Trading in the Classroom for the Office
For many students at the U of S, learning happens best outside of the classroom during practical application of the skills they've learned. In 2016, the Office of Sustainability welcomed into its arms Brendan Riome, a co-op work student from the College of Engineering, to assist with the practical aspects of mechanical engineering that are helping to make our university a more sustainable place. As his term ends, the Office's Matt Wolsfeld sits down with Brendan to discuss what it's like to move from a classroom setting to an office setting during your academic career.
Matt: Thanks for sitting down with me, Brendan! It's been great working with you for the past year, so I thought we'd take a couple minutes to reflect on what made you decide to pursue the co-op program and what your experiences blending engineering and sustainability have been. Many people become engineers, but not all of them choose to put their sights on sustainability. How do you think you ended up being interested in sustainability and its intersections with engineering?
Brendan: I’ve had an interest in sustainability for a while now. Growing up, my parents instilled the value of the natural world and the importance of preserving what is left of it. After high school I spent a year backpacking in New Zealand and Australia. In New Zealand I participated in the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) program. Through that organization I had the opportunity to meet and work with individuals who were passionate about sustainability and low impact living, which had a lasting effect on me.
One side of sustainability is technical; environmental degradation is through mechanical means. I am a believer that smart design and implementation is the main component in emission reduction and environmental reclamation, which is what drove me to engineering.
Matt: Students pursuing a co-op placement often get to learn stark differences between the classroom and the real-life application of their studies. How has working with the Office of Sustainability been different from your previous engineering studies?
Brendan: The main difference between my studies and working in the “real world” is the degrees of freedom in pursuing a solution. In class work, there’s a definite solution and a single path to find that solution. Working in the field does not have that neat path to follow; most problems and projects are open ended and require more intuition and insight than simply following the steps to solve a practice problem in class.
Matt: When you first came to the Office, what kinds of things were you most excited to do? Did you find that the work you were doing differed from your expectations? How so?
Brendan: I was most excited to work on major projects within the University of Saskatchewan. Up until I started the internship I had only worked on engineering projects through my classes and personal projects outside of university. I wanted to learn more about the process of how projects are implemented and managed when there are so many small moving pieces within them.
I found that the work I was doing was in line with what I expected. With the major projects I worked on, I expected them to be very thorough and have an eye for the small details. Additionally, I expected major projects to have a small degree of flexibility when issues arose. I was surprised to see how major projects, such as the campus wide lighting retrofit, quickly adjusted as issues arose.
Matt: The Office of Sustainability has a very broad mandate that works in areas very different than engineering. How would you describe your experience working with the diversity of employees at the Office?
Brendan: I have had a very positive experience working with a cross-disciplinary team in the Office of Sustainability. One of my biggest issues with engineering in general is how pigeon-holed it gets; there isn’t a lot of opportunity to work with other disciplines of engineering, let alone disciplines outside of engineering. Working with the diversity of employees gave me a more rounded picture of sustainability as well as engineering in general.
Matt: What is your most impactful takeaway from working hands-on with sustainability from your engineering perspective?
Brendan: The biggest takeaway from my time in the Office are the technical, economic, or political limitations of practical engineering. For example, projects may make sense in terms of utility or emission reductions, but may not have a reasonable payback period or fit into a planned budget. Practical engineering needs to be evaluated on the basis of how effectively they meet the goals of a project.
Matt: How do you see yourself integrating sustainability into your engineering practice in the future?
Brendan: I intend to make sustainability a core part of my engineering career. I see the purpose of engineering as adding value to the world around me and, through incorporating sustainability into my practice, I believe I can work towards something greater than myself.
Matt: What in your opinion will be some of the most exciting areas of development for sustainable engineering practices in the future? Where do you see some of the largest hurdles coming into play?
Brendan: The most exciting areas for sustainable engineering are going to be in grid level energy generation and storage. More and more renewables are being added to the electrical grid but they don’t provide the same consistency as old methods of generation. Managing the generation and distribution of this energy will be a huge engineering feat in the coming years.
Matt: Given your experience working with the Office of Sustainability, do you have any suggestions for the university to maintain sustainability into the future?
Brendan:For the University of Saskatchewan to maintain sustainability going into the future, two approaches need to be taken. The first is operational; more work needs to be done to improve the efficiency of buildings on campus. Nearly all of the university’s buildings are aging and in need of upgrading and repair.
The second is administrative; there needs to be larger political push to move sustainability to the top of the university’s priorities. Utilities are not getting any cheaper and operational budgets are not getting smaller. There needs to be a greater understanding of the cost and benefits of sustainability in the university environment.
Matt: Well, I can say for sure on behalf of the office that we couldn't be happier with the work you've done and the project you've helped to move forward during your time here. We wish you all the best in the rest of your studies and you're welcome back to the office any time.
Brendan: Thanks! I'll definitely take you up on that.