A Little Help from Our Friends

10/15 I/O Magazine

Duke Engineering leaned heavily on its alumni and industry contacts to design a new master’s program in climate and sustainability engineering.

A Little Help from Our Friends

TIME AFTER TIME, year after year, one theme kept resurfacing for the civil and environmental engineers on Duke Engineering’s Board of Visitors. A global distributor for one of the largest sugar companies in the world saw the same problem that a project leader prepping small communities to brace themselves for climate change did: there were not enough students graduating from college who were ready to implement practical sustainability solutions for a world filled with a ballooning need for the skillset.

But as any motivational sign worth the cardboard it was printed on will tell you, wherever there’s a problem, there’s also an opportunity.

Natural disasters like earthquakes can devastate environments and affect people in catastrophic ways.

The group consistently advised Duke Engineering’s administration to create a new program to help fill this increasingly urgent demand, and the school listened. Not only did the administration heed the advice of its alumni, they continued to engage them as they built Duke’s new master’s program in climate and sustainability engineering.

“I don’t think that level of engagement and willingness to listen is very common.”

John Sartor
President and CEO of Paulus, Sokolowski & Sartor

“We interviewed nearly 100 professionals in this area in the course of developing the plan for our new master’s degree,” said Henri Gavin, professor and W.H. Gardner, Jr. chair of Duke’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Every single one of them told us that the demand for this type of a program is strong. One even said that jobs in this space are like the Facebook jobs of the 1990s—growing rapidly and offering a very attractive salary.”

“I don’t think that level of engagement and willingness to listen is very common,” said John Sartor, president and CEO of Paulus, Sokolowski and Sartor (PS&S), a full-service architecture, engineering, design, environmental and surveying consulting service based in New Jersey. “Actually, engaging and getting opinions from industry to create a better educational experience—that’s what made a difference here.”

Beyond Technical Know-How

With the initial advice from alumni on the Board of Visitors and the go-ahead from Jerome Lynch, Vinik Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering, Gavin was faced with a daunting task. The board members were telling them that there was a demand for engineers ready to lead the implementation of projects in the general climate change and sustainability space.

But what exactly did that mean? And how could he be sure that they were actually right? Having served as a faculty member at Duke for nearly three decades, Gavin was somewhat removed from the industry himself, especially given that he was hearing these jobs are in demand in every sector of the economy.

To do his due diligence and begin building the foundations of a new program, he turned to one of the few social media networks that hasn’t been mired in controversy lately—LinkedIn.

“We’ve maintained a LinkedIn database of all of our students for decades, so it was incredibly convenient to find and reach out to them on that platform,” Gavin said. “Especially having been here for 27 years now, there’s a ton of value in starting and maintaining these long-term relationships.”

Gavin sent a simple, straightforward email to all those who responded to his initial request for feedback featuring a set of thoughtful questions. Where is your company headed in the areas of sustainability, climate change and the circular economy? Are you able to find the technical talent that you need in these growth areas? Are you looking for generalists with broad knowledge or specialists in particular areas?

“We’ve maintained a LinkedIn database of all of our students for decades, so it was incredibly convenient to find and reach out to them on that platform. Especially having been here for 27 years now, there’s a ton of value in starting and maintaining these long-term relationships.”

Henri Gavin
Professor and W.H. Gardner, Jr. Chair of Civil & Environmental Engineering

What is provided by existing academic programs, and what is missing? How many of these people would your organization hire each year? How long do you expect this hiring to continue?

The response was a tsunami, and confirmation that he was onto something. The field was quickly shifting. It needed workers equipped with more than technical knowledge—it needed workers who could understand the systems they were developing on a much broader basis. How projects will affect not just the client asking for them, but also surrounding communities and other stakeholders. How to talk to professionals about navigating policy details as well as understanding and securing financing. How to communicate effectively with team members with a wide range of skillsets and to the people who will eventually adopt the services being built.

“Uniformly, we were told about the importance of the breadth of understanding of implementation strategies,” Gavin said. “How does one convince a municipality that making a closed landfill and pulling out the methane for electricity generation is a good idea? It’s not just the technical side of things.”

Gavin also discovered that the job market was much larger than he anticipated. Everyone he talked to told him that they were having trouble finding workers with the skillsets they needed. Gavin’s research predicts a shortfall of climate and sustainability engineers on the order of tens of thousands within only a few years.

With all of this in mind, the decision was made to create a new Master of Engineering degree, rather than an undergraduate degree. The wide variety of expertise provided by students with different engineering degrees and careers would be vital to creating the well-rounded experience needed for such a program to develop the leadership in this area that is so desperately needed. Students at this level would be able to start working on real-world projects for industry partners from day one. And on a secondary level, such a program could more easily draw students from outside of the country, which is important given the low numbers graduating with backgrounds that would prepare them for this type of work within the United States.

