Teaching Climate Change

Since the 1990’s I’ve been teaching an elective course on Air Pollution Control.  We mainly focus on design of industrial systems, but I do include a small module on climate change science for background as to why certain things need emission control.  Over the past decades, some of the reports and discussions in the media and politics have been confused or nonsensical, so I try to keep it straightforward and factual.  I like to give the science a historical overview and context, to show where this all comes from.  The following is a very brief version of that overview.

The French scientist Joseph Fourier (famous for his work in heat transfer and mathematics) is credited for identifying the so-called “greenhouse effect” in the 1820s.  He didn’t know exactly what caused it, but recognized that the Earth’s surface is warmer than it theoretically should be, if there was no atmosphere trapping heat.

Some of the mechanisms behind the heat-trapping effects of the atmosphere were eventually identified, notably by the Irish physicist John Tyndall in the 1850s through his work on absorption spectroscopy.  He experimentally measured the heat absorbing effects of water vapour, carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases.  These measurements and those by others provided the fundamental basis for the advances in radiative heat transfer used throughout science and industry to this day.

In retrospect, a big step forward in understanding and quantifying the physics of climate change came with work published in 1896 by the Swedish physicist/chemist Svante Arrhenius.  The first page of this work is pictured below, and in this work he calculated how much the global temperature would rise if carbon dioxide concentrations rose.

First page of Arrhenius’ paper on the climate effects of changing carbon dioxide concentrations. “Carbonic acid” is an older or alternate name for carbon dioxide in the presence of water.

Arrhenius is well-known by anyone who has taken chemistry (Arrhenius equation in reaction kinetics), and he received a Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  His work on climate change physics didn’t seem to receive much widespread attention at the time, since there was no particular concern that carbon dioxide concentrations were rising.  However it’s regarded as the first significant attempt to analyze the physics of rising carbon dioxide concentrations and over the subsequent century many scientists have modified and improved upon his initial work.  Arrhenius had to go through some rather complicated and laborious hand calculations, but in recent decades computers have made that work much easier and more precise.

So from this brief historical overview in my class (including some other work not mentioned here), we can see that climate change science has a solid basis in physics, dating back over 100 years.  Denying the basic physics of climate change is like denying the Bernoulli principle while watching airplanes fly overhead, or stepping off a cliff and denying that gravity exists.

Next I usually show some data for carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, usually from the Mauna Loa observatory operated by NOAA in the U.S.  An example is shown below that also includes my additions to illustrate the years when international  agreements have been signed to combat climate change at Rio, Kyoto, and Paris.  Unfortunately, the upward trend doesn’t seem to have been affected much, which is a bit depressing when considering our next generations.

Carbon dioxide measurement data since 1958.

In my class we then touch briefly on some of the current and future effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, extreme precipitation events and flooding, drought, and heat waves.  I ask students to try out one of the simpler carbon footprint calculators so they can see how their lifestyle contributes to carbon dioxide emissions.  They frequently comment on how surprising it is that air travel and meat consumption are significant factors in their total impact.  These estimates can help people understand the context and future challenges.

Finally, I conclude that as soon-to-graduate new engineers they will be dealing with climate change directly or indirectly throughout their careers.  Maybe helping with carbon emissions reductions, energy efficiency, electrification, alternative energy, process and materials redesigns.  Or if nothing much is accomplished in carbon dioxide emission reduction, dealing with the effects such as infrastructure repair and replacement, and water supply issues.  As a bit of personal advice, I usually recommend that they avoid purchasing property in coastal or low-lying areas, or anywhere within a 500 to 1,000 year flood plain.



Consider Geological Engineering

Waterloo has a Geological Engineering program that seems to get overlooked by many prospective applicants for some reason.  Maybe because it’s small, only about 25 to 30 available spaces.  Or maybe people just don’t realize what it’s about.  So I talked with the current director of the program, Prof. Stephen Evans, and he gave me some insights and nice photographs of geological engineering examples.  I’ll summarize a few key ideas about the Geological Engineering program:

  • It’s the intersection of civil engineering and earth science, and provides the ability to assess how the changing earth might affect the integrity and long term security of civil engineering structures and our societies.
  • There are a wide variety of jobs involving foundations for major buildings and structures, natural resource management (mining, hydroelectric, oil & gas), infrastructure construction and safety (dams, reservoirs, roads, railways), and managing geohazards (landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes).
  • It may be for you if you like travel, sustainable design, engineering to minimize natural hazard risks, and the interactions of infrastructure and nature.

Below are some pictures Prof. Evans has taken of geological engineering examples.  Several of these are from field trip locations our students have travelled to in past years.



More About Geological Engineering

Architectural Engineering is Here!!

