Steven O’Keefe

By Lyn Drummond

16 January 2012 – When the deputy head of Griffith University’s school of engineering Steven O’Keefe is asked if there are any engineering jobs in the sustainable energy area he is amazed that students and parents do not grasp how crucial the work is.

The associate professor and electronics engineer who is the convenor for the engineering school’s sustainable energy program which is recruiting for a new engineering lecturer, expects a glut of jobs to be waiting for the first students graduating at the end of 2012, but laments perceived ignorance about how engineering dovetails with sustainability.

“Some people see engineers with the hard hat and roll of blueprints, some can’t see past civil engineering, “ he told The Fifth Estate.

This may be why engineering student numbers have slumped in universities across Australia, but he is optimistic it has started to move up.

While concerned about a slow start in student numbers at Griffith, he believes it will build reasonably quickly. He said: ”Australia is a little bit behind in implementation of a lot of projects – Germany is leading us by miles when it comes to solar energy –  ridiculous in such as sunny country.

“I am disappointed that Australia is behind the eight ball, a lot of technology is sent overseas. We don’t have the people interested in these sort of projects. Australia doesn’t have old money, companies are reluctant to risk their capital. If we had more of that going on there would be a much more obvious career path.

“Everyone knows about climate change, but people are not so familiar with what sustainable solutions are. They entail significant amounts of engineering.”

When Griffith students were given a homework assignment to energy audit their homes they came back and said “wow” at how much was being wasted.”Mum and dad got a few wake up calls,” he said.

“I see pennies dropping in classes when students discover just how broad the opportunities are. They become passionate about areas they really care about: making diesel engines run more efficiently, minimising fossil fuel usage, working on buildings,  making better solar panels and better turbine technology, solid state lighting and energy auditing”.

Professor O’Keefe says engineers have a great deal to contribute to sustainability but he believes there is a long way to go.

The engineers’ professionals bodies are meant to be very proactive in promoting engineering, he says but is not sure of the success of their strategies.

“Maybe the sustainability side is not promoted enough,” he says. “We need lateral solutions of getting the message across. Educating in and out of school, more presence on the internet.”

Social networks too could help. Teaching professionals could make better use of social networking tools, “do more in orientation week, have an event, talk to as many students as we can,” he said.

“When we do talk about sustainable energy most students said they wanted to make a difference.  It also needs to be part of the national school curricula.”

Griffith is now recruiting a lecturer in its bachelor of engineering (advanced studies) sustainable energy systems degree to fill a vacancy left by one moving to another campus. Professor O’Keefe expects more staff will be needed in the future.

Sustainability is a big part of Griffith’s environmental engineering program. Outside the engineering school it is a major issue for the school of environment, school of business and many of its research centres.

The university has an eco centre where Professor O’Keefe gives talks to students and teachers on how engineering fits into the energy picture.

Artist’s impression of Griffith’s zero-emission and self-powering teaching and research building.

New solar learning and teaching centre

The university also plans to open its $33m Sir Samuel Griffith Centre by the end of the year at its Nathan, Queensland campus.  It will  be  driven by solar-powered hydrogen energy.

Its solar panels will be made of transparent glass.  About 30 per cent of the building will be from recycled material and it will feature natural ventilation, grey water recycling and advanced water collection. It will have 100 offices and multi-purpose lecture facilities for 200 students.

Of the $33m cost of the centre, $21 will come from the Federal Government’s Education Investment Fund, $10m from the university, $1m from the state government and $1m from Cisco Systems.