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Journal of Cleaner Production 106 (2015) 300e307

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Journal of Cleaner Production

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Educational initiatives

Sustainable development at the core of undergraduate engineering

curriculum reform: a new introductory course in chemical
Harro von Blottnitz*, Jennifer M. Case, Duncan M. Fraser
Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

a r t i c l e i n f o

a b s t r a c t

Article history:
Received 6 February 2014
Received in revised form
17 December 2014
Accepted 16 January 2015
Available online 29 January 2015

Most efforts to reform engineering curricula to focus on sustainable development have to date been at
the level of individual, senior, often elective, courses. Although sophisticated arguments have been
mounted about the need for broad curriculum reform, there are few exemplars of such initiatives in
undergraduate engineering education. This article reports on a curriculum reform process in chemical
engineering at the University of Cape Town, and examines closely the new rst core course that signals
the introduction of this new curriculum. The new curriculum has borrowed from forerunners in this
endeavour a slightly reduced theoretical core, intertwined with an accompanying project strand running
throughout the four years of the program. Departing from traditional curricula, the new rst year course
incorporates a natural foundations strand that introduces nature not just as source of raw materials, or
as imposing limits on engineering prowess, but also as mentor and model. Sustainability problems are
interpreted as systematic violations of nature's grand cycles and contrasted with development needs
particularly in relation to provision of water and energy. By the end of the course, >95% of students rated
their knowledge of environmental and sustainability issues as good or excellent, whilst 80% conrmed
this in the nal examination. This article thus demonstrates the feasibility of reforming core undergraduate engineering curricula to incorporate a focus on sustainable development, from the rst year of
study onwards.
2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Engineering education
Curriculum reform
Sustainable development

1. Introduction
The signicance of the educational arena for advancing the goals
of sustainable development, signalled in this journal by a now well
cited article (Crofton, 2000), is rmly established in the literature.
Higher education is recognised as a key site for change, and there
have been numerous studies which audit the status quo across
whole institutions and across a wide range of programmes (for
example, Lozano et al., 2010; Xiong et al., 2013; Khalili et al., 2015).
What is clear across these studies is that sustainable development
has established a relatively rm footing in the high level rhetoric
with which universities motivate their purpose in society, but that
its location on the ground in teaching and curriculum is patchy.
Engineering education is a key locus for this work, and from the
outset numerous commentators (see again, for example, Crofton,
2000) have expressed the desirability for engineers to be

* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: (H. von Blottnitz).
0959-6526/ 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

educated with a focus on sustainable development. A key survey

demonstrated that the level of engineering graduates' knowledge
in this area was relatively poor at that time (Azapagic et al., 2005).
Exemplars of actual curriculum change in response to these calls
and concerns are, however, relatively limited, and much of this
work has been at the level of developing individual (typically senior, often elective) courses focused on sustainable development
(for example, Kamp, 2006; Boks and Diehl, 2006; Brennan, 2013).
Davidson et al. (2010) provide a review of some 155 courses that
have now been developed in this area in North America while
Segalas et al. (2010) analyse a selection of courses across ve European universities. The limitations of such a single-course
response were, however, noted from the outset (e.g. Crofton, 2000)
and since then, many commentators in the burgeoning education
for sustainable development (ESD) literature have argued for curriculum reform, i.e. the greening of entire curricula rather than
just the addition of one green course. An early exemplar of such
attempts was reported from Cambridge University, where,
following the development and implementation of a successful
fourth year elective course, a strategy was developed for infusing

