• Open Access

Teaching Industrial Ecology at Dalian University of Technology

Toward Improving Overall Eco-Efficiency


Address correspondence to:
Yong Geng
No.72 Wenhua Road, Shenyang Institute of Applied Ecology Chinese Academy of Sciences China


With increasing resource depletion and environmental issues in China, it is both desirable and practical to promote industrial ecology (IE) education. While industrial ecology education in China is still in its infancy, we believe it can be improved through systematic review of specific experiences. We outline and assess the experience with teaching of industrial ecology at the Dalian University of Technology (DUT) in northeastern China. We first provide an overview related to industrial ecology education in China and then present a detailed description of eight teaching modules focused on industrial ecology at DUT: history and evolution of IE, cleaner production, life cycle management, design for environment, integrated waste management, industrial symbiosis and eco-industrial parks, circular economy, and sustainable consumption. Particular attention is given to teaching methodology. All lectures and discussions are in English; written assignments and verbal presentations in English are required, as is a final research paper and extensive use of Chinese and international case studies. Overall pedagogy emphasizes active learning and critical reflection. The grading system relies on individual written assignments, an oral presentation, participation, and a research paper. Challenges encountered include the difficulties for some students due to their limited competency in the English language, facilitating students to shift from passive to active learning, and attracting management students to the course. Postcourse evaluations indicated that the students’ understanding of industrial ecology increased.


Industrial ecology (IE) education has been receiving attention throughout the world. For instance, from an engineering education perspective, Allenby and colleagues (2009) have reported on their course on sustainability for engineering students in the Center for Sustainable Engineering, an American consortium consisting of Arizona State University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Texas at Austin. They identified various intellectual and cultural challenges for engineering educators. For instance, due to a lack of social science education, engineering students cannot easily incorporate social and cultural values into engineering design and management. The authors believe that an interdisciplinary approach, such as IE or pollution prevention, can resolve this deficiency. Staniskis and Stasiskiene (2007) introduced their IE program at the Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania. Their course was designed to increase engineering students’ awareness of the social, political, and economic relevance of environmentally sound industrial methods.

Goessling-Reisemann (2007) has examined innovative IE education at the University of Bremen in Germany. The IE course at Bremen covers concepts and methods to analyze and evaluate technologies, processes, and products; to design more sustainable and robust solutions; to create knowledge about innovation processes; to improve understanding of the complexity of socioeconomic systems (e.g., innovation systems); and to enhance knowledge about engineers’ options to influence processes within these systems. The course uses various teaching methods, such as field trips, guest speakers from academia and industry, and interdisciplinary student projects in cooperation with other divisions and industry partners. Matthews and colleagues (2009) also have reviewed their IE education experiences at the Green Design Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, with a focus on life cycle assessment, energy and water resources, transportation, and the built environment.

From the above examples, one can see that in the drive to improve the quality of IE education, the most important point for success is to combine knowledge of IE with local realities as well as with the relevant academic areas. This conclusion reflects an understanding that individual countries and regions face different challenges and therefore need different approaches to solve their problems. We also conclude that courses must combine engineering education with management and social science education so that students can share common knowledge and experiences as well as better understand each other. Such findings require educators to seek a more appropriate and interdisciplinary approach for IE education in China.

China's top leadership has instituted a potentially far-reaching transformation of the economy to move toward a more closed-loop system, with IE and cleaner production methods as the foundation for the strategy of transformation. The proposed goal is to attain a tenfold increase in productivity and efficiency of production while protecting the integrity of the environment. This is likely to become the most strategically significant application of IE, given China's huge population and significant consumption of global resources. Thus, promoting IE education in Chinese institutions of higher education is becoming necessary and timely.

IE courses were first introduced in Chinese universities in the early 2000s. Some key universities, including Tsinghua University, Dalian University of Technology (DUT), Northeast University, and Wuhan University, began to offer one or more courses in IE to their students at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels (Ning et al. 2007). With support from the Luce Foundation, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University hosted a workshop on university teaching of IE in Beijing in November 2004. More than 40 faculty members from over 20 Chinese universities participated and were trained. Most of them had taught or planned to teach IE.

After the 2004 workshop, a national teaching network for IE was established. Some faculty members kept in close contact with others at the workshop to continue to exchange teaching experiences, and others also began to seek international collaboration to enhance their teaching ability. Because different universities have different audiences, however, faculty have to prepare specific approaches and courses that are relevant to their local context. In this article, we introduce our teaching experiences at DUT. We first present the background of our course and describe our teaching modules. Then we discuss our teaching methodology and identify some challenges for future improvement. Finally, we offer conclusions.

