Environmental Ethics in Germany and the U.S.


Vosges Mountains, France

In Germany, I took a course called Environmental Ethics & Sustainability, a course I believe every engineering student should be required to take.  I learned about deontological Kantian ethics, utilitarianism, and how these two theories of morality relate to the environment.  The argument is centered around whether we take an ontological or deontological perspective, whether we look at humans as a part of nature or separate from it.

I liked this course because it reminded me of my IDEAS seminars at Lehigh.  It was discussion based and students were free to express their newly-formed opinions.  However, in our seminars at Lehigh, we discuss more so how ethics affects the growth of technology and vice versa.


Kirchheim Teck, Germany

The German people had a different attitude towards their land than Americans do.  Part of the reason for this is because Germany is half the size of  Texas, so they don’t have a lot of land to let go to waste.  I remember being on a hike through a forest in Freiburg and asking the forester if Germany has the equivalent of what we call “Superfund Sites” in America.  Superfund sites are environments made so toxic from spills and now-outlawed contaminants (like PCBs) that the government invests “super” funds into remediating them.  The forester was dumbfounded that such sites exist, and proceeded to exclaim that because Germany is so small, the government takes extra care to ensure that such accidents do not happen.  This is in fact why they are phasing out their nuclear energy.  Being an environmental engineer is therefore a paradox at times because we tend to be people that enjoy being surrounded by clean air, water, and soil.  It’s in these places that there is no work for us to do!

Even though Germany doesn’t seem to need environmental remediation expertise, I’m sure there’s enough demand in America for a couple of decades!


Air ReLeaf

When I was working on the Mountaintop this summer, I came across a group working on The Phytopurifier.  Having done research in phytoremediation, my eager curiosity led me to their plant-inundated work area to inquire about the project.  Their objective was to meliorate indoor air pollution via a plant filter called The Phytopurifier.


The Phytopurifier

This indoor air filter works via an amalgamation of decontamination methods.  The first is scrubbing: a fan pulls the ambient air into the partially filled water container.  The water is consistently misted into the container space t0 enhance contact between the incoming air pollutant particles and water droplets.  The effect is that the particulate air pollutants sorb to the water droplets and then fall into the reservoir.  Next, the water is drawn up the plant roots and through a bedding consisting of activated carbon on the bottom layer, and then multiple layers of alternating shale and clay pebbles.  In addition to water transferring through this bedding and being filtered by the activated carbon, the air is also supposed to rise through the bedding and therefore be strained of its gas-phase pollutants.  The plant is the third decontaminator, performing its duty known as phytoremediation.  I was lucky enough to join the project team this fall.


My partner Erin and I displaying the plant filter at the TedX event in Allentown.

We now call the creation AirReleaf and have spent the past month running air quality tests to see what the prototype does.  The contaminants of concern (COC’s) we are dealing with are NO2, O3, particulate matter, and CO.  There are also organics like benzene to worry about, but we don’t have the monitoring equipment for measuring them yet.

To expose the prototype to the pollutants, we have to light a cigarette and pump the fumes into an enclosed space.  Besides the fact that we smell like chain smokers for the rest of the day, I enjoy doing the project and seeing what our testing results are every week.  What I also enjoy is getting class credit for this research through a course called “Sustainable Development Solutions“.  In this course, you get to join a team and create and implement a project relating to sustainable development.  I know some people who have even travelled to other countries to put their project to work.  Our project falls under the sustainable development umbrella because a lot of poorer communities have issues with indoor air pollution.  Therefore, our goal is to make the AirReleaf very affordable and easy to maintain for those of lower income who cannot generally afford indoor air filters.  Sustainable development courses are taken by kids in all majors and are a great option if you’re interested in making a difference and have a cool idea to do so!


For you, the perspective student who came across this blog because you were googling students’ opinions on their schools and majors, you’re in luck.  In this post I will elaborate on the wonderful major program I am in, IDEAS.  IDEAS stands for Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts, and Sciences.  Going into my freshman year, I knew I wanted to learn more chemistry, more biology, and figure out how to harness those subjects to steward the environment.  Call it a fortunate stroke of serendipity, because on a tour I walked by Professor Best (the IDEAS advisor) giving a speech on the IDEAS program, and I was in.  I have essentially had the freedom to build my degree to specialize in my interests, all the way from an ecology course in the Swiss Alps (yes, you can be an engineer and study abroad in IDEAS) to an aqueous chemistry course with the pre-med students at Lehigh.  For me, an IDEAS degree is the freedom to pick my courses so that I am passionate and excited about each and every one of them.  Don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not an easy road; IDEAS students must meet rigorous math and science requirements.  However, we have more freedom in trading courses between the engineering and arts & sciences schools. For instance, because I do not want to specialize in water-resources engineering, I substituted the normal EnvE-required hydraulics course for environmental microbiology, a course that normal EnvE students are not required to take.  IDEAS gives you the template to maximize your credits to tend to your interests the most.  No one person I know has the same degree concentration, because even in a “major”, everyone has different specialized interests.  I believe pursuing higher education should be driven by a wanting to learn, and I chose to major in IDEAS because it allows me the freedom to do this.

Humidity and the GRE

In terms of weather, this summer at Lehigh has vacillated between soporific and salubrious.  My form of air conditioning is cruising on my bike down Memorial Drive and onto Packard Ave., reveling in the breeze until I stop at the conveniently down-gradient ice cream shop, the Cup, for the last ingredient in my personal cooling routine.  I don’t see many bikes on campus, mostly due to the colossal mountain Lehigh rests on, but biking about halfway up to where I live off campus on Montclair is achievable.  Here is my once forlorn, now functioning and basket-clad bike.  I call her Free Spirit:


She resembles my antiquated bike from Freiburg, Germany (pictured below) and is used for the same primary function: saving gas money for grocery shopping!


