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Stanford and Howard universities collaborate on cutting-edge sustainable building course

The alliance equips future architects, engineers, and builders with the necessary tools and empathy to address the challenges of managing responsible construction projects.

Stanford and Howard students in CEE 100. (Image credit: Hannah Trillo)

It was the final week of CEE 100 “Managing Sustainable Building Projects,” and Martin Fischer's students were more excited than usual. The mix of architecture and civil and environmental engineering students from Stanford University and architecture students from Howard University had been taking the course together over Zoom all quarter, but now they were all sitting in the same classroom, seeing each other face to face for the first time. 

“Welcome to one of the most interdisciplinary courses on campus,” said Fischer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, as he tugged on his Howard University ballcap. “We’re here studying a subject we all have in common – sustainability of the built environment.”

Fischer, an expert in managing sustainable construction projects, knows his role carries a responsibility both for his influence on the environmental costs and on the people who must live within his constructed environment. The offices where we work, the stores where we shop, and the garages where we park, he says, are shaped by the hands of a limited group of architects and engineers – not necessarily the people who spend time in them. Meanwhile, only a sliver of the city skyline is designed by Black Americans: Just 2 percent of licensed architects in the country are Black, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. The majority of those Black architects are graduates from Howard University’s architecture program, and that’s why the two universities designed the combined course. 

This marks the second year that Howard University architecture professor Nea Maloo and Fischer have co-taught the groundbreaking combined CEE 100 course, born out of a shared realization that their students receive a stronger education on how to build sustainably from the two institutions’ diverse academic and cultural perspectives. Both professors teach the course, and the respective classrooms in D.C. and California are linked by Zoom. Then, as the quarter comes to a close, Howard students take a red-eye flight to Stanford to attend the final two classes in person.

“The sooner we can expose our students to work with the perspectives of other disciplines and learn to empathize with the perspectives of people from many walks of life, the more likely they’ll be able to help shape a built environment that’s equitable, environmentally good, and economical,” said Fischer, the Kumagai Professor in the School of Engineering and senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Targeting the built environment

The professors agree that varied cultural viewpoints are critical to building purposeful sustainable buildings that serve both Earth and community. Houses, skyscrapers, and warehouses are responsible for a significant chunk of greenhouse gas emissions – about 40 percent, according to the World Green Building Council. Quickly cutting emissions tied to buildings at every stage of development, from the mining of ore for steel to the energy running the air conditioning, is essential to making life on our planet more sustainable. 

“Decarbonization of buildings requires the integration of a large amount of scientific, engineering, and management knowledge, which is challenging for a single faculty member to do in a short time, given the urgency of this issue,” added Sarah Billington, the chair of Stanford’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, UPS Foundation Professor, and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is also part of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. 

The teaching collaboration of professors Fischer and Maloo, and Stanford civil and environmental engineering adjunct lecturer Peter Rumsey, demonstrates to students the way these professions cooperate together and their roles in achieving more sustainable built environments, Billington said.

Rumsey, Fischer, and Maloo originally partnered together three years ago when Maloo adopted teaching material developed by Rumsey and Fischer at the Stanford Building Decarbonization Learning Accelerator. After their successful partnership, the teaching team decided to pursue the idea further by creating a course that crossed campuses.

“Simply put, our curricula are too homogeneous,” said Maloo. “We asked ourselves whether the curricula at our respective educational institutions equip our students – the future architects, engineers, and builders who will shape the built environment – with the concepts, tools, experiences, and empathy needed to tackle these challenges.”

With Stanford students in the classroom and Howard students patched in via Zoom, Maloo said that the course gives students a more holistic understanding for other viewpoints, backgrounds, and disciplines. As the course progresses, Maloo sees her students recognize the value and limitations of their own discipline, knowledge, and perspective in the context of the bigger project and society. “Diversity is a two-way street,” she said. “Listening, sharing, and engaging is learning.” 

A professor discussing slides on the board in front of a classroom of students
The combined class of Howard and Stanford students prepares for an activity in small groups. (Image credit: Hannah Trillo)

Maloo observed that collaborating with architecture students from Howard strengthened the architectural education of Stanford students, and enriched the education of the engineering- and construction-focused students in the Stanford class. Similarly, collaborating with students in Stanford’s civil engineering as well as sustainable architecture and engineering majors expanded the Howard students’ network and diversified their experience.

“Exposing students from different institutions and educational experiences further equips them to collaborate with colleagues from different cultures and backgrounds, making it far more likely that they’ll be able to be a creative and productive force on project teams that will have to address challenges currently unknown to us,” Maloo said.

Teaching future leaders 

For fourth-year Howard architecture student Kai Dixon, who plans to pursue clean building technologies, the Stanford class offered an opportunity to learn more about the technical side of building design, and how projects can be delivered using different methods of collaboration. During their visit to Stanford, Howard students toured the campus with their Stanford classmates, and Rumsey took them to visit some of the more advanced, sustainable, and decarbonized buildings in the Bay Area, including the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco. 

“The environmental issues that we’re facing as a society today, and that affect marginalized populations most, are going to require that everybody engage in figuring this out,” Rumsey said. 

Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by the use of fossil fuels and poor air quality, and Black children are eight times more likely to die of asthma than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Students from Stanford and Howard are going to graduate and become leaders in architecture, structural and environmental engineering, or construction, and so it’s really important that all the leaders are having this discussion and getting this information together,” Rumsey added.

The trip to Stanford was an amazing experience, except for the due dates, Dixon joked about CEE 100’s tight schedule. On the flight back to Washington, D.C., Dixon and his schoolmates polished up their final design studio projects for a core Howard architecture class, which they presented just a few hours after landing.

“There are very different cultures of learning between Stanford and Howard, and even between the West Coast and East Coast, so to be able to experience both at the same time and bounce ideas off people who have led very different academic or personal lives from me was a very unique experience,” Dixon said. “It definitely didn’t feel similar to any class I’ve taken before, and I hope it will be an experience many others can share.”

Hearing Dixon’s review gave Fischer great satisfaction. His main motivation for the course was to challenge his own teaching methods, to see whether the material and how he teaches it at Stanford is relevant and resonates with people that have come from different backgrounds. “Having a connection outside of Stanford, and gaining some knowledge and appreciation for where other people are coming from, is super important in my field.” 

Fischer plans to teach the course again with Maloo next fall. He’s hopeful more Stanford faculty will follow their lead and that interactions between different educational institutions and students will happen more often. “There’s a lot Stanford can offer,” he said. “But there’s also a lot that the world can give to Stanford.”

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