All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for February 2016

Logical fallacies and the environment: the straw man

with 2 comments


In the strawman fallacy one side of the argument is presented as so extreme that no one could agree with it. Often this is done by referring to the exception, rather than the rule, and inferring that the exception is the rule.

Typical strawman-type statements include:
• We either leave right now or we’ll be stuck forever
• All PETA supporters endorse the bombing of animal laboratories
• You believe in evolution? Have you ever seen a chimp give birth to a human baby?

Many common strawman fallacies in environmental discourse center on climate change. For instance, consider the following, heard on the campaign trail: “We could reduce carbon emissions in Canada to fight climate change, but that would mean that no-one would be able to drive their car nor heat their homes. I don’t think that’s what Canadians want.”

Another strawman example from the environmental debate is illustrated in the diagram below. Some people oppose sustainability initiatives (such as the non-binding agreement UN Agenda 21, referred in this diagram as A21). They build a strawman of world domination (what environmentalists are really after, supposedly) so as to make their opposition sound more reasonable. But nobody who is a serious proponent of sustainability is advocating Marxist-like government control (they may be advocating for a carbon tax or a reform of the building code instead).


In her website about fallacies, Rosa Rubicondior says it best:

Look beyond the straw man to the motives of those who assiduously create them and what do we see? We see people who know they need to create straw men to attack in the first place. What we don’t see are people who have seriously looked at the science itself and made an effort to understand it, and who may be genuinely puzzled by it or genuinely mistaken about it.

Note: As instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions.  Previous posts in the series: either-or; ad hominem.



Written by enviropaul

February 28, 2016 at 6:07 pm

My old UBC shirt

with 2 comments


My old, old shirt. You can still read “Bio-Resource Engineering, UBC. ERTW.”

I have a golf shirt from my UBC grad student days, one that the bio-resource engineering students designed for their class. This was well over twenty years ago – the program long since defunct – but I keep wearing the shirt.

But surprisingly, the shirt is still in fine shape, and that is the intriguing part. I must have washed this shirt 200 times. Some t-shirts I have worn for fewer years are thread-bare, worn-out with holes.

The worn-out shirts, it turns out, are made of cotton, and only cotton. My UBC shirt, by contrast, is a fifty-fifty blend of cotton and polyester.

Polyester? Yuck! The synthetic material has a bad reputation: it’s made with toxic oil products, it’s energy intensive to make, it doesn’t breathe, and it’s all-around uncool.

Could it be that that reputation is unwarranted? Clearly, a pure polyester fabric is not comfortable, and doesn’t breathe well. But used in a blend, it’s brilliant.  It gives clothes a longer life; so though it does take more energy to make polyester than cotton, if the garment is going to last much longer, things balance out.

But does making polyester take that much energy? It takes about 125 megajoules of energy to synthetize one kilogram of polyester fibres. It only takes 14 to make a kilo of organic cotton, and about the same for hemp and flax (linen). Wool is a bit more energy intensive, at 63. But if you’re going to use ordinary cotton, as opposed to organic, then you need about 55 MJ/kg (all those pesticides make a big difference!). And if your polyester fibre is made from recycled plastic (the common end use of all these recycled water and pop bottles, made from PET, which is another name for polyester), then you’re saving half the energy cost (66 MJ/kg).

The New Scientist magazine fielded a question as to why we consider cotton more comfortable. J. Robert Wagner answered that

Cotton is comfortable as it has a high amount of moisture regain, generally about 7 to 7.5 per cent. Moisture regain is the amount of moisture that the fibre will absorb, expressed as a percentage, starting from a bone dry condition when placed in an atmosphere of standard temperature and humidity. This means cotton can absorb our body moisture and give us the sensation of being cool. In contrast, polyester, a synthetic that many fabrics are made from today, only has a moisture regain of 0.4 per cent and will feel hot, sticky and clammy, especially when the humidity is rather high.

That is true in general – but then moist cotton gets heavy. Long-distance runners have long ditched pure cotton for synthetic blends. Still, if you’re not going to be sweating in it for a long time, cotton feels nicer.

But cotton’s ability to wick moisture is also its undoing when it comes to drying. A cotton/synthetic blend dries faster. This adds up if you count how many drier loads a typical family needs in a year; there are considerable energy savings to be made just in the choice of fabric. (This is something that travelers know well – shirts and underwear made with blends dry in your hotel room quickly, so you can pack light. Travel stores sell light ropes made of a bungee-like material, because backpackers use them to dry their clothes.)