Environmental Education at DUT

DUT has been designated by the central Ministry of Education (MOE) as a key university in China and is considered by the Ministry to be the premier institution in the northeastern region (Dalian City Government 2007). It has very strong engineering and science programs as well as a highly regarded school of management, in which China's first master's of business administration (MBA) program was established in 1984 (DUT 2007).

DUT has strong links with the municipal government of Dalian. Many Dalian municipal officials were educated at the DUT's School of Management and regard DUT as a valuable institutional resource (Dalian City Government 2007). DUT also works directly with various enterprises in the region, and its graduates occupy key managerial positions in those enterprises. Before 2000, however, there were no environmental management courses at DUT, and most of its MBA alumni do not have environmental knowledge. This is one example of the reality that many Chinese officials and managers do not have adequate environmental awareness and regard “develop first, clean up later” as one of their management principles (Chiu and Geng 2004; Lo and Fryxell 2005). With increasingly challenging environmental issues, however, both the Chinese central and provincial governments and entrepreneurs have begun to recognize the importance of environmental management and have been asking Chinese universities to ensure that future managers and engineers receive education in environmental management.

To meet the environmental management, educational, planning, and training needs of the municipality and region, in 2002 DUT established a new institute within its School of Management, the Institute for Eco-Planning and Development. The main mission of this institute is to provide courses on environmental management to MBA and doctoral students registered in the School of Management and to undertake relevant academic research. The institute also established its own education programs, namely master's and doctorate programs focused on environmental management. With the help of the Faculty of Environmental Studies (renamed the Faculty of Environment in the summer of 2008) at the University of Waterloo, Canada, and with financial support from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), courses offered by the Institute for Eco-Planning and Development have had very strong Canadian perspectives and have been delivered mainly in English. To date, 11 environmental management courses have been developed, including fundamentals of environmental science, resource management, IE, water resource management, waste management, geographical information systems (GIS) and their application, and research methodology. Among them, IE is a required course with two credits (32 teaching hours over a term of 16 weeks). A typical graduate course at DUT has 32 teaching hours, and the students receive two credits from such a course. Master's students normally are required to complete a total of 16 two-credit courses, and doctoral students complete 8 two-credit courses to meet program requirements.

In parallel, IE has been recognized by other faculties at DUT as a new research and education opportunity, especially by the School of Environmental and Biological Science and Technology and the School of Social Science. To better integrate the related knowledge and experiences, in 2002 the university council established a research center on environment, the Research Center for Environmental Science and Technologies. This center, now the largest interdisciplinary center at DUT, with more than 30 faculty and more than 60 million RMB in grants ($1 USD = 6.8 RMB), mainly focuses on environmental science and technology. Faculty come primarily from the School of Environmental and Biological Science and Technology, the School of Management, the School of Dynamic Engineering, and the School of Social Science. Faculty members do not receive their salaries from this center but participate in the research activities organized by the center. The Institute for Eco-Planning and Development has been one unit of this center since 2003 and mainly provides courses related to environmental management.

A laboratory on industrial pollution prevention and IE has also been established within this center, aimed at research and development activities for cleaner production and IE. This laboratory was designated in 2006 as a key laboratory of the MOE. A key laboratory receives regular grants from MOE for its operation and management. In the case of the Research Center for Environmental Science and Technologies, support is provided by both the central MOE and the provincial government of Liaoning. The main function of the lab is to undertake research projects related to specific cleaner production and IE technologies (e.g., wastewater recycling techniques and equipment, waste minimization, energy cascading, contaminated soil recovery, eco-design).

Course Modules

Similar to most graduate courses at DUT, the IE course includes eight modules, each with 4 teaching hours, for a total of 32 hours of class time. Because each year almost half of the students who take this course come from the business school, the course was designed to focus on their needs by concentrating on management perspectives. Other participants come mostly from engineering programs. The course also considers their interests and needs—for instance, by addressing eco-design methods and progress integration methods. Although the number of students varies each year, usually about 20 students enroll annually, close to the maximum of 30 students allowed in the course. The aim of this course is to present and examine the concepts, tools, methods, and application of IE, with a strong focus on improving the eco-efficiency of economic and social systems. Therefore, all modules were designed to meet this requirement. The following discussion provides a detailed overview of each module.