H. von Blottnitz et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 106 (2015) 300e307

sustainable development across the engineering curriculum

(Fenner et al., 2005).
Mulder et al. (2012) provide a useful summary of developments
after roughly ten years of these efforts, drawing on work presented
over this time at the Engineering Education in Sustainable Development (EESD) conference. Reafrming the need for engineering
students to learn about sustainable development, they note the
need for both top-down and bottom-up modes of change: the necessity for high level institutional support but also the recognition
that curriculum change is driven by disciplinary academics. With
regard to the issue noted above on individual courses versus
wholesale curriculum reform, they note the need for both strategies, for developing sustainable development specialists, while also
ensuring that all engineers have a basic understanding of key
concepts. This said, in our review of the literature we nd scant
exemplars of the latter, of programmes which have followed the
ambitions expressed by Fenner et al. (2005) and which have
infused sustainable development into the core teaching of engineering. Here we note the recent development of an engineering
programme oriented completely towards sustainable development
(Lozano and Lozano, 2014); our interest is, however, in locating the
possibilities for building sustainable development in the teaching
of the established engineering disciplines of civil, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering. Chau (2007) have reported on
curriculum changes at Hong Kong Polytechnic which have introduced sustainable development into the civil engineering curriculum by means of the inclusion of specic design projects. This
mirrors the approach advocated by Lehmann et al. (2008) who
argue, building on their experiences at Aalborg University, that
problem-based learning (PBL, in this article elaborated as POPBL e
problem-oriented and project-based learning) is best suited for
building sustainable development into the engineering curriculum.
For a number of reasons, including but not only driven by
sustainable development concerns, we have been working on a
major reform of the entire undergraduate chemical engineering
curriculum at the University of Cape Town since 2009, launched
with the 2013 intake. The new programme is still a four year
bachelor's programme, meeting the requirements of the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA). However, in curriculum
structure and in modes of teaching and learning it will be signicantly different from the current offering. In this article, we
describe and analyse the new 1st year core course in chemical
engineering and the way in which it provides the foundations for an
infusion of sustainable development across the whole curriculum.
To provide the necessary context, we rst orient this work within
contemporary developments in the chemical engineering profession, and thereafter describe our approach to curriculum reform in
engineering education.
2. Curriculum reform in undergraduate chemical
engineering at UCT
During the 1990s, the chemical engineering profession started
to respond to the unsustainability of socio-economic development
patterns e at about the same time as many other institutions in
global society e though it took some time for consensus on these

concerns to be reected, e.g., through the Melbourne Communique
(IChemE, 2003), prominent articles in the disciplinary literature
(Batterham, 2006; Clift, 2006) and the IChemE Roadmap for 21st
century engineering (IChemE, 2007), which has recently been
updated and re-formulated in terms of four vistas for the future:
energy, water, food and nutrition, and health and wellbeing
(IChemE, 2013).
Chemical engineering has historically played a limited role in
African economies and their development, with exceptions in the


oil-producing and rening nations and in the industrial complexes

of apartheid South Africa. Process engineering, dened to include
physical or biological materials beneciation beyond chemical reaction engineering, has had a somewhat broader appeal and has
recently been witnessing strong demand in many African countries
on the back of resource-based economic growth, esp. in agroprocessing and in minerals beneciation. In regard to the booming African mining industry, it is worth noting that environmental
impacts and the socio-economic development contributions of
mining and metals production have received signicant attention
from the early 2000s onwards (e.g. IIED, 2001).
Building on these developments and in line with broader trends
outlined earlier, in the early 2000s at the University of Cape Town
we reworked our 4th year engineering economics course into a
business, society and environment course (as described and
justied by von Blottnitz, 2006). In the mid-2000s however, the
department started developing a view that wholesale curriculum
reform was needed.
The chemical engineering programme at UCT started in the
1950s and has had periodic changes made to it, the last major one in
1995 with the establishment of a rst year engineering course and
the inclusion of design courses in second year (Fraser and Harrison,
1997; Fraser, 2001). The programme takes in approximately 130
new students each year, with a wide demographic spread
comprising a majority of black South African students. The most
recent complete throughput analyses for cohorts entering 2005e9
(Heydenrych and Case, 2014) show that nearly three quarters of the
intake graduate in the programme, and nearly 60% of these graduates complete in regulation time.
The Department has been conducting education research on
student learning in its undergraduate programme over nearly two
decades (Case, 2013). This work has departed from a theoretical
base that sees the student as an active constructor of their learning
experience. It also builds on a holistic perspective on the student
experience, arguing that learning is not only a matter of acquisition
of knowledge, but also participation in social processes. Building on
this research, together with other evidence, the following shortcomings of the current curriculum were identied:
a) Limited structures and dated approaches to support the
schooleuniversity transition;
b) Overload which militates against high quality learning in the
programme, creating a fail-rst environment in which
almost half of the eventual graduates complete their studies
in an ad-hoc and disjointed manner;
c) A lack of coherence and integration in key areas across the
programme, most notably in mathematics, computing,
teamwork and communication;
d) Inadequate exposure to the chemical engineering profession,
also somewhat out of touch with the ways in which the
profession is changing, in particular a signicantly increased
emphasis on sustainable development; and
e) No opportunities for in-depth specialisation and limited
choice of electives.
Some of these reasons, esp. a) and b), had been partially
addressed in the 1995 curriculum, and again through smaller academic development initiatives since then. The recurring identication of these problems indicates that they are of a systemic
nature. At this point it will also be noted that the ambition to increase the focus on sustainable development (item d) above) is not
the sole driver for this reform initiative; this curriculum reform is
aimed both to improve the quality of student learning and the
relevance of what is being learnt. There is an analogy here with
what may be termed the cleaner production technology retrot