Answering the same question in the New Scientist section, Brian Bennett noted that cotton has less abrasion resistance than synthetics, and therefore doesn’t last as long. He added:

Cotton’s advantage in absorbing water is also a disadvantage, in that more energy is required to dry it. While this may not be a problem in the summer, when garments can be dried outside, during the winter the extra heat required is significant. Making synthetic yarns is clearly an energy-intensive business. However, this energy may be less than the extra energy required to dry cotton, taken over the lifetime of the garment. Clearly this additional and hidden energy use should be considered when clothes are designed. Unfortunately, it is frequently overlooked by manufacturers, who go for the easiest option, with long-term implications for the climate.

Uh, Mountain Equipment Co-op, the 100% cotton shirt I bought in your store is already starting to fray, five years later. Kudos for using organic cotton – but could you maybe look into adding a bit of polyester to your fabric? It would actually be more, not less, environmentally friendly.

Written by enviropaul

February 28, 2016 at 9:57 am

Hamburg’s logistics university

leave a comment »

KLU's campus in HafenCity

KLU’s campus in HafenCity

I had never heard of Kühne Logistics University until a chance encounter with someone who’s a prof there, Dr Sandra Transchel, who kindly offered to give me a tour of the campus. KLU is a small private university with a remarkable history – and a Vancouver connection.

How the university got it start is interesting. It resulted from an initiative of a shipping and transportation magnate, Klaus-Michael Kühne. This is an instance of a long standing tradition in Hamburg, that of merchant capitalists endowing their city. Kühne has devoted part of his fortune to funding local medical research, as well as humanitarian and cultural projects (the company is the main sponsor behind Hamburg’s celebrated Harbourfront Literature Festival).

But as one of the owners of the multinational shipping and logistics company Kühne-Nagel, he felt that the intricacies of global logistics were poorly understood by business graduates and ignored by the local universities. He decided to remedy the situation; this led to the creation, in 2010, of Kühne Logistics University.

The foundation Kühne set up for this purpose had to jump through the many hoops of the German bureaucracy in order to be recognized and accredited. This meant meeting the standards for breadth of education for its bachelors and masters programs. So the final product is a general business management education, coupled with a focus on logistics. It finally cleared its five-year review period, which led to this announcement:

After examination by the German Council of Science, the Senate of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg has decided to grant perpetual state recognition to the private university. With the recognition, the Hamburg Senate confirmed the university’s adequate scientific vision, its convincing international orientation of all courses, its excellent numeric ratio of professors to students as well as its impressive research achievements and high-ranking publications.

How does that translate on the ground? Well, the international focus is certainly there, and all courses are taught in English. By coincidence, a few days later I encountered students excitedly chatting in English on a train. A group of international KLU students, they were on their way to a community project. This group was made up of students from Finland, Mexico and Columbia, and they had only praise for the program. They were exchange students from a few of the 65 KLU partner universities across the world. KLU’s own students also have to complete a semester abroad at one of the partner institutions; it’s not a matter of choice as international experience is considered an essential part of their education.

Dr Sandra Transchel

Dr Sandra Transchel

From a scholarly standpoint, the institution is certainly no slouch. Sandra told me that KLU ranks 3rd in Germany for its research per faculty. As I looked through a list of the research projects, I noticed a number of them that had a strong sustainability component. For instance, among the specialization areas are green transport and shipping, and sustainable logistics. What is found behind these labels are such things as accounting for carbon footprint of shipping, waste minimization, or fair trade supply chains. Some of the faculty’s publications have titles like Supply Chain in Humanitarian Operations; Efficient Waste Management in Construction Logistics; Carbon Impacts of Online Retailing; Climate Change Adaptations for Seaports. Very cool stuff.

Later I met with Alan McKinnon, who specializes in sustainable logistics. I asked him how such topics are integrated into the university’s curriculum. He said that he mostly uses cases studies at the bachelor’s level, but Master’s students all have to work on large group projects on sustainable logistics projects such as city logistics (how deliveries go around and what is their carbon footprint), slow steaming (ships reducing speed to 18 knots from 23, reducing fuel use – but at the expense of longer time at sea). Some students also participate in faculty research.