Though there is a tendency to become indolent during humid Lehigh summers, I use the impending ennui as motivation to explore campus and the surrounding Lehigh Valley.  Rock climbing at Lehigh’s Taylor Gym is perfect; whether you’re experienced or not, there are plenty of climbing routes to keep you occupied for hours.  During the school year, the most gregarious types of students work here.  I was a newbie last year and they taught me technique and invited me on outdoor rock climbing trips.  I wish I had known about the climbing wall before my junior year!


Climbing wall at Taylor Gym, Lehigh University

Summer at Lehigh has been more than bike riding and rock climbing, it’s been researching at Mountaintop and studying for the GRE, aka the SAT on steroids.  For the potential students reading this, you may be too young to know if you want to go to graduate school yet, but by summer and autumn of your rising senior year, you will have to take this standardized test to apply to graduate schools.  Now don’t let this impede you from your grad school aspirations, what’s the big deal of studying for one more test in the grand scheme of things?  A nice perk of going to Lehigh for undergrad is that to be accepted into a Lehigh grad program, you don’t have to take the GRE.  Also, if you graduate with a 3.80 undergrad GPA, you could get your first year of Lehigh grad school free.

On the Mountaintop

As I sit typing this, I am on my lunch break in a giant renovated warehouse at the top of the Lehigh Mountain.  Indoor plants with purple flowers line the center walkway and juxtapose the gray cement floor and surrounding cinderblock walls.  Square workspaces formed by dozens of whiteboards containing doodles, brainstorming notes, and bubble letters frame the building’s perimeter, housing groups of creative students, some fastidious and some mellifluous, collaborating their crazy thoughts.  I am at the site of the Mountaintop Projects.


Mountaintop Project Site (Photocred: Dan Levy and Freddy the Quadcopter)

This umbrella program provides grants to research groups who want to explore some invention or theory they are passionate about, and up here all of the resources to promote thinking and creativity are provided.  I am in the “Low-Energy Sustainable Farming” group researching how to integrate the Lehigh Community Garden with the campus and make it more sustainable.  So far, there are two sides of the project: an environmental engineering side and an environmental studies side (perfect for IDEAS majors).  The environmental engineering side involves installing solar panels at the garden to offset the energy used by the water pump for watering the plants.  The environmental studies side, which surprisingly contains more challenging obstacles, involves working with Lehigh faculty and staff to devise a plan to keep the garden growing and thriving for the years to come.  We have to use our knowledge of sustainable gardening and its potential impact on the community to show the faculty and staff how much potential it has!  We are even looking into creating a business loop where students get paid to grow vegetables for the Lehigh dining services.  Being in the IDEAS program has helped me through this project because I’ve been trained to not only look at technical aspects of a project but the social, political, and ethical aspects as well, which are equally as important.  Here’s a picture of the thriving community garden, which is growing delicious broccoli, kale, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, zucchini, and much more as I type this!

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Lehigh Community Garden

Back in Bethlehem

I can’t believe I’m back.  I just spent four months in Freiburg, Germany in a study abroad program taking courses in environmental science and environmental studies for my IDEAS environmental engineering major.  While students were studying at Lehigh for spring semester, I was studying here:


I can absolutely say it feels weird to be home.  In Freiburg I biked for 15 minutes along a river to class everyday, as well as to the grocery store and out to eat and to the park and essentially everywhere imaginable.  Fresh bread was offered on every corner, produce was cheap, and scoops of ice cream went for a euro!  Now, back at Lehigh for summer, I am struggling to readjust, but making the best of it!  There’s a new grocery store in South Bethlehem called C-Town that has super cheap produce, and I found an old, under-loved bike in my friend’s backyard.  My ultimate goal is to get the bike working, attach a basket, and bike to the grocery store just like I did in Freiburg.  People in Germany are a lot more wary of their ecological footprint, and I want to bring the trend here as much as I can.

Has study abroad changed me? Absolutely.  On the weekends and for spring break I ended up traveling to Paris, Berlin, Salzburg, Vienna, Stuttgart, Diemeringen, Colmar, Alsace, the Swiss Alps, the Vosges Mountains, Budapest, Athens, and Santorini…all on a meager college student budget.  In each city I can recall an experience that will forever be a warm and fulfilling memory.  For instance, in Vienna I got to see the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (aka one of the best in the world) perform at a palace:


And in Stuttgart, I got to meet my third cousins for the first time and see the house my Oma grew up in and the church she was married in.

I feel the need to explain my experiences because I want whoever is reading this, be it a potential or current Lehigh student, to know that if you want to study abroad you can make it happen.  I’m in the IDEAS program and could therefore incorporate my classes abroad into my humanities and social sciences requirements.  I found an internship over winter break to save up for traveling, and then I was off.  Study abroad is very intimidating, but totally doable, and absolutely worth it.

Paths of a CivE: Part 3/Me

Part 3 is me. Anyway like students 1&2 am a CivE and I am hoping to be in the Co-op program as well but I have a different path cut out for myself. I will be here over the summer for summer courses. I have signed a lease on my first apartment. I have begun taking classes in Economics for my Economics minor (something I wouldn’t have ever thought of before Lehigh) and I am involved with EWB and its project class (more on that in a future post). I am currently in CHOICE housing. I hope to move back to Connecticut with either my Co-op position  or future entry level position. I also blog, obviously.

So anyway, come to Lehigh and you can do anything you want. There are endless paths and I don’t think I know any two stories exactly alike here.

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