H. von Blottnitz et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 106 (2015) 300e307

problem. From CP experience we know that green can often not

be implemented on its own merits, and must be astute to the opportunities that arise during projects done to address other pressures on the business. Likewise, greening the curriculum, however
necessary, needs to be astute to opportunities arising from other
reasons for reform.
To engage with curriculum reform in a scholarly manner requires
a careful theorisation of the notion of curriculum. As a recontextualisation (Bernstein, 2000) of disciplinary knowledge, curriculum
involves a selection and sequencing of material, and is always going
to be a site of contestation. This is particularly acute in engineering
education, where a range of external and internal interests are at
play. Thus it is not surprising that curriculum reform is widely
considered a key process to address a range of inter-related challenges in engineering education (see, for example, Armstrong, 2006).
Barnett and Coate (2005) provide a helpful framework for theorizing curriculum, suggesting that in addition to a traditional focus
on knowledge and skills (characterised by them as a focus on
knowing and acting) we need to enlarge our viewpoint to include a
development of students' being. This perspective resonates with
two key reports that have recently been delivered on engineering
education. Jamieson and Lohmann (2012), reporting on a broad
consultation process in the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), call for innovation in engineering education that has
the potential for a signicant impact on student learning and performance, noting the crucial challenges currently facing the discipline. Their key recommendations centre on the need for
professional development for engineering educators and the building of sustainable collaborations. They argue that engineering
curricula need to be more engaging and relevant, and draw on current best pedagogical practice. Graham (2012), in a parallel document that has emerged following a study commissioned by the Royal
Academy of Engineering (RAE) and MIT, notes that one of the key
conditions for curriculum reform itself to be sustainable is a
coherent, interconnected curriculum, where a wide pool of academic
staff delivers the reformed courses, often through team-teaching.
These recommendations resonate with our experience to date in
curriculum reform, which we nd to be only possible if done by a
multi-faceted academic team. In our case, as already noted, this team
was led from a strong evidence base of research on student learning
in higher education. With regard to building sustainable development as a focus for the new curriculum, we drew on research on what
sustainable development conceptions our graduates hold. This work
investigated sustainable development as a possible threshold
concept, which to learn properly involves some discomfort of
parting with familiar worldviews. The ndings point to the need to
allow students more time to navigate the liminal space e a time of
uncertainty in which the implications of the new worldview are
explored, of the limitations of the old way of seeing things, of
experimenting and of changing one's identity (Sibanda et al., 2011).

Building on these perspectives and informed by an ongoing

engagement with the international scholarship on engineering
education, the new curriculum is centred on the following two
interrelated objectives:
1. Improve the quality of student learning in the programme in
order to increase the throughput of successful graduates, as well
as the quality of those graduates.
2. Increase relevance of the curriculum to contemporary and
future foci in chemical engineering (including research-led
teaching and sustainable development).