Dr Alan McKinnon

Dr Alan McKinnon

The strategy followed by the school was to establish credibility through top-notch research. Each faculty member is given 20,000€ earmarked for their research. As well, they receive a bonus for publishing in top-listed journals. Of course, outside funds from scientific agencies are available, as well. McKinnon mentioned to me that much logistics research is relatively cheap – all you need is a computer, access to databases, and time. However, the stakes are high, and substantial funding is available; the EU has created a six trillion Euro research fund for transportation research. Private sponsors also pony up substantial sums, and there is no perception of taint or bias for accepting such grants. For instance, at KLU Procter&Gamble funds two PhD students; Kühne-Nagel and Unilever have provided a grant for transport decarbonization studies.

I asked both Sandra and Alan what it was like working for a small private university. Sandra had shown me the campus; from her fourth floor window, we had a commanding view of the harbour and of the new HafenCity development. The university is located in a brand-new building that was originally designed for offices, and the architect had to be creative to accommodate the need for classrooms. But the building, using super energy-efficient technology, is very comfortable: there is a lot of natural light, and the high-tech ventilation system ensures that the air is never stale. And being in HafenCity has its perks: across from downtown, well served by transit, the showcase development is lively and fun. Hamburg made sure to control rents so that families could find housing, to avoid the worse of the gentrification pitfalls. The location of KLU is part of the attraction for students and staff, clearly.

Aerial view of Hafen City, Hamburg

Aerial view of Hafen City, Hamburg

Sandra has some reservations. Clearly, the pressure to produce top-flight research is taxing, especially when coupled with administrative duties. Sandra told me she wishes she had more time to liaise with local companies. This would lead to practical research projects and practicums for her students, or to fostering partnerships with industry. She agreed with me that this would further improve her students’ experience, but since these activities do not generate academic research they are often set aside. Still, she has no regrets about her move to KLU. She used to work at Penn State, a giant university, so she appreciates the advantages of a small university: less bureaucracy, more flexibility, small classes (35 students at most), even if that comes with the dual pressure of academic research and student recruitment.

Alan told me much the same, though he is at different step in his career; semi-retired, he juggles his classes here with some research at a university in Glasgow. A native Scot, Alan did his master’s at UBC, in business, specializing in logistics. This was a long time ago; Alan said he doesn’t know why UBC abandomed logistics as a field of study, especially given that like Hamburg, Vancouver is an import-export centre, based on the largest port on the Pacific coast of North America.

None of KLU’s partner universities are in Canada. Small classes, more nimble than traditional universities, a strong business program…that also describes Kwantlen. A few years ago, we (some science and business faculty) made a half-hearted attempt at creating a transportation and logistics major for Kwantlen. If we ever were to revive the idea, we could have a natural partner in KLU.

Written by enviropaul

February 26, 2016 at 5:05 pm

Logical fallacies and the environment: either-or

with one comment

eitherAs instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. This week: the either-or fallacy (aka false dilemma or false dichotomy).

“Either you’re with us, or you’re against us!” – a basic battle cry that relies on loyalty, leaving no room for neutrality. But often the logic underlying this is faulty.

Here’s a most absurd example:
Decide: 1 + 1 = 4, or 1 + 1 = 3. We all know that one plus one cannot equal four. So the answer has to be one plus one equal three. What causes the fallacy is limiting the choices; an option of selecting “1+1=2” would have been nice…

This is commonly seen in environmental debates. For instance, Matthew Chapman recounts a situation in New York where two neighbourhoods are pitted against one another as the city is deciding where to put a new garbage processing facility.

Mr E and Ms K from Brooklyn are outraged because they are afraid their kids’ health is being damaged by too many garbage trucks driving through their neighborhoods. They have every reason to be afraid and outraged. [But] people next to the 91st Street garbage site believe the health of their children will be damaged by the new proposed dump, and their fear and their outrage is equally genuine and justified.

And we’ve all been scammed. We’ve all been sold a “logical fallacy”. EITHER E and K in Brooklyn get what they want OR the residents of Yorkville get what they want. EITHER pollution is reduced in one neighborhood OR it is reduced in another. Nobody deserves to live in close proximity to garbage. Nobody deserves to have their kids’ lungs baked with diesel fumes or, even worse, to see them get run down by garbage trucks. Nobody needs to be involved in such a choice or have to fight about it. In a city this rich, why are we even contemplating the idea that only one of us deserves protection?!