The first module introduces the history and evolution of IE. A detailed description of China's current environmental issues is presented, including data on resource use and environmental emissions, especially those related to industrial development. Against that context, the concept of IE is then formally introduced and examined. The main teaching material for this module is the article “Industrial Ecology: A Historical Review” (Erkman 1997), which helps the students appreciate the history and development of IE. This article introduces different definitions of IE, including those from engineering and management perspectives.

We also assign our students to read introductory chapters in selected Chinese books on industrial ecology: Industrial Ecology and Eco-Industrial Park (Lowe and Geng 2002), Industrial Ecology (Deng and Wu 2002), and Industrial Ecology: Policy Framework and Implementation (Weng 2005). These readings are intended to enhance students’ understanding of Chinese and international perspectives regarding the IE concept. Their assignment in this module is to write an essay to summarize different definitions of IE; this helps develop their own views on the concept of IE.

The second module introduces the concept of cleaner production. Methods for promoting cleaner production are then outlined, with several case studies from the cement, chemical, and food processing industries. The special feature of this module is a strong focus on Chinese experiences. China has many polluting industries that still apply energy-inefficient technologies and equipment and also generate significant wastes. Our purpose in this module is to introduce the Chinese realities to our students and ask them to determine an appropriate approach for promoting the implementation of cleaner production. Also, China is the first country to have enacted a law on cleaner production promotion (effective January 2003). A detailed description and evaluation of this law is given, including the legal provisions and implementation procedures.

Because some students in the course will eventually work in industries other than IE, this module is intended help them adopt the concept of cleaner production by exposing them to cleaner production methods in a mix of industries. The assignment is to visit a local manufacturer, interview key people, analyze the potential for applying the cleaner production concept, and prepare a report (about 2,500 words) in which they develop their ideas.

The third module focuses on life cycle management (LCM), one of the key components of IE. In any firm striving to minimize its costs, the adoption of LCM should help identify where and how losses are occurring and where and how management could implement cleaner production principles and technologies to reduce those losses. In this manner, companies can more effectively meet environmental standards while reducing resource requirements, waste treatment needs, and costs.

Through education about the basic concept and principles of LCM, students learn that LCM is applicable not only in any individual manufacturing company but also in other organizations, such as a hospital or a school, or even in one large system (e.g., an industrial park). In this module, each student completes an LCM report for one simple product, such as a paper-based packaging box or a plastic cup. This exercise is intended to strengthen students’ understanding of how to apply LCM in the real world and to encourage them to consider how to use resources efficiently.

The fourth module addresses design for environment. Professionals involved in product or process design must understand design for environment. Thus, we present the eco-design strategy wheel proposed by Brezet and Van Hemel (1997) so that our students can better understand how the concept of eco-design can be incorporated into the total life cycle of one product. Particularly with regard to laws requiring take-back or return of a product, the intent is to highlight that a product designer should take reuse and recyclability into account.

We emphasize the importance of resource efficiency, so that products and processes are designed with a minimum of resource use. In addition, designers need some knowledge of marketing instruments so they can consider ways of selling or using by-products. For instance, we present several Chinese case studies on electronic products to illustrate how smart design can save costs at different stages over the whole life cycle. The assignment for this module is for students to read several articles related to the application of design for environment and then complete one essay (2,000 words) to summarize what they have learned after reviewing the articles. The instructors select the articles from journals with outstanding citation records to ensure that students are exposed to quality research.

The fifth module focuses on integrated waste management. As a developing country, China is facing increasing waste issues regarding both quantity and quality. If such wastes are not properly managed, their accumulation can cause serious environmental damage as well as increased safety problems and health care costs. Accordingly, we have prepared case studies from various regions in China to highlight the seriousness of the waste management problem in China. After reviewing the cases with students, we explain that it is appropriate to adopt an integrated approach that aims to develop a sustainable solid waste management system that is environmentally effective, economically affordable, and socially acceptable for a particular region and its individual circumstances (McDougall et al. 2001).

