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Industrial Ecology program expands skills

Emma Harrison

As part of the program’s final project, Emma Harrison is conducting research with the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative to help municipalities quickly quantify how much carbon their natural assets remove from the atmosphere.

A multi-disciplinary master’s program at UVic gives students with undergraduate degrees the chance to add big-picture, system-level thinking to their skill sets.

The one-year Industrial Ecology Program gives students the skills needed to develop technological systems that support human well-being while dramatically reducing negative environmental impacts.

“I’m really interested in being in a job or field of study that’s human-centric, so when I saw this program, which looks at the interaction of humans with all these systems, including economic, social and technological, it seemed like an exciting opportunity to expand what I’d learned in my undergrad,” said Emma Harrison, part of the program’s first cohort.

What is industrial ecology?

Industrial ecology is an applied science, which provides knowledge and methods for addressing climate change, ecosystem degradation and other stresses on the planet. Students study energy and material use at various scales, from simple products to entire economies.

UVic’s program – hosted by the Department of Civil Engineering and involves several others across campus – provides a deeper understanding of the complexities of sustainable development, including the influences of economic, political and regulatory factors.

Emma, who has a BEng in mechanical engineering, said the most challenging aspect of the program for her was also the most enjoyable.

“You’re stretched to learn fields you may not have known before,” she said. “You have to be able to dive in and work at a graduate level, while at the same time familiarizing yourself with the background knowledge that you might not have got during your undergrad.”

Applicants come from many fields

The 12-month program includes two semesters of courses, followed by a four-month project, usually in partnership with an external organization. Applicants often hold degrees in engineering; however, those with backgrounds in science, geography, environmental studies, business or economics may also be eligible.

Isaac Dekker said the program appealed to him because it bridges the more practical types of skills he gained during his degree with his passion for ecology and nature-based design.

“Ecology, climate physics, civil engineering and designing things – all these things combine into this one framework that sounded really cool,” said Isaac, who applied to the program with a BSc in Physical Geography and Earth and Ocean Sciences.

“What I like about the program is that it focuses on finding viable solutions to problems related to climate and ecology through an approach that considers the complex systems involved.”

Both students say they’ve appreciated the program’s small class sizes, condensed length and engaged faculty members, who come from areas such as public administration, environmental studies, business, engineering and earth and ocean sciences.

Gaining a broader perspective

The two also agree that those considering the program should like the prospect of big-picture thinking.

“If you’re someone who likes a series of steps that lead to a well-defined answer, this program might not be for you,” said Isaac. “In this program, you define the scope of your system – how big and how complicated you want it to be. You have to be able to think on that abstract level but also be able to zoom in and solve the micro details.”

For example, students have explored equity issues involved with sustainability and topics such as global food security – what needs to happen to feed every human on the planet in a sustainable manner. In one course, they considered whether “greening” a city block will reduce CO2 emissions over the longer term. Their answer, after factoring in social, technical and other factors, was “not necessarily.” After all, neighborhood gentrification often attracts wealthier homeowners, who tend to be bigger consumers and energy users.

In the program’s last term, students begin their four-month projects. Although Emma and Isaac's projects share some similarities, they were conducted with different partner organizations.

Emma did research with the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (MNAI) aimed at helping municipalities quickly quantify how much carbon their natural assets remove from the atmosphere. (MNAI is a Canadian not-for-profit that provides expertise to help local governments account for their natural assets and develop sustainable, resilient infrastructure.)

Meanwhile, Isaac tested climate models by conducting experiments for Environment and Climate Change Canada, the lead federal department for a wide range of environmental issues. The experiments involved subjecting small areas of green space to elevated CO2 concentrations to see how much carbon the foliage can absorb.

“This program has opened more doors for us than we had before, so I know it was a smart step,” said Emma. “And it’s been so much fun – I’ve loved it."

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