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Creating a Climate for Change

For Attendees of the 2019 MCSI/CMU Engineering Sustainability Conference, Bi-Annual Event Feels Like a Homecoming

PITTSBURGH (May 23, 2019) — “A Climate for Change” was the theme at this year’s Engineering Sustainability conference, hosted by the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation (MCSI) at the University of Pittsburgh with the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education & Research at Carnegie Mellon University. The conference dealt with something unique for a technical conference: It spent time talking about not only the “what” of sustainable innovations, but the “how.” How do you get people to actually change their perspective about sustainability? How do you create a climate where such changes can be successful? 

“The built environment helps to sustain our economy and way of life, but at the cost of heavy resource use and waste generation,” says Gena Kovalcik, co-director of the MCSI. “Our aim at this conference is to share innovative ideas about everything from water collection and treatment systems to building materials and transportation grids, all while fostering the collaborative climate necessary to do this work well.” 

That sort of climate, one that creates a fertile ground for professional growth and new ideas, has always been a part of what makes this Engineering Sustainability Conference special, according to Kovalcik. Attendees past and present remark that this conference is one they return to again and again, noting its cross-disciplinary opportunities and welcoming atmosphere. This year’s conference, which took place April 7-9 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, was even family-friendly, welcoming attendee’s children and offering private spaces for nursing mothers. 

“Gena has been instrumental in building this atmosphere at the conference,” says Melissa Bilec, PhD, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and deputy director of the MCSI. “Her personal approach is part of what makes this conference feel so welcoming.” 

Since 2005, the Engineering Sustainability Conference has been an approachable place for young engineers to explore their diverse career paths, carving out a space for discovery and community in the intersection of engineering and sustainability, academia and industry. It brings together scientists from academia, government, industry and nonprofits to share research and insights for environmentally sustainable buildings and infrastructure. 

Sessions regularly include topics that scientists from academia and industry can both engage with and utilize, as well as a diverse set of speakers. This year, attendees explored topics such as the regenerative built environment, sustainable mobility, circular economy, engineering sustainability learning and engagement, and behavioral science for sustainability, a new feature this year. Speakers from academia and industry share inspiring perspectives. The plenary speakers this year were Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group (a marketing communications agency focused on energy and the environment), and Cyrus Wadia, former vice president of Sustainable Business & Innovation at NIKE, Inc.

“One of the reasons it's challenging to work at the intersection of disciplines is because you still need an academic community. This conference provides that community, and has grown it over time,” says Leidy Klotz, PhD, Copenhaver Family Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at the University of Virginia, who began attending the conference in 2007. “Now, budding scholars can refer to themselves as ‘Sustainability Engineers,’ and others recognize that as a legitimate pursuit. Creating that community in such a relatively short time is a tremendous accomplishment for a conference!”

The Mascaro Center partnered with the Steinbrenner Institute at CMU to create a community where researchers interested in the emerging field of sustainability engineering could share ideas and support one another’s work. David Dzombak, PhD, Hamerschlag University Professor and head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University, has been a strong partner from the beginning.

“We at Carnegie Mellon are grateful for the continuing partnership of our Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research with the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation in organizing the conference, which brings to Pittsburgh engineers and scientists from across North America,” says Dr. Dzombak. “The conference has benefitted multiple generations of students from Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, and numerous other institutions, helping them to advance sustainability in their careers.”

For Freddy Paige, PhD, the conference he attended in his second year of graduate school confirmed his ambition to pursue a doctoral degree. Today, Dr. Paige is assistant professor in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech and assistant director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research.

“This conference was the first conference in which I felt like I somewhat belonged in the rooms I was sitting in. Being there in 2015, I gained confidence and motivation toward sharing the knowledge that would improve society,” recalls Dr. Paige. “I also got a chance to see professors in a different light. While some ideas were challenged in traditional engineering format, most of the conversation I engaged in had a modern vibe that allowed for a critical conversation with a much more inviting tone.”

In addition to the welcoming environment, students and new investigators can receive NSF funding for registration, travel and accommodations, a rarity at academic conferences. 

“When I first attended the conference in 2011, it seemed approachable and accessible, with a breadth that I found really intriguing,” says Brent Stephens, PhD, Associate Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. “I was planning to defend my dissertation within about a year, and I was starting to think about job opportunities, so it was important to get my work out there and get more experience presenting. Then all of the sudden I also received NSF support to attend, which made it easy and accessible to attend.”

One of the most significant draws for attendees, however, is the camaraderie that has developed over the years.

“Somehow they make it feel more like a reunion every two years and something I strongly desire to go to each time,” remarks Dr. Stephens. “It marks a sort of ‘it’s been two years already?’ moment in my mind.” 

Annie Pearce, PhD, Associate Professor of Building Construction at Virginia Tech, has been attending the conference since it began in 2005 and has experienced first-hand how powerful the community is. Though she had to miss it this year, she has been a featured speaker, presenter and author and has brought students to the conference, as well. She also began serving on the MCSI External Advisory Board in 2011. 

“You see familiar faces every time, and they introduce you to new faces that you’ll see the next time,” says Dr. Pearce. “I find that it’s a great place to establish a dialogue that continues over time.”

As a featured speaker in 2007, Dr. Pearce recounts that the engagement turned out to be a fateful one for her—she was on a plane to Pittsburgh for the conference when the April 16 Virginia Tech shootings took place on her campus. 

“I was lucky not to be on campus, but 32 of my colleagues and students were not so lucky. While I was heartbroken for my community back in Virginia, my friends and colleagues from the Mascaro Center and the conference overall made me feel wonderfully supported,” she says. “I leaned hard on them that year, for sure.” 

The Engineering Sustainability Conference will be back in 2021, gathering the community back to Pittsburgh once again, a fitting place for such a conference to have developed. The city is a living example of the “Climate for Change” that this year’s conference centered around.

“Pittsburgh hasn’t always been beautiful—I remember what it was like back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the mills were still running,” says Dr. Pearce, who is a native Pittsburgher. “However, it’s an amazing example of how a place can transform itself for the better when it has the right people, ideas, and investments. I miss it a lot, and I’m happy to know that I can go there with my students every two years and get ‘recharged’ with ideas.”

Author: Maggie Pavlick

Contact: Maggie Pavlick