Engineering Authors: Students Collaborate on ecoMOD Book

Dec. 17, 2007 — The unsubstantiated caricature of an engineering student as a math-and-science whiz –– complete with pocket protector –– is familiar to all of us.

If Benjamin Cohen has his way, the caricature will be forever modified.

This fall, Cohen, assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, began teaching a 200-level course titled "Technology, Nature and Sustainable Communities."

"My first thought was: Wouldn't it be great if the class wrote a book on this topic?" says Cohen.

And so it began. The book was to be an analysis and exploration of the ecoMOD project, a collaboration between U.Va. engineering and architecture students and faculty to design and build eco-friendly, modular homes for low-income families locally and in regions devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

"The ecoMOD project represents our current ideas of nature,” says Cohen, “so it is a perfect case study. Environmental philosophies influence design principles, and vice versa, and this is what I really wanted the students to understand."

The students were drawn from all areas of engineering studies, but none had participated in the ecoMOD project.

For the first half of the semester, the class focused on selected readings and discussion to create a foundation for thinking about the relationships between technology and nature. "I wanted the students to explore three things: how we use technologies to reveal what we know about non-human nature, how we use them to control nature, and how those technologies mediate our relationship with nature, influencing how we view and then live within it," said Cohen.

The second half of the semester was reserved for thinking and writing about these themes through the analysis of the ecoMOD project.

"When Professor Cohen first introduced the idea of writing a book, I felt a little overwhelmed," said Nick Lumsden, a third-year electrical engineering major and Cohen's student. "I thought, 'I'm an engineer, not an author.' However, after beginning the research and studying the ecoMOD project, I became quite interested in the topic."

Cohen's students individually submitted outlines for the book and then similar themes were used to determine the book's structure: three sections, eight chapters. The 25-student class divided into groups; each group was responsible for writing a chapter and working with the other groups assigned chapters in their specific section.

"This has proven to be more difficult than I originally thought," said Tessa Wheeler, a third-year civil engineering major. "But, it has been a great learning process. We had the opportunity to research and act as co-authors on a book — a pretty unique experience."

According to Cohen, the first section explores the historical background of ecoMOD — the ideas, structures and philosophies that stirred interest in sustainable housing. It also includes an environmental history — how environmental sensibilities have shifted throughout the past 50 years — and the political and legal mechanisms that reflect those changed perspectives. The section concludes with a discussion about the intersection of environmental and economic sustainability.

The book's second section discusses the current reality of the ecoMOD project, and contains interviews with students and faculty members currently working on the project. In addition, this section includes a state-of-the-art survey — an examination of other sustainable housing projects occurring at the collegiate, national and international levels — to explore how ecoMOD fits within the contemporary context of current practices. Section two concludes with an assessment of ecoMOD's current material and design choices and how those choices represent certain assumptions about technology and nature in today's society.

The third and final section explores the future of ecoMOD and discusses shifts that would be required in our capitalistic society in order to make this design concept more widespread. In addition, concluding chapters address ideas about technology and nature that would need to be maintained in order for the project to succeed. They suggest, as the students have crafted it, that "sustainability" as a social and environmental movement, and sustainable engineering design as a development in engineering practice, require not just ecological and economic elements, but cultural and political ones, too.

"This is an example of how our faculty work to create unique learning environments," says James H. Aylor, dean of U.Va.'s Engineering School. "Professor Cohen's students have not only mastered the course material, but have also improved their analytical, research and writing skills." 

The end product — a book — and the practice of teaching engineers to be thoughtful writers will endure long after the class ends. Cohen plans to incorporate this teaching method into future courses and envisions the book being hosted on a Web page — and in print if funding becomes available — as well as becoming part of future ecoMOD project discussions. In addition, Cohen and the students hope it will be read by Charlottesville sustainability advocates and incorporated into Universitywide conversations about sustainability.

Architecture professor John Quale, who along with engineering professor Paxton Marshall heads up the ecoMOD project, attended an Engineering School colloquium where the students presented the research methodology and conclusions included in the book.

"You took a project and put it in the context of more important issues," Quale told the students. "I'm really impressed and I want to read the book."

Lumsden shares this enthusiasm. "When this book is complete, I think it will inform students about how sustainable housing has evolved, society's view toward sustainable housing, examples of successful sustainable housing projects/communities and the future of sustainable housing," he said. "I am hoping this book will influence other University groups to develop similar projects to help progress the sustainable housing movement."

Benjamin Cohen, assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society, wrote a book, “Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside,” to be published by Yale University Press. He also wrote the Encyclopedia Virginia's entry on the modern environmental history of Virginia, and is co-editing a book (with U.Va. colleague Gwen Ottinger) called “Scientists, Engineers, and Environmental Justice: Transforming Cultures of Authority in a Grassroots Movement.”

— Written by Andrea Arco