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Giri Venkataramanan:
Harnessing the sustainability movement

Having lunch this summer at a downtown Madison coffee shop, Giri Venkataramanan overheard an animated conversation among a group of graduate students about sustainability. That’s hardly surprising fodder for conversation in a major university town. But the group’s unique take on the subject grabbed Venkataramanan’s attention. “They turned out to be nutritional science students who were organizing a conference about the sustainability of the global food supply,” says the professor of electrical and computer engineering. “It really reinforced to me how much campus-wide interest there is in this topic — and how no one person can rightfully say what sustainability is or should be. Sustainability pervades everything.”

That sustainability, as a social ideal, can be so broadly applied might be its greatest strength from a scholarly perspective. It’s also the guiding force behind a new certificate program in sustainability. Developed by Venkataramanan, Chemical and Biological Engineering Associate Professor Thatcher Root and Energy Institute Director Paul Meier, it debuted in fall 2009 with the help of Engineering Beyond Boundaries funding.

Core themes in the 16-credit program include strategies for addressing carbon reduction and climate change, minimizing resource utilization, and developing restorative processes for land, water and air. “We modify the air, water and soil — we harvest it, we use it but we don’t always restore it and put it back in the same place,” he says. “To completely restore is impossible — there will always be some impact humans make but we can go much further in improving the cyclic processes that govern how we harvest and consume resources.”

The program begins with a robust list of 22 courses that can be applied to a certificate, but Venkataramanan expects it to grow and evolve with the field. One early example is a new fall 2009 course called Why We Conserve, taught by Associate Professor Tracey Holloway through the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. Other courses include ECE 356: Electric Power Processing for Alternative Energy Systems, which fills the first day it appears in the timetable. Another popular course, taught by Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Mike Oliva, delves into the challenge of zero-energy home design. Also on the list are courses on biorefining, electric power systems, and energy conversion technology.

Creativity and independence will shape the three- to six-credit capstone portion of the certificate, where students develop research or applied projects around their own sustainability themes. “These types of opportunities are really important because our students learn faster when they are engaged with real-world problems,” says Venkataramanan.

Mechanical engineering student Scott Tovsen is enrolled in the program. His interest in sustainability increased after watching the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. His abilities in math and science will enable him to develop useful innovations. “The most interesting challenges relate to making the technology more efficient and cost-effective, because I believe that this is the main reason that sustainable technologies are not more widely used today,” he says. “I think that making the transition to sustainable technology can be very easy with a bit of good engineering and time.”

Venkataramanan says the certificate could be a stepping-stone to work in NGOs or nonprofit organizations devoted to sustainability. In the private sector, there is growth in the solar photovoltaics and wind energy economies. The field also is ripe for entrepreneurship and two of his graduate students are seeking venture capital interest in company ideas related to energy conversion and recycling.

The flexibility also enables UW-Madison students to explore how they might lead this cultural and technological change in ways they can’t imagine today. “We have the Wisconsin Idea and it’s an identity that students pick up on as they go through their experience here,” Venkataramanan says. “I think sustainability will be another part of that tradition.”

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