We also explain to our students that integrated waste management can be adopted by larger systems, such as industrial parks, where environmental management can be incorporated into aspects such as legislation, planning and design, and supply of services. For instance, we show that the management of an industrial park can adopt a systematic method to assess the overall use of resources; seek waste reduction, reuse, and recycling opportunities both at the individual company level and among different tenant companies; consider the full range of waste streams to be managed; and view the available waste management practices as a menu of options from which waste managers can evaluate waste management options on the basis of site-specific environmental, economic, and social considerations. After the students receive such information and insight, they prepare a design for an integrated waste management system for the DUT campus, considering both living areas (their dormitories) and education areas (teaching and research areas). They then write an essay (about 2,000 words) to present their designs.

The sixth module concerns industrial symbiosis and eco-industrial parks (EIPs). Industrial symbiosis is a form of “coexistence” in which a number of industries make use of each other's production residues or by-products for commercial and environmental reasons. This is regarded as one important component of IE (Chertow 2000). Most of the engineering students who take our course will eventually work as engineers, planners, and architects and be involved in the design, construction, management, and operation of industrial and municipal infrastructure. The purpose of this module is to ensure that the students understand the basics of industrial symbiosis so that they can effectively market by-products to surrounding companies rather than disposing of them. Particular attention is given to introducing the students to EIPs, as the potential for industrial symbiosis is high in such contexts.

The cases of Kalundborg, Denmark, and Burnside, Canada, are well-recognized examples of industrial symbiosis and are used in our course to illustrate best practice. We direct the students to consider how economic, environmental, and social benefits could be achieved through such EIP initiatives if they were to be adopted for use in China. As a result, through this module, the students learn about the main planning requirements for industrial symbiosis, namely to pursue waste reduction, reuse, and recycling to the maximum extent possible, primarily through system optimization, material management, by-products exchange, and economic recovery of residues. The students are expected to do further reading related to other case studies involving industrial symbiosis and EIPs in both China and other countries. The instructors select all of the readings to ensure that students read the most relevant literature. On the basis of such reading and the review of the two case studies in the module, students then write an essay (about 1,500 words) in which they reflect on key aspects of both industrial symbiosis and EIPs.

The seventh module deals with the concept of the circular economy. China is pioneering the circular economy concept, which has the potential to overcome current environmental and resource management problems while achieving improvements in resource productivity and eco-efficiency (Geng and Doberstein 2007). The circular economy concept is normally understood to mean the realization of a closed loop of materials flow in the economic system. Successful implementation of the circular economy concept is one way that China can “leapfrog” past the environmental damages that are typically seen as economies industrialize (Geng and Doberstein 2007). Thus, this module includes examination of the meaning and evolution of the concept of the circular economy, relevant regulations (especially the circular economy promotion law, effective from 1 January 2009), and several detailed methods on implementation, such as the creation of a regional eco-industrial network and development of EIPs.

Due to the different development situations across the country, the course examines different strategies and targets for the circular economy in various regions in China. In this regard, students are encouraged to have open discussions with their classmates to consider conditions in their own home cities so that they can better combine their knowledge with the realities of specific places. The assignment for this module is to produce a report (about 3,000 words) evaluating the potential for implementing the circular economy in their home cities.

The eighth and last module deals with the concept of sustainable consumption. Moving toward sustainability requires making significant shifts in the way of life of those in developing countries, and in this module, attention therefore focuses on the nature of such shifts and how they can be facilitated. One primary requirement is more efficient use of resources by both consumers and manufacturers. This necessitates the implementation of IE principles and technologies. For instance, calls for conservation of water or energy in times of shortage usually produce drastic reductions in consumption. Such conservation measures generally only last as long as the shortage exists, however.

We present the concept and measures of sustainable consumption, showing that examination of consumption is a key part of the whole life cycle analysis. The ultimate purpose is to stimulate students to think about how to overcome “implementation barriers” related to achieving sustainable consumption. We also systematically link this module to other, earlier modules. A typical example is that implementation of cleaner production in industries has shown significant reductions in production of wastes, consumption of resources, and costs. The students are reminded, however, that implementation of cleaner production is not automatically synonymous with sustainable consumption. Nevertheless, the point is made that by implementing cleaner productions, industries can reduce their consumption of “virgin” inputs, which is one type of sustainable consumption. As a key assignment, all students produce one report (1,500 words) reviewing their weekend consumption in the local supermarket and identifying key opportunities for further improvement, such as recycling packaging materials and making use of energy-efficient programs in the store. Our intention is to encourage them to apply what they have learned in the real world so that they can better digest such knowledge.

