The highlight of Tuesday morning at EESD was not the Keynote by BP's Ellen Williams, provocative though that was (as well as being welcome in a post-Browne sense). Rather, it was the pre-presentations questions posed by the Chair of parallel session 13 in an effort to gee up the audience ahead of the talks. He asked:
"Is sustainable development to be seen as (just) a specialist topic within an engineering degree, or as a core aspect of that degree?"
This is the question which underpins a lot of the discussion that takes place in faculties as they decide how to frame and structure degree programmes. It is, of course, a classic curriculum question.
This would have been a good enough question, though not a particularly novel one, had it not been coupled with this:
"Is engineering to be seen as a fundamental element of sustainable development, or (just) an aspect of it?"
This is a question that, I'm surmising, doesn't get as much airtime as the first one in faculty debates. This second question is not a curriculum question, but putting the two together like this suggests that they should never again be separated, as each reveals important aspects of the other. And if I weren't writing this on a phone, I'd already be scribbling diagrams to explore the implications of different responses.
Of course, as stated, each question is incomplete as they both deny the possibility of a negative response. Here are the questions again, in a more complete form:
Q1. Is sustainable development to be seen as (just) a specialist topic within an engineering degree, or as a core aspect of that degree — or neither of these?"
Q2. Is engineering to be seen as a fundamental element of sustainable development, or (just) an aspect of it – or neither of these?"
One intriguing aspect of these questions would seem to be that the first applies easily across HE disciplines, whereas the second does not do so as readily. Q1 seems a sensible question to ask within any discipline, whereas Q2 does not, at least at first glance. If this is the case, then it is probably because Q2 is not so much about the academic discipline, as about the social process which the discipline represents – in this case, the practice of engineering. It's not so much that you cannot ask Q2 quite widely, it's just that it's not sensible to do so. Umm.