Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to travel to Delhi, India. Having spent 24 years in the U.S. Air Force, I’ve done my fair share of travel, but something about this place really stuck with me. The experience was a wonderful one… I met extraordinary people, many of whom are pushing the limits of science and technology. But my encounters with extraordinary people seemed to go against the backdrop of this city and the staggering stats when it comes to the environment. Last November, air pollution was so thick that more than 6,000 schools were forced to close as a result. Now, only trucks carrying essential supplies are allowed into the city due to the dangerous levels of air pollution. And, in 2015 alone, 2.5 million people in India died due to air pollution.
Being in Delhi allowed me to contextualize and experience the air pollution problem first-hand — a problem I had read about for many years. But, as we all know, the problem is hardly contained to the residents of Delhi. Air pollution there affects people everywhere.
For example, last January, United Airlines canceled all flights into and out of Delhi because of the hazardous amount of smog. That one decision, by one U.S.-based company, ultimately affected international trade, tourism, and business. And while the air pollution may be worst in Delhi, it is hardly the only city dealing with dangerous levels of air quality.
Here, in our own backyard, nearly four in 10 Americans — about 133 million people — live with unhealthy levels of air pollution, placing them at risk for premature death and other serious health effects. Currently, eight of the 10 most-ozone polluted cities in the United States are in California, despite the state’s strict environmental regulations that have been imposed to curb pollution. Solving the Earth’s air quality crisis is not just one state or one country’s responsibility. This is a problem that must be solved collectively — on a global scale.
So when we brought our flagship event to San Diego last month, our theme Sustainability seemed fitting. We gathered over 750 leaders in the STEM disciplines from over 20 countries to explore our part in ensuring that the students of today are prepared to develop those solutions that will make life on our planet safer, more sustainable and more comfortable for all of us. This gathering of great minds gave us a collective moment to pause, and consider what we can do to address the environmental challenges of our time. It’s a moment to push ourselves to think more broadly about the role that education can, and should, play in preparing the future STEM around the globe.
During our two days in San Diego, we heard from faculty of different programs in different disciplines and in different parts of the world. And we were inspired by many. We had the chance to learn about Penn State University’s Engineers Without Borders program, which designs and implements sustainability-focused engineering projects that help empower the communities they support. And we also heard from to the College of Engineering of Universidad Del Norte in Colombia, which is building global engineering curriculum for their students, and creating not only globally-minded engineers but globally-focused citizens. Both of these programs are ABET accredited, and they are on the cutting edge of education that leads and views the world through a sustainability lens.
But our programs have more than sustainability in mind. At their core, in their approach to education, they also understand that the domestic and global challenges we face are not simply technological, engineering, or science challenges. They are human challenges first, and the solutions are far from just technical ones. Today, to be current and relevant, STEM education needs to encompass multiple disciplines, and the much-needed insight from professionals with global perspective. Our students must think about future generations and the impact of their decision-making will have on them.
As educators and accreditors, we have an obligation to do everything possible to prepare our students for success. Before they leave campus, new graduates need to understand these challenges, become inspired and feel an obligation to make the world a better place. If we want any chance of breathing easier, we must ensure that today’s students — tomorrow’s leaders — address our global challenges with a rich diversity of thought, and commitment to sustainability.