In fact, what should have been part of the debate, to avoid the either-or trap, is a discussion whether other sites could be considered (in industrial zones, for instance), or whether an effective recycling program would alleviate the need for a facility altogether. But such false-dilemma approaches are often part of a divide-and-conquer tactic. Pipeline politics (either it runs through your neighbourhood, or theirs) are a common instance; choices for transporting oil (either it’s a pipeline, or it’s by train) is another. (To say nothing of “either you agree with having the pipeline go through, or you’re a traitor to Canada.)

Sometimes the either-or logic does hold, however; consider the following
• The maximum allowable level of nitrate in drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter
• This sample of tap water has a nitrate level of 15 milligrams per litre
• Therefore, the tap water is above the allowable level
This is true because there is a clear defining line: the situation has only one characteristic under consideration (the nitrate level) and there is a single criteria for decision (below or above 10 mg/l). But it does not automatically follow that the tap water in this case is polluted – this would need a careful definition of pollution. For instance, if the nitrate levels are naturally high, the water may be above the drinking limit without being polluted, if pollution is defined as a contamination from human activities.

A few more examples to ponder:
• If you’re in favour of the bike path, you’re anti-cars!
• If you’re pro-logging, you’re against the environment.
• You can protect the environment, or you can protect employment, but you can’t do both.
• You give money to animal charities? You must hate people!
• You’re making a speech against the oil industry, but you took a plane to the conference. How hypocritical!

Two key problems with either-or is that it promotes black or white thinking, leaving no room for nuance or shades of grey; and it closes the door to unexamined alternatives.
As an aside: I must have been mulling these concepts for a while. While doing a google search (either or fallacy environmental), I found an old post of mine I wrote five years ago, Harvey Enchin is a big fat moron. Here’s an excerpt:

Either-or fallacy: this one has been dogging the environmental movement ever since its birth, so that it has become a cliché: either you are for the environment, or you are for the economy (and jobs). At times it has pitted trade unions against enviros, as during the War in the Woods in the 1980s Clayoquot sound in BC. Other times it has been repeated as a rationale for pushing destructive projects, in a loggers-versus-owls fashion: loggers need to make a living, so damn the owls. The reality, of course, has always been far more complex; a careful reading of the events during the War in the Woods era, for instance, shows that enviros were pushing against the logging of old growth areas, true, but also for processing raw logs in BC instead of exporting them, so as to create more forestry jobs. Developing ecotourism and protecting fish habitat (to save fishing jobs) was also prominent in their argument, to say nothing of sustainable forestry a la Merve Wilkinson. Again the corporate interests have been successful at framing the issue, much to the expense of BC’s environment – AND economy.

Not just an either-or, but I can't resist Dilbert

Not just an either-or, but I can’t resist Dilbert

Written by enviropaul

February 22, 2016 at 10:01 am

Logical fallacies and the environment: Ad Hominem

with one comment

As instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions.

This week: the oh-so-common ad hominem attacks.

heartlandbillboardAs a logical fallacy, an ad hominem point is simple: distract from the proposition by focussing on the source. It is a successful tactic when the listener, convinced that the source is not trustworthy, ignores the content. It may be one of the most common tactics used in divisive debates. The billboard above (which quickly became an embarassment to its sponsor, the Heartland Institute), for instance, implies that since the Unabomber believes in global warming, anyone else who does must be equally bad and untrustworthy.

A common error is to assume that something is wrong because of who said it. “What else would you expect from David Suzuki/the Fraser Institute/Al Gore/Ezra Levant, etc”. This has a lot to do with how we filter information based on the source, because we ascribe a motive to the source.

Suzuki and Al Gore: hypocrites?

Suzuki and Al Gore: hypocrites?

People used to look at comments from Andrew Weaver differently from now. Weaver, then a climatologist from the University of Victoria, was on the IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change) and, as Nobelist, was often called upon to comment on climate. His views were taken as that of a scientist. But a different perception applies to his comments now that he is a political leader (of BC’s Green Party). It is harder to take a politician’s statement at face value because we have a tendency to look for the unsaid political strategy.

A few years ago I asked students to analyze public comments on a CBC new release from the David Suzuki organisation (about the “dirty dozen” toxics common in consumer goods). Suzuki is a polarizing figure and a good half of the comments were ad hominem attacks. Here’s what Suzuki himself had to say about ad hominems:

From government scientists to First Nations citizens and environmentalists, pretty much everyone working to protect the air, water, land and diversity of plants and animals that keep us alive and healthy has felt the sting of attacks from sources in government, media and beyond. Much of the media spin is particularly absurd, relying on ad hominem attacks (focusing on perceived character flaws to deflect attention from or invalidate arguments) that paint people who care about the world as greedy conspirators bent on personal enrichment or even world domination!

