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Navigating the complexities of environmental engineering: lithium mining in the Atacama Desert

Each year, our environmental engineering students engage in an interdisciplinary project on the social and environmental impacts of lithium mining in Chile.

Addressing a current world challenge

Lithium mining, crucial for producing batteries in electronic and electric vehicle industries, presents real and significant environmental and societal challenges. Every year, we set our students a group project to investigate the complexities of these challenges and find solutions. During the project, all students take on roles as various stakeholders in the lithium mining industry, including local communities, NGOs, governments, and mining companies.

We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels... this is where lithium is important because it's a key component in the batteries. - Emma Emanuelsson Patterson, Senior Lecturer, Department of Chemical Engineering

Learning through diverse perspectives

MSc Environmental Engineering student Aruomah Emmanuel in discussion with his team in Lithium mining project
Students from varied disciplines are brought together for this project where they take on stakeholder roles to address the problem from diverse perspectives.

The project brings together students from different disciplines across the university including chemical engineering, social policy, and management. Working together like this mirrors the collaboration needed to find solutions to multifaceted environmental issues. Each student takes on a stakeholder role to better understand through experience the diverse perspectives involved in managing a problem like lithium mining.

I’m able to humanise the whole process... There's actually an emotional effect going on which needs to be considered. – Anna Tassie, MSc Environmental Engineering, project role: local community representative

In the process, one of the main challenges that the students face is finding solutions that satisfy the diverse needs and interests of all stakeholders. They have to quickly absorb and analyse complex information about lithium mining, including its technical, environmental, and social aspects.

We got to hear from people from different fields, got to negotiate, and converse. So, it was more of an educated experience and I would say it’s a good one. - Aruomah Emmanuel, MSc Environmental Engineering, project role: NGO representative

Developing skills and awareness with a global mindset

By recreating how this challenge would be tackled in the real world, the students hone their skills in negotiation, teamwork and communication. They learn to advocate for their assigned stakeholder’s interests, sometimes in contrast to their personal beliefs, while discovering the necessity of international cooperation in addressing environmental issues. Through communicating across disciplines and cultures, students gain a real appreciation of different perspectives in solving complex problems.

It contributes to my personal attributes because I would use this later in the future to know that... no matter how the issue is, we just come together, address it and find a better path. - Aruomah Emmanuel, MSc Environmental Engineering, project role: NGO representative

Preparing future environmental leaders

Image of MSc Environmental Engineering student Anna Tassie
Through this multidisciplinary project, students develop skills needed to lead on sustainable solutions in the future.

By challenging students to solve real and complex world problems through multidisciplinary learning, the project aims to prepare students for life after university. It empowers them to develop the skills, understanding and perspectives necessary to lead on sustainable solutions. It not only educates about the environmental impacts of lithium mining but also helps equip a generation of engineers committed to environmental conservation and sustainable development.

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