3. Intended and implemented reforms

In designing a new curriculum we have inter alia been guided by
curriculum developments at renowned chemical engineering institutions, most notably at Imperial College (Perkins, 2002), the
University of Queensland (Crosthwaite et al., 2006) and at the
University of Sydney (Gomes et al., 2006).
3.1. The (intended) new curriculum
We considered both problem-based (such as at University of
Sydney) and project-based (at Imperial College) curriculum models
and have made a deliberate choice (justied by Case, 2011) to
design our curriculum as project-centred (the term used to
describe the curriculum model at University of Queensland), where
there is a strand of project work running throughout the curriculum but theory is still explicitly taught alongside project work.
The new curriculum centres on one full year core course in
chemical engineering in each of the rst three years of the programme. This is to allow for better integration of material across
topics, and the inclusion of the sustained strand of project work. To
address differential preparedness, the curriculum is designed to
include academic development opportunities within the mainstream programme, allowing for cohort progression with 3-week
opportunities for intensive tutored revision in the winter and
summer holidays (so-called boot camps). The full programme involves a larger proportion of elective courses than previously, with
the introduction of science electives and a refocusing of the humanities elective space, including a compulsory language course.
Graduates in the 21st century will need to be able to embrace
complexity much more readily (Barnett, 2000). We are therefore
letting go of a key guideline of our 1995 curriculum which
attempted to build the ability to understand reasonably complex
systems in a step-wise fashion as shown in Table 1 and explained by
Fraser and Harrison (1997). Instead, the new approach echoes the
much-cited adage that complexity arises from the repeated
application of simple rules, employing the nested and recurring

Table 1
Approaches to complexity in our old and new curricula.
1995 curriculum

2014 curriculum
Unit (nested &
recurring in modules)

Unit (once-off)

Aim of unit as regards complexity

Year 1
Year 2

Academic readiness, exposure to the discipline, identity-formation

Chemical engineering science: multi-phase single-component, or
single-phase multi-component

Year 3

Chemical engineering science: multi-phase, multi-component

(unit operations)


Year 4

Systems of systems (owsheets); process simulation; heuristics

for their design; economic and environmental analysis thereof

Integrated assessment

Characteristics of themed unit as regards complexity

Blocked, focused, to be mastered (80%)
Stranded vertically, demonstrated, learnt by doing,
competency must be shown (80%); systems
modelling and simulation admitted much earlier
Application of (initially limited) theory, through a
(limited) set of practices, open-ended, initially
heavily scaffolded
Summative assessments that may draw from
theory, practice and project spaces

H. von Blottnitz et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 106 (2015) 300e307


Table 2
Coverage of Sustainable Development topics (in bold) relative to the whole course, as indicated by numbers of sessions.
Content summary for CHE1005W
Theory (12 per module; each
with a mini-tutorial)


Practice (12 per module)


Project (15 per module)


Process Design
Natural Foundations
Mass balances
Energy Balances
Systems of units
Process Analysis


Economic Analysis
Environmental Analysis
Unit Conversion
Social Impact
Learning Community
Modelling and Computing
Identity Formation


Environmental Analysis
Economic Analysis
Maths in Context
Social Impact
Modelling and Computing


Additionally, there is one practical per semester, for a total of 8 sessions.

use of key curriculum features, as shown in the right-hand column

of Table 1. Within the project elements, this affords us the space
for confronting the messiness of a multi-level approach from the
rst year.
On the other hand, with the intention to improve the quality of
conceptual understanding, we are structuring the theory elements
with a clear and logical progression of key ideas, to be conceptually
mastered by all students. Year courses are structured into modules
which will mean that within the course at a given time students
will be focussing intensively on one knowledge area, rather than
experiencing daily 45-min drip-feeds of content across four or
ve courses simultaneously.
3.2. The new 1st year course
The rst year course contains the course design features that are
planned for the second and third year core courses, and thus the

