New sustainable energy engineering school welcomes first student cohort

August 26, 2019

By Ariane Madden

Next week, the doors to Simon Fraser University’s newest Surrey campus building open to students as the institution launches a first-of-its-kind program set to play a role in British Columbia’s burgeoning cleantech industry.

SFU’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering (SEE) blends a strong fundamental and interdisciplinary engineering education in energy systems with elements of public policy, economics, management and entrepreneurship to prepare students to help build a more sustainable future.

The school launches just as B.C.—and Canada’s—cleantech and clean-energy sectors are growing at a rapid pace and there is strong public concern over climate change. It will eventually have capacity for up to 320 undergraduate students and 120 graduate students.    

“Students from SEE will graduate as globally minded professionals ready to provide technology-based solutions to the challenges we face from climate change,” says school director, Kevin Oldknow.

Students from both the undergraduate and graduate levels will be ready to work in high-demand industries such as renewable energy, sustainable manufacturing, clean transportation and sustainable food and water solutions.

In an effort to attract well-rounded future engineers, the faculty used a broad-based admissions approach that emphasizes extracurricular and community-focused activities in addition to strong academic performance. The goal is to develop technology innovators with the social and societal awareness that is required in an era of rapid technological and environmental change. 

The school also shows promise for helping to close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. More than 40 per cent of SEE’s first undergraduate cohort is female compared to 15–20 per cent of B.C.’s existing technology workforce.

For Oldknow, the high female enrolment in SEE represents a win for the discipline overall and is a milestone for the faculty as it continues efforts to increase diversity in STEM disciplines through various initiatives, including community outreach programs to remove barriers for female, Aboriginal, remote and at-risk youth.

“Doing our part to close the gender gap in engineering was a key objective when we developed SEE,” he says. “This is a promising start from which we will build as we work to ensure a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students in our programs.”

When classes begin this fall, SEE students will be the first to occupy a five storey, 15,000 square-metre building adjacent to SFU’s existing campus in Surrey’s Central City complex. The $126-million facility was funded with combined contributions of $90 million from the federal and provincial governments and has won several awards for its design and construction. It is also a LEED® Certification Candidate.

Welcoming the students will be a team of five faculty members with a wide array of industry, research and teaching experience. Their expertise will provide SEE students with a well-rounded, globally relevant education to prepare them to contribute to a sustainable future. More teaching and research faculty are expected to join SEE throughout the coming year.

The inaugural SEE faculty members are:

Kevin Oldknow, Director, School of Sustainable Energy Engineering

Kevin Oldknow is the school’s inaugural director and the outgoing associate dean of undergraduate studies in the Faculty of Applied Sciences. He was previously a senior lecturer in the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering, for which SFU honoured him with a 2018 Excellence in Teaching Award. Oldknow has over 20 years of experience in industry where he has worked on the development and application of cleantech solutions to transportation systems. Since joining SFU, Oldknow helped to develop the Technology Entrepreneurship@SFU and Mechatronic Product Realization programs—opportunities that help undergraduate and graduate students to put theory into practice and contribute to meaningful projects with real-life applications.

“SEE capitalizes on SFU’s strengths in sustainability research, community engagement and fostering sustainable thinking and practices. Our graduates will have the skills to address some of the most pressing problems facing society today and are certain to become leaders in B.C.’s cleantech industries. I’m proud to lead SFU’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering at such an important time for B.C. and the planet.”

Mehran Ahmadi, Lecturer, School of Sustainable Energy Engineering

Mehran Ahmadi joins SEE following a career as a building performance and sustainability engineer, where he ensured that new buildings in Vancouver are constructed in line with the city’s target to become the greenest in the world by 2020. Ahmadi has more than 10 years of industrial experience and has also taught several courses in engineering design, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics and heat transfer.

“This program is being offered at a very crucial point in history as Earth’s climate approaches a tipping point and SEE students will be part of the solution to address this global crisis. I look forward to working with a new group of students every year and having their exciting ideas and bright minds challenge my knowledge and limits in the field of sustainable energy engineering.”

Mahda Jahromi, Lecturer, School of Sustainable Energy Engineering

Mahda Jahromi is an expert in renewable energy systems and has worked at technical and executive levels in a variety of companies. Since 2016, he has taught electrical and mechanical engineering students at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). Jahromi is also a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and an executive member of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Division of Engineers and Geoscientists British Columbia (EGBC).

“To meet both our long-term energy demands and our climate challenges, we need to truly decarbonize our economy and transition to more sustainable and efficient energy systems. As an academic, I like to play a small role in this transition and what better role can one play than to educate younger generations. I think our new school is a learning hub for that same purpose and I’m very fortunate to be part of it.”

Vivian Neal, Lecturer, School of Sustainable Energy Engineering

Vivian Neal has served as an educational developer for more than 15 years in Canada, the United Kingdom and Kenya. She supports faculty to enhance their teaching practice with a focus on integrating the education of sustainable development into courses and programs. She most recently taught communication skills and professional practice in SFU’s School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering. For SEE, Neal will use experiential learning approaches to provide students with writing and presentation skills training.

“I am delighted to be part of this new and important program. SEE will provide undergraduate and graduate students with the leadership skills, technical knowledge and interdisciplinary acumen that is vital to the increasingly complex energy sector, both within Canada and internationally.”

Taco Niet, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice, School of Sustainable Energy Engineering

Taco Niet’s research focuses on energy-systems modelling and the system challenges related to sustainable development such as the integration of wind, solar and storage. He has taught mechanical engineering at BCIT since 2003 and contributes to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ (UN DESA) initiative to build energy modelling capabilities in emerging economies.

“The current transitions in the energy system, including the addition of variable renewables and the uptake of electric vehicles, is changing the way the system operates, making this an exciting field to be working in. I look forward to helping students see how energy-system interconnections impact their lives and those of others around the world.”