How will you save the planet?

green leaf with a dew drop

How about swearing off meat? Dairy? Could you go without that ginormous plastic cup of iced coffee in the morning? Carry your own metal or bamboo utensils? Take the bus rather than drive?

These are the questions students ask themselves in Valerie Maier-Speredelozzi’s course Waste Not, Want Not: Sustainable Lean Production. The course covers sustainability and the impact of decisions regarding the design, production, and consumption of goods. Students study product lifecycle analysis, including remanufacturing and recycling. They read “No Impact Man,” a journalist’s account of his year without electricity, gas-powered transportation, and other conveniences.

An associate professor of mechanical, industrial, and systems engineering, Maier-Speredelozzi teaches lean manufacturing. She offered the sustainability gen-ed course for the first time in 2019. Thus far, about 150 students have taken the class, which has no prerequisites. Maier-Speredelozzi’s aim is to introduce more students to the fundamentals of lean manufacturing: mass-producing goods with less waste.

How to cultivate a green habit

The environmental impact of mass production is examined, in part, by looking at individual consumption. The students’ final project is a paper and presentation on a green habit they’ve cultivated for 21 days. In addition to the empirical evidence they’ve generated on a topic, such as the environmental effect of choosing a vegetarian lifestyle, they present research on the issues affected by their choice. Students learn how to synthesize and deliver environmental, economic, and social data in a way that is accessible to the broadest audience possible.

One outcome: A student develops a more discerning eye when looking at lean processes on a macro level. “Corporations are driven by public image,” Maier-Speredelozzi says. “Students start talking from an engineering perspective. Most people don’t know that everything is manufactured, mass-produced.”

Kaitlin Neville ’21, a junior studying industrial and systems engineering, gave up notebooks and paper for her final project. “Going paperless is not as difficult as it may seem due to the incredible number of resources available. It’s not only beneficial for the environment but also beneficial for personal reasons,” Neville says. “You know you are actively participating in sustainable practices.”

“It makes everyone think twice about what they are doing,” Maier-Speredelozzi says. “Individual action can lead to sustained, systemic change.”