evaluation of the rst implementation of this pilot course is an

important stage in the overall curriculum reform process.
The course is structured into four six-week modules, each with
the generic structure showed in Fig. 1. It clearly displays the curriculum elements introduced above and in Table 1, now in time
table format.
A number of features are evident in Fig. 1. Firstly, this is a large
course, occupying 4 morning slots plus two full afternoons per
week; it carries 20% more credits than a traditional full 1st year
course. In the theory component, lecture sessions alternate with
exercises which can be considered to be mini-tutorials. The rst
two weeks of the module are heavy on theory and the project work
commences at the end of this period. Termed practice are the
lecture plenary inputs which students need in order to tackle the
project work. In the projects, students work in groups but tackle
both individual and group tasks. Using tutors we have managed to
get a fast turnaround on feedback on the project tasks such that

Fig. 1. Generic module structure.


H. von Blottnitz et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 106 (2015) 300e307

students can use this feedback going forward in the project.

Mastery and competency tests and retests are scheduled into the
module structure. Each module has one conceptual mastery test
and one skills competency test.
Adding further novelty, the course was one of three at the
University of Cape Town (UCT) which is piloting laptops for use in
class (UCT has made a special allocation to assist students needing
nancial support in this regard). The course thus also trialled a
range of innovative uses of computer technology to assist in
teaching and learning, including more intensive use of the course
website, a paper free course, the use of online software with
clicker type applications and project work in the class venue
which uses computer applications for calculations, text production,
presentation preparation and drawing.
3.3. The natural foundations theme
Part of the theoretical underpinning for sustainable development comes through a set of lectures and exercises around the
theme termed Natural Foundations. Informed by three perspectives on nature (Isenmann, 2003), it aims to build in students an
adequate grasp of i) the source and nature of raw materials, ii) the
limits and functioning of the planet's resources and iii) the possibility of learning from nature. This has involved more engagement
with text and an inclusion of more open-ended debate into the
course. This has to some extent raised the cognitive demand of the
rst year course, which historically was more located in relatively
simple calculations. Sustainable development topics are also reected in the choice of project assignments (Table 2).
4. Sustainable development in the 1st year course
The course involved 130 students, 8 tutors and 2 professors (the
rst two authors, alternating in each leading two modules). Having
taught the predecessor 1st year course, we had standard materials
at hand for the classical Design and Analysis components of the
course for which we continue to use Duncan and Reimer's (1998)
text e but we had to assemble some of the sustainable development theory (esp. what we consider the natural foundations) as
well as much of the related practice, project and integrated
assessment materials. We were fortunate to be able to recruit a
retired colleague (the third author) to assist with preparing materials. One of us (the rst author and course convener) is active in
sustainable development research, and thus cognisant of the wide
and often contested interpretation of the term; we thus seek to
present here our interpretation of the term within what may be
termed an African resource industries context, characterized by
the following key features:
i) Processing of resources (whether mined minerals, harvested
wood or agricultural produce) typically is energy-intensive
and carries risks of pollutant emissions;
ii) These risks posed by such processing plants are balanced by
the employment and local economic development benets, a
theme already featured at the exit level of our curriculum
(von Blottnitz, 2006);
iii) Unique to the African developmental context is that such
plants may become high-technology islands in a sea of
poverty, challenging the technically educated employee to
think deeply as to how benets of the processing plant can
contribute to development in the host community.
The following sub-sections provide one example within each of
the four key curriculum features outlined in Table 1. The examples
provided here are all in the context of water, which was deliberately