The University of Waterloo recently approved the launch of a new program in Architectural Engineering for September 2018 (subject to approval by the Ontario Quality Council).  We will be looking to take in about 85 students in the fall, and we’re rapidly gearing up space and teaching resources.  The official announcement is here, and applications are now open!  Here are a few key points about the program and admissions for this coming Fall. Continue reading

No Fear Career Planning

Prof. Larry Smith is well-known around Waterloo for three things:  his engaging classes in Economics, his support for student entrepreneurs and start-ups, and his career advice for people.  A while ago I came across his book in an airport in Bermuda and decided to give it a read.  I found the book, “No Fears, No Excuses:  What You Need to do to Have a Great Career“, to be quite good.  It’s full of interesting anecdotes, insights and very practical advice based on his interactions with over 30,000 people.  His experience resonates with my more limited experiences with students and careers.  The book is easy to read, engaging, and I highly recommend it for anyone contemplating entering higher education or perhaps a career change.  Or at least have a look at his TEDxUW talk video that hits some of the highlights.  I’ll try to summarize a few of his key ideas here, especially the ones that relate to admissions. Continue reading

All Offers are Final

One of our messages this year is to encourage engineering applicants to do their “homework” before applying, because we have no general first year.  This means carefully reflecting on your strengths and weaknesses, interests, aptitudes, career goals, etc.   Then carefully examining our different programs, courses, typical career paths, co-op job examples, etc., and selecting the program which seems to be the right fit.  Quite possibly, engineering is not the right fit and you should consider something else.  In general, people who put some effort into this process will end up in the right program and do well.  Why is this so important? Continue reading

Buyer Beware

One of the best features of Waterloo Engineering is that it is direct-entry.  Right from the first day you are in your chosen discipline, all the courses can be tailored to your interests, and all your classmates will be with you in the same classes for the next few years.  All of this makes for a nice social and educational environment.

One of the worst features of Waterloo Engineering is that it is direct-entry.  If you selected a program which doesn’t really match your interests or aptitude, you are somewhat stuck.  In theory you can switch to another engineering program, but in practice this is complicated and may require the loss of one year to re-start and catch up on certain key courses.  If the program you want is over-subscribed and highly competitive, transfers into it may never happen (which is often the case for Software Engineering lately).  Students in this situation will likely suffer a form of “buyer’s remorse”, that feeling of regret when you buy something expensive without really deeply considering all the aspects.

That’s why this time of the admission cycle is quite critical for prospective applicants, and they should be doing lots of investigation to inform themselves about different choices and options.  From our side, we know that applicants are in potential trouble if we get one of the following types of responses  when we ask them why they are interested in a certain engineering program:

  • it’s the most competitive one to get into
  • it just sounds cool
  • my father/mother/cousin/aunt/etc  said it would be good one for me
  • I heard that it’s the best one for getting a job
  • I like math and physics
  • I heard that it’s the highest paying field

None of those answers are “bad”, but if that’s the total extent of the reasons then there is an obvious lack of insight into the program, career opportunities, typical jobs and what they involve.  The only way to get those insights is to spend a few hours to do some research and look at some websites and videos.  Type something like “what do chemical engineers do” into Google and you’ll get loads of information to look at.

Meeting faculty & engineering students at events is another good opportunity to find out more, but you should do some research in advance so you can ask good questions and get better answers.  The Ontario Universities Fair is runs from  September 22-24 2017 and is one good opportunity, for those within travelling distance to Toronto.  Waterloo has their Fall open house on November 4 2017.  If you live far away from Waterloo, look for similar events at your local university or college.  Engineering programs have a lot of similar features across North America or even around the world, so visiting any of them is a good starting point in exploring down your choices.

Some of our most impressive applicants are the ones who clearly know what the program is about, and have some initial ideas about careers and things they would like to try in co-op employment.  Occasionally they have even looked at the upper year courses in the program and are looking forward to taking certain ones.  That requires some effort and thought, but in the end they are much more likely to excel than someone who doesn’t put much thought into picking a program.

So, about this Googler’s manifesto. – Yonatan Zunger – Medium

Anderson:  Ignoring the underlying controversy for the moment, I found these excellent two quotes about the nature of engineering work.  I would say it’s applicable to every engineering discipline, beyond just software.  Very useful concepts for high school students to understand if they are thinking about an engineering career.

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems. Devices are a means, not an end. Fixing problems means first of all understanding them — and since the whole purpose of the things we do is to fix problems in the outside world, problems involving people, that means that understanding people, and the ways in which they will interact with your system, is fundamental to every step of building a system.


Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

Source: So, about this Googler’s manifesto. – Yonatan Zunger – Medium

An Amazing Statscan Skills Study | HESA

Source: An Amazing Statscan Skills Study | HESA

An interesting post from our friends at Higher Education Strategy Associates, summarizing a Statistics Canada study on employment skills requirements.  A couple of graphs are reproduced below,  and follow the link above for more details, but here’s a quick take-away from my perspective.

  • Different job categories require different levels of reading comprehension and writing skills.
  • Architecture, engineering and related occupations require the highest levels of reading comprehension and writing skills (the red striped bars in the graphs below).
  • That’s why in engineering admissions and education we’re interested and concerned about reading, writing and communications skills.  There is still lots of room for improvement in our curricula, but it’s an ongoing effort.
  • Not surprisingly, architecture and engineering also require the highest levels of complex problem solving skills.

Which Program is the Best?

I sometimes get asked which engineering program to pick for the best future career prospects.  I generally won’t answer that because its not the greatest way of selecting a program, and ignores individual aptitude and interest.  Being stuck in a career you don’t like is a likely outcome of that approach.

However there are some technical and societal trends that might be worthwhile thinking about for long-term opportunities and challenges.  And there are some programs that lend themselves to those trends, as I’ll point out.  If these areas are of interest, maybe one or more of the programs I mention are worth a look if you hadn’t thought of them before.  Many of these trends are related to climate change, which is a research and teaching interest of mine.  So here they are, in no particular order.

Continue reading