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EWB Australia has partnered with Engineers Australia to pilot a new approach to engaging engineering students at university. The initiative was launched at a recent event with students at the University of Western Australia (UWA) and key state leaders at the frontline of creating policy and industry change. Through real-world design challenges and professional networking events across Australia, the partnership aims to connect undergraduates with professional engineers through Australia’s professional engineering body, and build the capacity of our future leaders in sustainable technology development. 

In August, the UWA’s EWB student-run chapter hosted an event at its Perth campus; the first initiative under the new partnership. Within the theme ‘Sustainability in Action’, panelists took around 50 students on a journey exploring current trends of Australia’s energy sector and the possibilities in moving towards more sustainable energy production. The event touched on several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including No. 9 (Sustainable cities and communities), No. 7 (Affordable and clean energy), No. 12 (Responsible consumption and production) and No. 13 (Climate action).

Key leaders in WA’s sustainable energy sector contributed to the discussions, including from Western Power, Australian Institute of Energy, Innovate Australia, Hydrogen Society of Australia, Energy Policy WA, as well as leading UWA academics in environmental engineering. These speakers have been actively engaged with changemaking through government-level policy, providing a unique opportunity to learn from those at the frontline of creating change. This included moderator Katharine McKenzie, who is the Principal Policy Advisor to the WA Energy Minister, and Kate Ryan, the Executive Director at Energy Policy WA, who implements government strategy on the transition to low-emissions and other energy resources.

Topics explored included the increasing prevalence of household-level solar, the potential of hybrid innovation (such as zero-emission hydrogen-powered electric cars), and balancing the need for long-term existing reliable technology with ongoing advances in newer, smaller-scale technology for governments to implement sustainably into the future.

What the panellists had to say

How do we build a sustainable energy society into the future?

The sentiment in the room was that we need to focus on partnerships between sectors and hybrid and systems-thinking approaches to technology – “the future is about solutions that are integrated, combined, decentralised” (Anas Ghadouani, Professor of Environmental Engineering at UWA). However as we introduce a plethora of new technologies into the energy sector, we must ensure the reliability of the wider system is not compromised: “how do we integrate all of these new technologies into our system in a way that actually keeps it secure?” (Kate Ryan, Executive Director at Energy Policy WA)

So, what’s the one policy that’s tackling climate change reduction globally?

The short answer – there isn’t just one policy. “We are not going to succeed at emissions reductions based on one policy, one technology, [nor] industry… we have to investigate every opportunity available to us. So that means looking at hydrogen, solar, bioenergy, what’s happening in transport, electricity and in our own homes” (Genevieve Simpson, Government Relations Manager at Western Power)

Well, what difference can I make as an engineer?

“It’s more than just being very technically good at what you do and having that engineering knowledge – it’s those soft skills and the ability to work with others, to influence both directly and more subtly as well, and also to participate in the political process [to influence change]” (Katharine McKenzie, Principal Policy Adviser to the WA Energy Minister)

Sounds good… any advice?

“It’s so important to think in critical terms… and take nobody’s word for it, so be sceptical… If you have facts and figures behind you and you understand it, stand your ground” (Peter Kasprzak, CEO of Innovate Australia)

Kym Spann from Engineers Australia (centre), Amy and Gavin from Progressive Energy Strategies (2nd and 3rd from top right) with students from the Makers Lab and University of Western Australia EWB Local Partnerships teams.

Opportunities to engage with real-world professionals and challenges

Engaging engineering students through this event format provided an opportunity for students to meet real-world leaders in the industry, who inspired them to imagine what the future of engineering in Australia and the world looks like. This involved awareness-raising of pressing issues locally and globally while being encouraged to think about how they will make their mark with their career before they leave university. 

After the panel discussion. students participated in activities including a talk from Engineers Australia representative Kym Spann, a sustainable energy quiz by Progressive Energy Strategies, and a tour of the UWA Makers Lab; a student-run makerspace on campus that enables students to get involved with more practical STEM based activities.

Engaging engineering students in real-world challenges is a strong theme within EWB’s university program offerings, such as the EWB Challenge Series. This program embeds real-world projects into the curriculum at 25 universities across Australia and New Zealand, engaging over 10,000 students each year in community-centred approaches to sustainable technology development.

What the students had to say

The panel discussion opened up topics that were not in the forefront of my mind but gave me interesting things to mull on. The members of the panel each caught the audience’s attention in their own way but Professor Anas was a stand out with his storytelling that captivated the audience in one fell swoop. An overall thought-provoking panel discussion.

– Tanesha Chiu (UWA Student, Physics)

The breakout events were a great opportunity to see how the communities around UWA are promoting sustainability in their own ways. It’s really good to see how both UWA clubs and the surrounding organizations are recognizing and spreading awareness on the global issues we’re facing.

– Caleb Lambert (UWA Student, Master in Chemical Engineering)

The panel of people represented a wide range of avenues within the energy sector. They were truly engaging and provided a rounded picture of the topic.

– Julia Taule (UWA Student, Electrical Engineering)

What’s next?

Resonating with the words of the panelists, the event demonstrated the power of collaborative partnerships, such as that between Engineers Australia and EWB Australia. It speaks to No. 17 in the Sustainable Development Goals – that partnerships need to be formed at all levels in order to make change happen. We need to work together in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and a more sustainable Australia, and engaging engineering students – our future engineers – is one step that we can enact today.

Other events under this partnership similarly aim to develop student skills in future-fit areas such as human-centred design, community development and strategic solutions for sustainable Australian cities. 

Other initiatives – such as the collaboration of five of EWB’s university chapters teaming up to run a design challenge to improve health and access to medical supplies (including sanitary items, disease prevention and telemedicine) – also strive to achieve this aim. 

The next instalment in the partnership will be hosted by the Monash University EWB Chapter and their Ideathon – a hack-a-thon style event focused around the sustainable development goal of health and wellbeing in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) priorities. See the Ideathon website for more information.

Thank you to the University of Western Australia who has partnered with EWB to enable the development of future engineers since 2008.