chosen as context for the rst two modules of the course, to reinforce one of the theoretical learning fundamentals, viz. condence
to work with volumes and concentrations. Energy formed the
context for the second semester modules. Water and energy were
also chosen because of their signicance in world issues relevant to
the profession (IChemE, 2007, 2013). The selection of these examples (all taken from our rst two modules) is simply to demonstrate
how we integrated sustainable development into the context of
teaching engineering and should not be taken to indicate the scope
across our whole course.
4.1. Natural foundations theory
Ex nature utilitas is the motto of the South African Institute of
Chemical Engineering; an increasingly problematic engineering
understanding of nature. This is the point of departure for the natural foundations theory in the 1st year course, immediately introducing the alternative paradigms of nature imposing limits and
nature as model and mentor (Isenmann, 2003). Mostly though, this
part of the course makes use of the four system conditions for sustainability (TNS, 2013) to provide a basis for critical thinking about
process engineering activities in production, consumption and
decomposition in the industrial economy. Table 3 shows an example
of each explored in the context of the hydrological cycle.
As straightforward as this framework may seem, when used in
test questions it readily exposes supercial learning attempts or
gaps in students' general knowledge. By way of example, a surprising number of students mistook natural gas for a renewable
source of energy in a test question probing an understanding of
System Condition 1. Instances such as these provided feedback
opportunities to improve understanding of the sustainable development material in the course.
4.2. Practice: the ability to write about sustainability
The practice strand in the curriculum allows for development of
eight identied engineering skills, including writing, economics,
computing, and drawing. We signal the importance placed on
developing the skill of writing early on, and nd the natural
foundations theme a useful context for this, as shown by the
example in Box 1. Writing assignments are kept short, to enable fast
turnaround, using tutor marking and lecturer moderation. Working
in small groups (of 3, as shown in Box 1) further allows for peer
feedback as the joint submission is prepared.
4.3. Project: water reuse or desalination
The project work occupies four of the six weeks of each module.
It is the vehicle both for applying theory and for developing skills.

Table 3
Examples used to structure thinking about water and sustainability.
Breach of sustainability condition

Example (and mechanism of action)

1. Systematic transfer of substance

from the lithosphere

Transfer of ground-water borne

arsenic into society and the
environment, Bangladesh
(poisoning, cancer)
B. Nonylphenols in detergents,
e.g. wool processing in South Africa
(Hormone disruption)
Aral sea (overharvesting)
Land owner H2O rights in apartheid
South Africa (inequitable access)

2. Systematic release of non-degradable

chemicals into the ecosphere
3. Systematic physical degradation
4. Systematic undermining of ability
to secure livelihood

H. von Blottnitz et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 106 (2015) 300e307

Box 1
Writing example on the 3rd afternoon in the project for Module 1.

Today you are going to investigate the phosphorus cycle.

You will need to establish the flows of phosphorus around
this cycle and the time frames for these flows, as well as the
impact humans have had on this cycle.
Member A: the phosphorus cycle on land
Member B: the phosphorus cycle in rivers and lakes
Member C: the phosphorus cycle in the oceans
The written description (use full sentences) must be between 200 and 250 words long

The projects, as illustrated by the example in Box 2, are chosen to be

of contemporary relevance, addressing environmental, economic
or development challenges, but also drawing on the process engineering fundamentals already learnt (here mass balancing, with
recycling), and developing a chosen set of skills (here oral
communication and group work).
Key learnings from the four projects of the 2013 course, based
on course observations, include that:
i) Challenging and relevant projects make it possible to have full
attendance and attention to coursework in scheduled sessions
even with limited supervision; student laptop ownership is
critical in this regard as it enables research, reading, calculation
and writing activities in groups in class.
ii) Project expectations can balloon and need to be carefully scoped
to achieve a balance between the value created by providing
interim feedback and the marking workload; in that regard 2e3
interim submissions in a 6-session project running over 4 weeks
proved to be a good compromise.

Box 2
Instructions for the final session of the Module 2 project.

In this session you will prepare for the final report on this
project, which will take the form of an oral presentation by
the whole group.


4.4. Integrated assessment

The integrated assessment focuses on the ability to interpret
knowledge instead of stating declarative knowledge; in fact, students are allowed to bring a 1-page crib-sheet into the tests and
exams. Box 3 provides an example from the mid-year class test.
Typically, marks for the natural foundations and sustainable
development questions showed a somewhat narrower spread than
traditional questions for which there is a right answer. This is
illustrated by the example from the nal examination shown in
Fig. 2. It shows the marks obtained by each student for the difcult
mass balance question (x-axis) and the natural foundations question (y-axis). It is clear that signicantly more students obtained
full marks for the former than the latter. Likewise, signicantly
more students achieved less than 25% on the difcult calculation
than on the natural foundations question. Students who ultimately
failed the course mostly obtained less than 25% for one of these two

Box 3
Question 2 (making up 1/3rd) of the June test.