But Suzuki has himself been charged with using ad hominems; for instance, here’s an excerpt from economics professor Cornelis van Kooten:

Suzuki employs another familiar tactic, namely, ad hominem attacks on scientists. Suzuki and others like him are unable to refute the scientific arguments made by serious scientists, such as Roy Spencer, Ross McKitrick and others, so they attack their beliefs and associations. Clearly, the scientific findings of such folks cannot be trusted according to Suzuki; by appealing to his readers’ emotions and prejudices rather than their ability to think, Suzuki is telling the reader he considers them incompetent to judge scientific matters.

What nonsense! Ideologues such as David Suzuki have likely never read the scientific case made in numerous peer-reviewed articles by McKitrick, Spencer and others whom he labels ‘deniers.’ Yet, these few scientists have almost single handedly wreaked havoc on the well-funded science underlying the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.

How is one to tell claims apart, in this context? Good information is key, but few of us have time to do the full research on any specific piece of news. This is where trust in a given source becomes important. Unfortunately, unexamined trust may lead to a simplistic “with us or against us” black and white view of the world; emotions and loyalties then supersede logic.

But there are clues in the above excerpt by van Kooten that help to determine trustworthiness. Most readers may not have heard of McKitrick or Spencer. A quick search may show their work, as well as commentary on their work. Since the common public is, by definition, not a specialist, it is the latter that may be more useful. Some organisations (Skeptical Science, DeSmogBlog, for instance) track environmental claims and scientists and assess their credibility. The two sites named here are credible (unless you are into conspiracy theories, which imply that everyone lies and that no source could ever be trusted).

For the record: the claims of McKitrick and Spencer have been thoroughly debunked. But also, the last sentence of the excerpt from van Kooten holds another clue: the statement “the well-funded science underlying the IPCC”. This is inserted as an attempt to besmirch and sow doubt, by implying that the panelists are in it for the funding, not for the science. But this veers into conspiracy theory territory: it means that scientists across the world, working in governments as well as universities and independent research centers, are all in on the lie. This is highly improbable, to quote Star Trek’s Spock. May-6-2013-Hitler

Written by enviropaul

February 15, 2016 at 3:28 pm

The new green buildings of Vancouver

leave a comment »

First Place Residence at First Avenue and Quebec

First Place Residence at First Avenue and Quebec

I’ve been blogging so much about the energy-efficient buildings of Hamburg, I may have given the impression that there is little of comparable interest in Vancouver.

That is not so. Here are a few examples of performing buildings, from a nifty site that provides audio descriptions (the Green Buildings Audio Tours, here).

For instance, Salt, a 31 story appartment tower in downtown Vancouver (1308 Hornby), has a green roof and collects all runoff from balconies into a cistern. This greatly reduces peak flows that the building would otherwise load into the storm drains. Energy efficiency gains have been made throughout the structure, from occupancy sensors to appliances to a heat recovery system. The smaller Prelude building on Cambie near the Langara skytrain station likewise uses a green roof and other rainfall capture techniques, as well as a variety of energy efficient techniques. The Crossroads building (Cambie and Broadway) includes, among other features, a system that recovers heat from the refrigeration units in the ground floor grocery store. Smart.

Some of the public buildings are pretty performant, too. The Sunset community centre collects runoff from the entire roof, and has a retention pond and runoff control system that saves water for site irrigation and toilet flushing; meanwhile, its soft-surface parking and bioswales enhance infiltration. It uses geothermal heating and has high efficiency glazing that reduces heat loss. Likewise, the Mount Pleasant community centre has a geothermal-heated building with a well insulated envelope, an earth duct for fresh air, and a stack effect from its high atrium. And of course the Olympic village facilities are groundbreaking.

It’s not all just Vancouver, either. In Surrey, the new Centre of Newton Phase II building is a LEED Platinum office and retail building with many interesting features. It uses heat pumps for heating and cooling, as well as for water heating, and has a well insulated envelope, which, in combination with energy efficient lighting, means that it uses between a third and two thirds less energy than a standard building of comparable size. A fairly unique feature is the tenancy agreement which requires the occupants to make full use of the energy conservation features. I’m impressed by the measurements and verification protocols, which monitor the energy efficiency of the 4500 square meter, four story building located in Surrey at 7327 137th street.

