Working together to solve problems

Waterloo Engineering’s Sustainability and Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship program gets students from different countries and disciplines to tackle real-world issues together.   

By Charlotte Danby Faculty of Engineering An international mix of nine talented, engaged and curious engineering students recently gathered at the University of Waterloo to tackle a big, messy and complex issue - housing. More specifically, how to build 47,000 homes in a way that is sustainable and kind.  

The challenge centered on the City of London, Ontario’s urban development plans as part of the province’s response to the housing crisis: Bill 23. This More Homes Built Faster Act of 2022 aims to have 1.5 million new homes constructed in Ontario in 10 years. While the need for speed is vital, so is thoughtful, balanced and forward-thinking design to ensure happy and healthy communities.  

Phase one: Laying the foundation 

Our increasingly complicated world requires a workforce of problem-solvers who can collaborate comfortably, think critically and design sustainably. This motivated a team of Waterloo Engineering faculty members to develop an idea for a multi-institution and interdisciplinary initiative called the Sustainability and Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship (SSEF).  

The SSEF was developed in partnership by Chris Rennick, the engineering educational developer at the Pearl Sullivan Engineering IDEAs Clinic and Nadine Ibrahim, Turkstra Chair in Urban Engineering from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. They were supported by Dr. Mary Wells, dean of Waterloo Engineering, Dr. Sanjeev Bedi, director of the IDEAs Clinic, Dr. Kumaraswamy Ponnambalam, professor from the Department of Systems Design Engineering and Dr. Gerry Schneider, professor from the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering.  

Dr. Gordon Krauss, professor at Harvey Mudd College, and Kelly Scherr, the deputy city manager of environment and infrastructure in London, Ontario and the University of Waterloo’s Douglas Wright Engineer in Residence, helped shape the pilot program.  

In June this year, the SSEF - with funding support from the N.S. Robertson Foundation - welcomed its first cohort of Sustainable and Social Entrepreneurship fellows to the IDEAs Clinic from Harvey Mudd College (USA), Khalifa University (U.A.E), University of Prince Edward Island (Canada), Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico) and Waterloo Engineering (Canada).  

The program’s first sustainability challenge was framed around a local housing issue with global relevance. The students organized themselves into three teams and had nine weeks to develop their solutions for sustainable urban development and present them to the City of London’s staff and acting mayor.   

Phase two: Framing the structure 

The urgent need for new housing in Ontario will drive the construction of neighbourhoods, not just individual homes. Building new neighbourhoods without considering sustainable living design can create problems that affect the health and wellbeing of communities.  

With that as their lens, the student teams focused on three urban development issues that are often overlooked during initial construction: transportation, climate and green space. Guided by an action-packed itinerary that helped the students bond quickly and learn fast, their projects delivered well-researched, data enriched and thoughtfully developed proposals with real-world applicability.  

Design solutions included innovative approaches for expanding the use of active transit, a novel use of heat island data modelling to improve natural climate control and a comprehensive zoning by-law that includes a Green Roofs Policy for commercial to residential property conversions.  

"I was really impressed by the students’ ability to connect with our urban challenges at a much deeper level and develop thoughtful and impactful ideas for the City of London," says Scherr.  

"Presenting to the City of London senior staff and the acting mayor was an amazing experience!" says Salma Almansoori, fourth-year civil infrastructure and environmental engineering student from Khalifa University. "They were interested in our work and saw some new possibilities for their city." 

Phase three: Inspecting the build  

Rennick is pleased with the SSEF’s launch program and has ambitious plans for its future. He would like to see the program embed more sustainability projects and design experiences into university curricula across the board.  

"The idea is to foster interdisciplinary and international collaboration," says Rennick. "This first program hosted engineering students from different disciplines, but we’d really like the next one to include more students from different faculties, not just different institutions." 

Rennick believes that programs like the SSEF are important because engineering skills alone are not enough to solve the "wicked problems facing society." The IDEAs Clinic offers students the guidance and space to supplement their classroom instruction and course projects by exposing them to real-world problems that challenge them to roll up their sleeves and think differently.  

"This program helped me realize that engineering and sustainability are compatible," says Paloma López Sarmiento, fourth-year chemical engineering student from Tecnológico de Monterrey. "I really enjoyed working with other international students from different engineering areas as our various perspectives and experiences made our projects more interesting. I also learned that as an engineer, it’s important to look at the whole picture when problem-solving. I will remember this for projects going forward and for my career." 

Feature image: The first cohort of Sustainable and Social Entrepreneurship fellows (from left to right) - Carlos Francisco (Frank) Saldana Jauregui, Salma Almansoori, Ghada Almahri, Paloma Lopez Sarmien, Berry Genge, Tia Tounesi, Katrina Nelson, Charlotte Hamilton and Evangeline Dryburgh.