In place of a final examination, students write a research paper that is based on the eight modules and focuses on how to apply the principles and methods of IE in the real world. The paper must be at least 5,000 words, including background, literature review, methodology, and a case study. Given students’ varied backgrounds, topics are not limited. In other words, the students can choose any specific topic within the eight modules, on the basis of their own interests and experience. This flexible arrangement allows the students to better link their work in the IE course with their own majors. Our experience is that most engineering students choose cleaner production or design for environment as their topic, whereas most business students focus on aspects of industrial symbiosis or LCM.

Teaching Methodology

Our teaching method is significantly different from the traditional one in China. The usual teaching method involves conventional classroom lectures, accompanied by assignments and a final examination. In contrast, although the IE course at DUT includes the usual type of lecture, it is taught entirely in English, including all the teaching materials, assigned readings from journals and other sources, in-class discussions, written assignments, and final examination, which, as already mentioned, is a research paper rather than an exam. We believe that students learn the most advanced research and applications of IE in an English-language learning environment, because the most important publications in this field are in English. It is not possible to validate this belief with evidence, however, as we have not taught a version of the course in Chinese.

Besides the typical lectures about the basic concepts and tools and their applications, we use an extensive case study approach to increase the students’ understanding. We encourage all students to join in the discussion and share their insights. Such discussion and expression of personal views are not common elements of courses in China. Because most students have not visited Western countries, we also have prepared several video materials for their study. For example, for the module on design for environment, we present advanced applications from North America and Japan, and for the model on industrial ecosystems, we present the case of Burnside Industrial Park in Canada.

After each teaching term, we conduct a postcourse evaluation—that is, an assessment of the quality of this course, including the teaching materials, teaching methods, and grading system. Past evaluations have indicated that the video materials enrich the students’ understanding. For instance, we present the case of a solar lawnmower manufactured by Electrolux so that the students can better understand how smart design can combine the most advanced solar technologies with traditional machine design. Without such a video presentation, it is difficult for the students to imagine how smart design can be applied in the real world.

We also ask every student to make one 10-min oral presentation and then answer questions posed by classmates. The presentation has to be related to industrial symbiosis, LCM, circular economy, or design for environment. The presentations include background information (2 min), theoretical foundations (2 to 3 min), and practical applications (5 to 6 min). They are designed to check how well the students can summarize verbally what they have learned as well as to determine students’ presentation skills. According to our postcourse evaluation, most students complete their presentation in English very competently but have problems answering questions, as they cannot easily predict what will be asked and therefore cannot prepare English-language answers in advance.

With regard to teaching materials, we provide a mix of references, including recent academic articles from journals, Web sites, governmental reports, EIP planning reports, and several English books on IE. In contrast, most courses in Chinese universities have only one textbook. We encourage students to select the most appropriate materials for different modules so that they can enrich their knowledge. Our students come from different fields, and therefore they need to learn different aspects of IE. For example, the management students usually have more interest in industrial symbiosis and the circular economy, whereas the engineering students are often more interested in design for environment and cleaner production. Thus, diversified materials best meet the students’ different interests and needs. To ensure that all the students achieve minimum competence in IE, however, especially regarding key concepts and methods, we require that every student complete the assigned reading in all the modules and finish all the assignments.

One unique component of our course, in the context of Chinese universities, is a site tour related to the industrial symbiosis module. Most of our students are not familiar with industrial clusters and have doubts about the idea of by-product exchanges. Fortunately, there is a national EIP demonstration project in Dalian, the Dalian Economic Development Area (DEDA), which is the second largest industrial park in China and has received ISO 14001 certification for the entire park (Geng and Cote 2003).

With the support of the park management and tenant companies, we arrange for the students to visit several scavenger companies (companies whose inputs are based on the waste resources of other companies in the park) and decomposer companies (companies that use the waste resources from both producers and consumers and then transform or recycle them back into the system; Geng and Cote 2002). We also schedule a guest lecture for this module and invite one official from DEDA to discuss his or her experiences in supporting eco-industrial development. Including such a guest lecture in a course module is uncommon in China, although public lectures by visitors are frequent in university courses. We believe such measures strengthen the students’ understanding of and confidence about promoting IE in the real world.

The students’ performance evaluation includes four parts: (1) one full paper in place of a final examination (60%), (2) one oral presentation (15%), (3) eight written assignments (15%), and (4) class participation (10%). We believe that the IE course is more practical than most traditional courses, which emphasize theory; therefore, it makes no sense to ask our students to learn about definitions and tools but ignore their application. We recognize that exams can test theory and application; however, we believe it is important for both faculty and students to appreciate that alternative ways exist to assess what has been learned, especially when the students are being encouraged to incorporate knowledge into practice.

