Climate change and infrastructure engineering: moving towards a new curriculum

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Courtesy of CSA Standards

Introduction
Historical climatic patterns are no longer reliable predictors for future climatic patterns. As this global trend of a more uncertain and changing climate continues to unfold, Canada’s engineering community has a responsibility to ensure that it delivers appropriate responses and solutions. This is important across all engineering disciplines, and is especially important within the field of built infrastructure engineering.

The long term durability and resilience of much of Canada’s built infrastructure is predicated on engineers having a solid understanding of the conditions that it will face over its useful life, including climatic factors. “Built Infrastructure” is a broad topic in itself. As it relates to this project, it includes the categories of, buildings, energy, transportation, and water.
The public expects that services provided by built infrastructure will continue uninterrupted. Although media coverage of catastrophic events occasionally puts a spotlight on the state of Canada’s infrastructure, for the most part, it has proven to be reliable and safe to the point where it is often taken for granted.

Yet currently, there are significant knowledge gaps about how climate change issues will affect the practice of infrastructure engineering, and this has implications for built infrastructure. This special project, undertaken by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), makes an assessment of, and recommends how to expand engineering curricula, both in universities and in continuing education programs, to reduce this knowledge gap over time. Integration of already-available knowledge in this topic area into mainstream engineering education and practice will increase the preparedness of Canadian infrastructure engineers to address the potentially damaging effects of climate change.

Identification of high priority topics for engineers
In order to determine the most essential topic areas that would form the basis of a useful curriculum for engineering students and practitioners, CSA conferred with experts and leaders from the fields of engineering, sustainability, and climate science. Additional consultations were conducted with individual university educators and practicing infrastructure engineering specialists. The topics and curriculum framework that evolved out of these consultations is believed to be a useful and pragmatic step toward advancing the engineering community’s understanding of how to consider and address climate change issues within day-to-day engineering work.

For university students, topics are recommended that, for the most part, emphasize non-technical issues. One theme that ran through discussions with some experts was the importance of creativity. Accordingly, it was recommended that the focus for educating students should be on developing their ability to provide solutions when traditional methods are no longer valid. A working knowledge of risk analysis was identified as the highest priority topic for university curricula.

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