in sustainability - even if you have zero interest in pursuing it as a career, it’s the responsibility of all of us to live a more sustainable life if we are to reverse the effects of climate change and preserve our natural resources for the future.

Work experience

What’s the best way to imagine yourself in a particular career or learn more about the subject? By actually getting some experience in industry. 

Gaining work experience in the field or industry that you’re interested in pursuing in the future will be invaluable; you’ll have the opportunity to ‘test’ a particular job role or field, without the commitment of actually having to train, interview, and work your way towards a role.

Work experience can help you see what opportunities are available to you in a particular sector, help you confirm your future options, and even help you build connections early in your career with other industry professionals that may be able to assist you in the future.

Often, schools and colleges will encourage you to seek work experience opportunities to help you explore your future career interests, and will therefore have a handy contact list of local businesses and organisations that may be offering work experience in the field you’re interested in. 

If sustainable engineering is something that interests you, try speaking to your school to see if they have any contacts in the industry that they can connect you with. Alternatively, you can try speaking with family and friends to see if they have anyone in their network who may be willing to offer you some experience - or even just the chance to shadow them for a day.

Summer school

Struggling to find a work placement in sustainable engineering? Or perhaps looking for something which gives you a more academic grounding in the subject before you pursue further study or experience in industry?

Attending a summer school can also be a great way to immerse yourself in the subject, without the commitment of signing on to study it at university or beyond. 

Spending 2-weeks learning about a subject is just the right amount of time to equip yourself with the basics and decide if it’s something you can imagine yourself pursuing in the longer term. 

Our summer courses also take place at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge - two of the most prestigious learning institutions in the world. This not only gives you insight into what sustainable engineering is, but also what it’s like to study the subject at the very best universities in the UK. 

Add onto this an independent living experience with students just like you from around the world, a busy socio-cultural timetable of fun extracurricular activities, all served up in two of the hottest student cities and, well - you’ve got the formula for a pretty epic summer adventure.


Discover Sustainable Engineering for yourself

Interested in finding out more about our Sustainable Engineering summer courses

With climate change looming, fossil fuel supplies dwindling and our world’s population increasing, the need for sustainable energy is now more urgent than ever before.

And those with an interest in pursuing a career in Engineering will soon come to realise that Sustainable Engineering will be an essential sub-discipline in the future. 

Our 2-week course is designed for those students with a basic background in science and mathematics who wish to develop the interdisciplinary skills needed to design, improve and assess renewable energy systems.

From the basis of STEM learning to understanding renewable energy systems, you’ll leave us with an increased understanding of your chosen discipline, a comprehensive oversight of sustainability in the modern world and a sharpened focus on your future pathway. So, what are you waiting for?

Contact our admissions team to speak with an advisor about our Sustainable Engineering summer courses, or apply now to secure your place for next summer.

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What is sustainable engineering? Read our comprehensive introduction to the subject for students.

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