New ‘Blue Engineering’ subject is about values

Two students introduced the Blue Engineering course to TU Delft from TU Berlin. How does this course that revolves around choices about engineering, nature and society work?

The facilitators (left to right): Mike O'Hanrahan, Vanessa Schaller, Gheylla Liberia and Emma Little. (Photo: Jos Wassink)

This quarter, students are teaching the Blue Engineering elective course to some 90 other students at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering for the first time. What makes the subject unique is that there is no professor involved. Four students perform the role of facilitator: Vanessa Schaller, Emma Little, Gheylla Liberia and Mike O’Hanrahan. The course was first trialled last year with 40 students at the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences (CEGS).

German engineering philosopher Dr André Baier developed the course 10 years ago at Technische Universität Berlin as a framework for students to reflect on their technical achievements and their own social and ecological responsibilities. This was done in interactive meetings that Baier says ultimately led to a network of engineers that work inclusively, democratically and ecologically.

Vanessa Schaller studied physics at TU Munich and is pursuing a second master’s degree in Ecological Engineering and Industrial Ecology at TU Delft and Leiden University. During the corona period, she took the Blue Engineering course online at TU Berlin with fellow student Emma Little. We should have this at TU Delft too, they thought at the time. It was then renamed into ‘Sustainability in Engineering’.

“You learn from your fellow students,” says Schaller. “I learned that there are always different perspectives on any subject and that, unlike in technical assignments, there is mostly no one correct solution. We get a lot of technical subjects at TU Delft, sometimes supplemented by ethics. But at Blue Engineering, we learned for the first time to make connections between engineering, society and nature.”

“The course is divided into three phases in which building blocks play a central role,” says CEGS lecturer Martine Rutten, who gave Schaller and Little a chance to try out a Blue Engineering course with a small group of students last year. In the first phase, students discussed the value of engineering according to certain assignments or topics (building blocks). This should open their eyes to the fact that engineering always has implications for nature and society.

In the second phase, students choose from more than 150 existing building blocks with titles such as universal basic income, happiness, planned obsolescence (aging), conflicts and fair labour. The activities are varied and include discussions, role-play and design.

In the final phase, students jointly create a new building block on a topic that they are interested in and devise suitable working forms to go with it. Thus, the library grows with ever new building blocks on current topics.

Asked about the value of the course, Schaller hesitates and then replies that “This course is about personal development. Students become aware of their own values and they start thinking about how to integrate them into their studies.”

  • Read more about Blue Engineering on the website. Baier wrote a publication about his method in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics. A list of more than 150 building blocks (in German) gives a multifaceted picture of what the course may entail.
Science editor Jos Wassink

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