“Companies are looking for candidates with practical experience that they can hire into entry or mid-level positions,” said Tim Zhang, senior climate manager at the consulting firm Cumming Group. “They want people who can directly take on projects like calculating carbon footprints and findings ways to mitigate their impact.”

Evolving an Idea Into Reality

With the structure of a new master’s program beginning to take shape, Gavin still needed a crucial ingredient to solidify it into reality—someone to lead it. Luckily, he’d already been consulting with the program’s future leader—it’s just that neither of them knew it yet.

One of the dozens of industry alumni that Gavin reached out to was Sara Oliver. After graduating from Duke’s civil and environmental engineering program in 2006, Oliver went to work for a private consulting engineering firm where she worked on highway design projects.

And then Hurricane Sandy tore through the eastern seaboard, causing an incredible amount of damage to the World Trade Center site. For nearly 10 years, Oliver worked on a flood mitigation program for the landmark, going through everything from preliminary design to full-scale testing and full construction support, and eventually managing the project.

In 2022, U.S. green job postings on LinkedIn jumped 20%, but green talent grew only 8.4%.

Wall Street Journal

From there, she managed a contract for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) where she worked with marketing giant Ogilvy to educate communities about flood risk and motivate them to take action to protect themselves.

It’s exactly the type of work that the new master’s program is looking to prepare students to pursue.

“We were trying to hire people for the FEMA project, and it was hard because nobody trains people in climate change—particularly risk and uncertainty,” said Oliver. “That’s just not a typical piece of an undergraduate curriculum. And neither are pieces like equity or behavior science, which are foundational to the successful implementation of climate solutions.

People won’t use something just because you build it or deliver it to them. Communities and end users need to be incorporated in the process from the start. Listening to them must be step one.”

Having experienced issues finding the right people to fill roles herself, Oliver was happy to lend her advice to Gavin in the early days of his research. And then in February 2023, after catching up with him, she asked how the search for a director was going, and Oliver
decided to apply herself.

“I was very happy at my old job. I loved what I was doing. I still love the team, the mission and the work. It was a really hard decision to make,” Oliver said. “But after working through the challenges of finding people and building teams to do this work, I know a program like this is needed and I really wanted to take part in building it.”

It’s also a need that Oliver feels that Duke is well-positioned to address—a feeling that others who have advised on the project share.

“There are climate and sustainability programs at great schools like Stanford and Columbia, but they seem to be more focused on studying the climate and developing energy technologies,” Zhang said. “Industry needs more educational programs with a strong engineering focus on climate adaptation and mitigation projects to draw from.”

“For as many university systems as our country has, I’ve only seen a handful with climate and sustainability programs,” echoed Sartor. “And most of them are about researching climate impact rather than implementing climate solutions.”

If the growing need for this type of program wasn’t cemented during Gavin’s research and interviewing phase, it has been in the months since Oliver announced she was leading it. Duke alumni with all types of backgrounds have been reaching out to her to partner on developing projects and other pieces of the curriculum.

“I was very happy at my old job. I loved what I was doing. I still love the team, the mission and the work. It was a really hard decision to make. But after working through the challenges of finding people and building teams to do this work, I know a program like this is needed and I really wanted to take part in building it.”

Sara Oliver
Executive in Residence, Master of Engineering in Climate & Sustainability Engineering

“These are people who were economics majors that are now doing energy financing,” Oliver said. “And they have an interest in engineers that contribute to their field.”

And it’s not just Duke alumni. At industry conferences over the past several months, professionals from companies that were previously Oliver’s competitors have approached her to communicate their approval and offer their help.

“When I left my previous job, people’s reactions were, ‘I can’t be that upset because what you’re going to do is so cool and so needed,’” Oliver said. “And that’s from my company as well as clients. People want to stay in touch and help, which is a testament to the value of what we are building.

“The other thing that I think is valuable about this program and how it was developed is how much it’s brought our community together,” Oliver continued. “It’s the alums, it’s the students, it’s the faculty, it’s friends of Duke. The alumni association says ‘Forever Duke’ and that you’re always a part of the Duke community, of the alumni network. You still have benefits to be a lifelong learner. I think this is an example of bringing that larger community together to benefit the world, and I think there’s a real opportunity to make significant positive change and a big impact, which is remarkable.”

Master of Engineering in Climate & Sustainability Engineering

The effects of climate change are impossible to ignore. But even armed with a science or engineering degree, the path to making an impact isn’t a straight one. Impactful solutions require leaders who are comfortable working with uncertainty, evaluating risk, iterating a solution to better meet user needs, considering unintended consequences and anticipating future changes. Duke’s Master of Engineering in Climate and Sustainability Engineering is designed to create those holistic leaders.

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