ENGINEERS will play a vital role in meeting the challenges laid out by the sustainable development goals that the United Nations adopted last month.

Their skills, and those of engineering technologists and built-environment professionals, are critical for water management (goal six), access to energy (goal seven) and the creation of strong, lasting infrastructure (goal nine) and cities (goal 11).

A number of other goals are also affected by engineering and related fields.

But there is a long road ahead for engineering in Africa. The continent needs at least a tenfold increase in relevant skills.

To achieve this, it must dramatically raise the number of people who make it from the first year of an engineering degree through to graduation.

More than 500,000 people enrolled for degrees related to engineering and the built environment in SA from 1998 to 2010. Only about 15% of students graduated in that time.

Engineering traditionally has a high drop-out rate globally.

What can the higher education sector do to produce the engineers that Africa needs?

The answer lies in prioritising sustainable engineering education.

Changing the way that engineering is taught will most probably improve throughput rates — the number of students who finish a degree.

In 2011, the Engineering Council of SA, a statutory professional body, produced a report that explored how to improve throughput rates. These recommendations have not been implemented.

Such changes would be important. Research tells us that Generation Y craves active learning and wants to use technology to improve society.

The goals are a great opportunity to match students to people and the planet, while also enabling a strong learning space for engineering and the built environment.

Students can be taught how to apply the skills they are developing in relation to the goals, which will tap into their creativity and may keep them from dropping out before graduation.

The curricular framework for sustainable engineering education at all tertiary levels of the National Qualification Framework could include society, the environment and economics, which are important elements for sustainable development.

THERE would be different approaches at all levels of study. Those at the equivalent of freshman level would concentrate on a more top-down approach to learning about systems.

Senior undergraduates and postgraduates would learn in a more practical way.

The practicality could emerge from an existing approach: engineering projects in community service. It was created in the 1990s by Purdue University in the US and has since been expanded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in more than 15 countries.

The approach involves a partnership between nonprofit organisations, citizens, secondary schools as well as universities.

For instance, a community may be struggling with poor water or air quality. The university would work with such communities through a nonprofit organisation partnership.

Municipalities, particularly those in underresourced areas, could also provide this support. This initiative realises, among others, the sixth and 13th sustainable development goals using project-based learning.

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Such initiatives are also a clever way to get potential engineers involved by drawing school pupils from the affected community into the project.

This framework will require careful planning and administration by universities, especially when it comes to rearranging tightly packed timetables. But it is an important way to improve engineering learning and throughput.

It is not only engineering students in Africa who crave a new approach to learning. Some of the world’s most well-regarded universities are recognising their students’ hunger for change and are moving towards interdisciplinary project-based learning.

THIS approach is geographically contextualised and concentrates on fixing things at a local level, while fostering global competitiveness.

The approach requires a new range of electives, from ecotronics (“green electronics”) to biology, which challenges the expectations of a traditional engineering programme.

It also adds to the much needed interdisciplinary creativity that is needed to meet the goals.

Modern technology, such as online learning systems, is crucial to project-based learning.

This is another element that makes it attractive to Generation Y.

It is clear that sustainable engineering education is required in the quest for the goals.

Integrating society, economics and the environment into learning will help Generation Y’s graduate engineers to solve tomorrow’s problems — today.

• Sinha is executive dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Johannesburg. This article first appeared on The Conversation