CORVALLIS, Ore. – This year, students at Oregon State University are learning to design with nature through a new undergraduate program in Ecological Engineering.
Combining the tools of engineering design with an understanding of how complex natural systems interact, the new program is part of both the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Engineering.
"Agriculture is where ecological engineers can contribute in many ways to a sustainable system that integrates human values with natural structures and functions," said John Bolte, head of OSU's Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering.
Citing examples of using plants to clean water, air and soil, Bolte said ecological engineering "is a new and rapidly growing industry that needs professionals who understand agriculture, plant systems and engineering design."
The program is taking education out of the laboratory and into the field, where large-scale, interconnected systems interact in unpredictable and sometimes unruly ways. Students study river systems, wetlands, agricultural lands and other places in nature to learn how to design functioning ecological systems to meet human needs.
"There is no other institution teaching this approach, and no better place to do it than Oregon State," said Lou Licht, president and founder of Ecolotree, Inc., the nation's oldest phyto-remediation business. "For the past 17 years, we have had to train 'conventional engineers' ourselves through internships. OSU's new program of ecological engineering has the potential to provide industry, communities and government agencies with off-the-shelf, work-ready ecological engineers."
In his business, Licht, a 1978 OSU graduate in agricultural engineering, uses poplar and willow trees with other plants to accomplish the remediation required by law in places such as landfills, brown fields, chemical spills, contaminated soil and groundwater sites, and municipal and industrial wastewater treatment sites.
Bolte sees other opportunities for ecological engineers, including the burgeoning field of biofuels, which requires an understanding of processing engineering, agricultural production and ecological systems impact. He sees innovative industries emerging that will use new technologies, such as high-speed fiber optics, to probe the natural systems that humans depend on.
"Society has been very good at breaking down the individual parts of a system to understand how each part works," said Thayne Dutson, dean of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. "But, as Albert Einstein said, we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. We have seen the unintended consequences of looking at the parts without considering the larger whole. Global warming, endangered species, contaminated water supply are a few of the hard problems of society that will require new, integrated thinking to solve."
"This new degree sets Oregon State apart from other schools in the country," said Ron Adams, dean of the College of Engineering at OSU. "Many students study engineering because they want to solve complex problems that move the world toward a healthier, more sustainable place. This new degree is a major step in offering our engineering students another option that will impact the future in a positive way."
For more information on the OSU undergraduate program of ecological engineering, see http://bee.oregonstate.edu/undergrad/undergrad.htm.