|In her course "Green Engineering and Sustainable Design," Julie Beth Zimmerman challenges her students to devise practical solutions to real-world problems.
Students learning to blend economic savvy and environmental awareness in Zimmerman’s course
In this issue, we introduce a new feature, “The Creative Classroom,” looking
at the ways some of Yale’s innovative instructors are inspiring their
students to think and learn in new ways.
Julie Beth Zimmerman’s students enter her classroom one morning and
immediately find themselves in the Tanzanian village of Ngelenge, struggling
to design a new water system for $2,000 that meets performance as well as environmental,
health and social considerations.
The Yale students are also trying to balance the often-competing interests
of health officials, teachers, villagers and private engineers about where
to commit scarce resources when working in the developing world. They must
consider: Should the school, garden or health dispensary get priority?
The next week, the students will be on the floor of an Adidas shoe manufacturing
plant trying to improve how the company’s shoes are made. Three weeks
ago, they were in an electronics company headquarters, determining the most
environmentally — and economically — sensible design for a new
In many of Zimmerman’s classes, the students find themselves in a
real (if virtual) place, searching for ecologically sound solutions to very
real problems. Where you only rarely find her students is sitting in their
chairs, passively listening to her speak.
“The great thing about teaching at Yale,” Zimmerman says, “is
that the students continue to amaze me with their creativity and innovation in
developing new solutions to a wide variety of sustainability challenges.”
Zimmerman, who came to Yale from the University of Virginia less than two years
ago, is an assistant professor jointly appointed to the School of Engineering
and Applied Science and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She
is also the assistant director for research at the Center for Green Chemistry
and Green Engineering at Yale. She is a leader in the increasing global movement
to design and build environmentally benign and sustainable products. Her ideals
are outlined in “Twelve Principles of Green Engineering,” which she
co-authored with Yale’s Paul. T Anastas, director of the center.
Her course “Green Engineering and Sustainable Design” is based on
those principles and is one of the most popular classes in the engineering school.
Zimmerman’s passion is not rooted in abstract theory, but in the hard and tangible challenges posed by places such
as Ngelenge, where ideas alone cannot provide clean water, safe food or
reliable energy. In Ngelenge, at the design table of a global company or in her
classroom, pragmatism weds principle, contends Zimmerman.
“She understands the urgent need to educate students to be economically
savvy as well as environmentally aware,’’ says engineering student
As part of the Ngelenge project, students hear the arguments of private engineers
who suggest that metal pipes or those made of composite plastics are the most
durable and efficient material villagers could use for their water systems. But
the students debate this suggestion. Metal can corrode over time and plastics
leach chemicals into the soil — besides, neither of these materials is
locally made, they note. And there are other factors to consider, they point
out: Will the money to buy these higher cost materials ever turn up? Will the
pipes be stolen once they arrive? Would storage tanks made of native rock be
a better solution?
Students must consider the issues that divide the villagers as well: Should scarce
water resources, for instance, be diverted from the infirmary to the garden,
which is one of the few sources of income for the village?
Each student is left to struggle with these and dozens of other questions that
arise from the simple $2,000 project.
In her first year of teaching at Yale, Zimmerman tailored her course to draw
on the experiences of her graduate assistants — such as Maggie Montgomery,
who has been to Ngelenge and worked on designing a system to catch rainwater.
Montgomery and Zimmerman worked together to design a study section that would
capture the complexity of the issues involved in designing sustainable systems
for the developing world.
“This is a real village, real people, with a real problem,” Montgomery
Zimmerman, standing with her back to the classroom wall, watches quietly as these
discussions unfold. Occasionally, she will stop to hammer home the lesson that
green engineers can only reach their goal by navigating a maze of often conflicting
cultural, political, environmental, health and economic factors that are not
unique to the developing world. The course emphasizes design and innovation as
key components to creating and implementing sustainable solutions — no
matter whether the design challenge is for a new product or a new policy.
And she never lets her students forget this axiom: It always makes sense to design
and build green sustainable systems from the start because it is at the design
stage that there is the most power and potential to make green systems a reality.
She emphasizes that cleaning up environmental pollution or managing human health
risks after the fact is expensive and often ineffective.
“On her office door she had a sign saying ‘Things to do today: 1.
Save the world,’” Fugate says. “I knew she was exactly the
person I needed to guide me.’
— By Bill Hathaway
T H I SW E E K ' SS T O R I E S
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Alumnus Stephen Pitti named new master of Ezra Stiles College
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Carlotta Festival showcases work of graduating playwrights
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Researchers trace chlorine’s irritative effect to a specific nerve receptor
Student Research Day to feature prize-winning presentations . . .
Inaugural James Weldon Johnson Fellow to research . . .
Researcher Kenneth Pugh, a reading specialist, is appointed . . .
Conference to explore psychosocial and physical dimensions of . . .
Memorial service for Dr. Steven C. Hebert
Yale Books in Brief
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