On the basis of the above beliefs and principles, all the students prepare at least six essays at different times in the term. Such essays must relate to the application of various IE concepts, tools, and methods. For instance, in the second module, students must visit a local manufacturing firm and then prepare a report regarding that firm's cleaner production potential. We also believe that some of our students will become leaders of major Chinese companies or government organizations, so the class offers them experience presenting and defending their research findings through an oral presentation. In terms of the final paper, because our students come from different fields, we provide them with considerable freedom to choose the most relevant field as their research topic. Simply stated, many management students are not eager to write a paper on a detailed eco-design process, whereas an engineering student may be reluctant to develop a paper about policies related to IE. Nevertheless, the final paper, which covers all eight modules, ensures that the students demonstrate understanding and competence related to all aspects of IE.

Students also have an opportunity to evaluate the quality of this course. Each term, after the final exam, all students can complete an online, anonymous postcourse evaluation form regarding the quality of the course as well as the instructors. The form includes four sections on which the students can comment: teaching materials, instructor's attitude, teaching methodology, and grading system. There are five possible responses for each question: excellent, good, fair, just so so, and poor. Additionally, students can provide comments and suggestions. The DUT Department of Teaching Affairs is responsible for managing these forms and provides the results to the instructors so that they can improve their teaching and consider changes to the course content. Such an arrangement helps to ensure that the students’ concerns are considered and, when appropriate, addressed.

As of January 2009, postcourse evaluations had been completed for seven offerings of the course. Most students have been very satisfied with the course, as they checked either “excellent” (around 50%) or “good” (around 40%) in all four components of the assessment. Some concerns were expressed by a small number of students, however. Such concerns are mainly about language and exams. Some students are not fluent in English and therefore find it difficult to understand the material covered, whereas others feel that a final paper in lieu of an exam does not allow them to demonstrate what they learned.

Regarding students’ concerns about the use of English, we do not intend to make any changes. We originally proposed the use of an English-language environment so that we could convey information without any unintended modifications as a result of the translation process from English to Mandarin. This approach requires students to determine, when necessary, how to improve both their oral and their written English. We recognize that for some students, writing a final paper in English poses a challenge. Nevertheless, we insist on having a final paper rather than an exam because we believe that a traditional written exam tests mainly key definitions and questions and therefore cannot reveal the students’ understanding of how to apply IE in the real world.


Although the DUT course on IE has been successful, according to the postcourse evaluation by our students, and has been taught for 7 years, some challenges need to be addressed. First, the English-language skills of most Chinese students are not very advanced. Many students encounter significant language difficulties in the course. Due to relatively poor proficiency with spoken English and to cultural differences, they often have problems understanding the instructor's words as well as the English video presentations, which impedes their ability to learn. The final papers are written entirely in English, but most need significant editing for grammar and logic. The limited English-language skills of the DUT graduate students is therefore a major challenge. There is not yet an obvious practical solution because of students’ heavy course load. The students would benefit from additional instruction in English; however, university faculty do not agree about what other course requirements could be reduced to create time for students to improve their English. Nevertheless, most faculty agree that for students’ long-term success, it is highly desirable that they enhance their English-language skills.

Second, the total number of students in this course, about 20 per term, is modest. Among each class, usually 6 to 8 students are from the Institute for Eco-Planning and Development, whereas the others are mainly from the School of Environmental and Biological Science and Technology (6 to 9 per term) and the School of Social Science (2 to 4 per term). The management-focused students, especially the MBA students, who are the potential leaders of major companies, need to know the value of IE not just from an environmental perspective but also from an efficiency standpoint. Currently, most of these students are taught in their other courses primarily about the basics of financial and human resources management, including financial audits. Yet resource and environmental management, beyond stock taking, is not usually addressed.

Personal interviews with MBA students who have not taken this course indicate that many believe that waste minimization and other environmental practices are expensive and time-consuming to implement, and thus they are not interested in learning about IE. With increasing resource depletion and environmental problems, however, students should know how to achieve the most efficient use of resources as well as how to use resource auditing and to consider the incorporation of wastes into innovative processes and products. Students would acquire these competencies if they took this course, even as an elective. Thus, we may need to promote IE to those students to attract their attention. Another challenge is the prevailing view of most faculty associated with the new program: Core courses must address financial and human resources, strategic management, accounting, and marketing. There is not agreement that IE should be a core course, which serves as a further impediment for more students to take this course.