You have been appointed to a position in the municipality of

a small town in South Africa. Local environmental groups
have reported a problem of eutrophication in a local dam
which receives treated water from a wastewater treatment
plant. There is also an informal settlement located alongside the dam which does not have formal sanitation and
whose wastewater flows directly into the dam. [Some data
then given.]
a. What is eutrophication? Explain briefly in your own
words how it may kill aquatic life.
b. Represent the flows in the scenario above in the form of a
block flow diagram. In your diagram, represent the total
flow into the dam as a combined stream. Label all
streams and all units.
c. Calculate the P concentration (in mg/l) as well as the total
flow rate of the combined stream flowing into the dam.
d. Calculate, in days, how long it will take for the dam to
become eutrophied.
e. Middle-class ratepayers say that the informal settlement
causes the eutrophication of the dam. Respond and
propose a course of action.

Southern Africa is generally short of water for urban usage,

and it is anticipated that most urban centres will experience
a shortfall in supply over the next twenty years. The focus of
the final report is to examine the recycling of waste water in
one of the large urban centres in South/Southern Africa.
What you will need to do, in the light of what you have
already done in this project, is to find out the water situation
in your chosen centre:
 Current and predicted usage over the next twenty years,
 Current and predicted water supply over the next twenty
 Possible use of water recycling to meet any predicted
shortfall in supply, and
 Possible use of desalination (of seawater or brack water)
to meet any predicted shortfall in supply.

Fig. 2. Student performance on two questions in the primary nal examination. The
marks in the original nal examination are shown for those students who passed the
course after reassessment.


H. von Blottnitz et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 106 (2015) 300e307

5. Student views and feedback

Building on our research work into student learning mentioned
earlier (Case, 2013), we have a well-established methodological
procedure for tracking and understanding student learning in the
programme, drawing on both qualitative and quantitative data.
Thus, in this preliminary exploration of the student experience of
this new rst year course, student feedback was sought regularly
throughout the course, esp. on novel elements such as the use of
laptops in class. This made use of traditional formal course evaluations, as well as ad-hoc online student commentary sessions at the
end of a week. At the end of the year, a long survey was run specically to compare student views and experiences after the former
(2012) and new (2013) courses. Student feedback was, however,
also obtained from other ad-hoc interactions.
Some of the early informal feedback opportunities pointed to
the anticipated school-to-university transition difculties, e.g.
I still nd have to adjust my way of learning towards this
course. So far I have realised that it doesn't require only going
through the text book and grasping the concepts, rather it requires intensive application of the concepts learned in class.
In the formal mid-year evaluation, a number of students indicated difculties with the natural foundations theme, e.g.
Natural foundations, it's too broad and I don't know where to
start or where to end when studying and most importantly I
don't even know what they require me to know
However, in that evaluation, completed by 41 of 131 students
then registered (a fairly typical response rate for an online course
evaluation at this university), only one identied it as an aspect of the
course which should be improved, but without providing details.
There were some noteworthy comments made in the book reviews received after the prescribed June vacation task of reading a
popular science book of sustainable development relevance. Two
such comments are shown in Boxes 4 and 5.
This somewhat piece-meal evidence of the learning of sustainable development is well-echoed by the nding from the formal
nal survey that students rated their awareness of these matters at
the end of the year much higher than when starting (Fig. 3, bottom
two bars). A similar improvement was evident for the predecessor
course (top two bars), but 2013 students tended to rate their
incoming knowledge somewhat lower (which we take to indicate
that their awareness had been raised relative to the year before)
and their leaving knowledge better, with >95% of respondents
rating their awareness as good or excellent relative to 87% the
year before. The different response rates for the two years do need
to be taken into account when interpreting this gure and
attempting to compare the 2012 and 2013 classes; the conditions in
which the survey was administered were less than ideal in 2013

Box 4
Student view in a book review of John McNeill's Something new
under the sun.
Understanding that there is now more to the chemical
engineering profession - a new and significant environmental dimension unprecedented in human history, I understood the true purpose of why natural foundations was
implanted in the CHE1005W course.