The third challenge is mainly cultural. Most Chinese students are not familiar with open class discussions and are therefore hesitant to join in. This situation has weakened the quality of discussions. The instructor usually has to struggle to persuade them to actively join the discussions during the first several modules. Some students, especially engineering students, also feel uncomfortable making an oral presentation in front of others, and they almost always feel nervous about answering questions from classmates. Starting in middle school and continuing into university, Chinese teaching methods generally emphasize that students are to listen to their instructor and ensure that they can repeat what has been taught. Students are not encouraged to engage in critical reflection or to become active learners. Indeed, the common model emphasizes passive learning. As a result, most Chinese students are initially very uncomfortable with an interactive and critically reflective approach to learning. Instructors need to work diligently to resolve this problem. For instance, a positive approach is to always praise students’ performance and encourage them to continue to participate actively.

Generally, our experiences at DUT reflect that students in developing countries are facing more challenges than their counterparts in the developed world. For instance, besides the common phenomenon that engineering students do not share common values with management or social science students, our students also confront serious language barriers in their efforts to learn the most advanced information on IE, and they face serious resource depletion and environmental challenges in China. In addition, most Chinese students feel reluctant to take such an interdisciplinary course, particularly one that involves making an oral presentation and answering questions. At this point, we believe that other Chinese universities, as well as some overseas universities, may have similar challenges. Thus, our experiences at DUT could be valuable for them.

Notwithstanding these challenges, we think that we are moving in the right direction. As indicated above, besides management students, course participants come from programs in civil engineering, chemical engineering, and urban planning and architecture. But within the Chinese education system, civil engineering has usually included wastewater and water treatment, municipal solid waste management, pollution control, and site remediation, whereas chemical engineering involves process operation and design. Product and facility design and control have been components of the other disciplines, although there has been no clear demarcation determining which discipline is solely responsible for a specific component. Planners are the overall designers and managers of much of our urban infrastructure, whereas architects focus on the design and construction of buildings. Yet there usually has been little communication among urban managers, engineers, planners, and architects, despite the obviously overlapping nature of these disciplines and professions. Under such circumstances, we believe that combining students from different programs can create a wonderful opportunity for them to learn from, share knowledge with, and gain respect for each other so that they can overcome their biases and misconceptions about other fields. In this regard, we usually separate the students into different groups for class discussions, so that each group includes students from different fields and all of them can share and integrate their knowledge.


The combination of technology and social, economic, environmental, and ecological issues is of great public concern and the basis for major social policy, government regulation, industrial development, and international relations. These concerns require that universities must bridge the traditional separation of an engineering school from a social sciences and humanities school to produce graduates who are able to contribute constructively to our society's future. In this regard, our effort at DUT is a necessary initiative. Our ultimate goal is to raise the environmental awareness of our students by bringing them into IE and undertaking IE-related training and practice. Particularly given rapid industrialization and an increasing resource and environmental crisis, IE should become a critical course in Chinese universities, as government, industry, and students are demanding that graduates have skills and knowledge in broader fields than in the past, including environmental and sustainability issues. Those future engineers and managers should incorporate knowledge of IE into their thinking so that they can avoid or minimize material consumption and waste emissions.

The professions—such as management, planning, engineering, and architecture—are key for incorporating sustainability into Chinese society. Therefore, as academics, we must include principles and concepts of sustainability in educational programs to produce professionals who can manage resources sustainably and efficiently. Our experience with teaching IE is based on Chinese realities. The curriculum design, teaching methods, literature, and evaluation measures that we have developed reflect the local realities and perspectives to ensure that the IE course is clearly relevant. In addition, we recognize that students need to become aware of thinking and practice regarding IE in other countries. We hope that our approach can provide a good reference for other Chinese universities so that we can collectively broaden our capacity to improve the overall eco-efficiency of our economic system while protecting nature.


This study was funded by the Chinese Academy of Science (Grant 08YBR111SS) and the Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant 70772085). We also thank the editor and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and suggestions.

About the Authors

Yong Geng is a Professor at the Institute of Applied Ecology at the Chinese Academy of Science in Shenyang, China. Bruce Mitchell is a professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Canada. Qinghua Zhu is a professor at the Institute for Eco-Planning and Development at Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China.