Box 5
Student view in a book review of David Fig's Uranium Road.
Overall this book made me realise that any idea that I come
up with as a chemical engineer one day to make a change in
our country may not be backed up by the public and in that
case I would have missed the mark as an engineer.

and a signicant proportion of the class were not present when the
survey was conducted.
With reference to Fig. 3, it appears though that some respondents may have somewhat overestimated their knowledge: a
closer analysis of the results shown in Fig. 2 above shows that only
80% of those passing the course obtained 60% or better (good) for
the natural foundations question in the nal examination. The 44%
who achieved 75% or better (excellent) on that question, on the
other hand, is somewhat higher than the 38% in the survey rating
themselves as excellent.
6. Discussion and conclusion
This article has presented an overview of a reformed undergraduate chemical engineering curriculum with a central focus on
sustainable development. To illustrate how sustainable development is incorporated into the teaching of core chemical engineering, detail is given of the rst year core course. Across the teaching
of theory and practice and into project work and assessment, key
issues in sustainable development provide context for chemical
engineering design and analysis. Although this article has focused
mainly on this one course, we need to stress that this differs from
much of the ESD literature describing individual courses as the
latter are typically senior, often elective, courses. The signicant
contribution of this article is the demonstration of the feasibility of
introducing sustainable development into a core chemical engineering curriculum, starting from the beginning of the rst year of
study, supported by up to date modes of pedagogy and assessment.
Preliminary observations from this experience of curriculum
innovation are the following:
1) It is possible to add complexity at the entrance level. The use of
recurring and legible curriculum elements is important in this
regard. Repeating the same pattern of theory, practice, project
and assessment four times over has helped to allow complex
learning processes to unfold with much less anxiety.
2) The inclusion of topics in natural foundations in the new rst year
course has opened the class discourse considerably. This aspect of
the course expects students to look critically at the outcomes of
the modern resource-based economy. Some students initially
expressed difculties with this theme, but the vast majority
expressed condence about their environment and sustainability
knowledge towards the end, and 80% responded well or very well
to the nal exam question on this topic.
3) The inclusion of a project strand from the very rst module
provided additional teaching and learning challenges, but also
further opportunities for engagement and stimulation, especially with regard to the inclusion of sustainable development
issues. It was enabled by strong references to contemporary
sustainable development challenges, as well as the use of
computer resources in the project work.
This new rst year course is now well established and the rst
year intake of 2014 at UCT will proceed into a new second year
which follows a similar curriculum design for the core chemical

H. von Blottnitz et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 106 (2015) 300e307


Fig. 3. Student self-assessment of their awareness of environmental and sustainability issues 2012 (103 responses from 120 students) vs 2013 (61 responses from 125 students).

engineering course. The signicant achievement of this new programme is the inclusion of sustainable development in a mainstream undergraduate engineering offering, and, especially
following recent policy statements from the IChemE (2007, 2013)
referenced above, we expect to see similar developments elsewhere, at least in chemical engineering.
We acknowledge the research funding of the Project for
Enhancement of Research Capacity (PERC) at UCT and The Carnegie
Corporation of New York, which supported some of the postgraduate
research informing this work. The contributions of all members of the
curriculum working group of the Chemical Engineering Department
of the University of Cape Town are gratefully acknowledged, but in
particular those of Hilton Heydenrych and Jochen Petersen who
contributed important stimuli to the elements and structure of the
new curriculum. Additionally, we are grateful for the enthusiasm,
openness and exibility of the tutoring team of the inaugural
CHE1005W course. And of course also to our rst class, who engaged
deeply with the course and were always willing to give us feedback!
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