But maybe what is most notable among the Vancouver buildings are the ones developed for social housing. For instance, First Place Residence, a ten story building on the corner of First and Quebec, has both a 450 m2 green roof and a 56 m2 hot water solar array. It has been built with energy efficiency as its goal (it is connect to the neighbourhood utility and does not need natural gas), as well as durability and simple maintenance needs. It also features a vegetable and herb garden accessible by the residents and community kitchens.

This building is fairly typical of many of the newer social housing buildings, which are numerous; the website lists the Kettle Society, Sanford, Station Street, Kwayatsut, Karis Place, Alexander Street, Budzey, Marguerite Ford, McLaren Housing, and Sorella, among others. Many of these projects aim for LEED Gold certification, and are transit oriented. They also maximize the use of natural light and use energy efficient lighting features.

Construction materials are non-toxic and durable, recycled contect is used as possible, and waste production during construction is minimized. Water saving features are used throughout. B.C. Housing’s High Performance Green House Gas Strategy mandates these buildings to achieve high energy efficiency, with a maximum of 10% end use energy coming from fossil fuels.

Is it sufficient? Many of these requirements are not as stringent as Europe’s new criteria, such as the German EnEV specifications. Nevertheless, Vancouver has set out some ambitious goals for its Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, including that all buildings built after 2020 will need to be greenhouse gas neutral in their operation. This is pretty remarkable.

Written by enviropaul

February 14, 2016 at 7:06 pm

Duales studium: co-op education on steroids

leave a comment »

Get a job; your boss pays for your studies

Get a job; your boss pays for your studies

One of the more curious new styles of university education I saw in Germany is Duales Studium, (literally double learning, it is often translated as co-op education there). I mentioned this system in a previous post; time for some details, because it is a really interesting approach.

In Canada we are familiar with co-op studies, the kind pioneered by Waterloo University. The basic principle is that, every third semester, students get placed with an employer in their field of studies. It’s as if the university helps the student find a summer job, except that these jobs have been vetted beforehand to ensure that there are relevant to the program of studies. The other difference is that the work terms are scheduled around the year, not just in summer. This way students develop practical skills that reinforces what they learn in school. (They also develop a great network of professional contacts that way; this is one of the reasons why students in my own program, Environmental Protection at Kwantlen, are pretty successful at finding jobs once they graduate.)

The German Duales Studium is similar in the sense that students alternate between paid work terms and academic studies. But there is one key difference, and it is important: students select their university through their potential employer. They stay with this employer for the duration of their program, and are guaranteed a position once they graduate.

For instance, Sören, a bright young man from Hamburg, has always been interested in engineering and cars, so he settled on mechatronics for a field of studies. He looked around Germany for suitable programs, and found that the Duales Studium program at DH Baden-Württemberg, a university in Stuttgart, with a partnership with Porsche, was to his liking. But instead of applying to the university directly and hoping for a placement at Porsche – which is how our own co-op programs work – he applied directly to Porsche. Here’s how the website describes the process:

In order to be enrolled in any of the study programmes offered by the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University, prospective students first need to apply for a traineeship at any of our partner companies or any approved or otherwise suitable workplace training provider. Enrollment at the university is only possible after a training contract with a workplace training provider has been signed.

He was successful (impressive, that!). Now this will facilitate his planning: he knows he will have an income throughout his studies, and that there is a job waiting for him at the end. The income and certainty means that finding an apartment in a new city and supporting himself is not the gamble that it can be for some students.

Nordakademie (Elbe campus)

Nordakademie (Elbe campus)

Sabrina is another student who opted for Duales Studium, studying business at Nordakademie in Hamburg. She is entering her third year and has just returned from an exchange semester with a partner university in Australia. She found Australia fabulous, of course, but was disappointed with her classes there: a bit too conventional and academic, lacking in practical applications scenarios. This illustrates another aspect of Duales Studium that is important: the curriculum must meet the expectations of the employer. The employer does not dictate what students learn, of course, but nonetheless put a premium on relevant knowledge and skills. This provides a nice check on the tendency of universities to veer towards academic fine points of little relevance.

Could such a system work in Canada? I don’t know. Germany has a lot of manufacturing industry, sure. But Canada still has many jobs for young graduates, and Canadian companies have a stake in recruiting promising employees just as much as their German counterparts.

But it’s not as if it’s a long established tradition in Germany, either. The first career colleges (Berufsakademien) date from 1974, but the concept of true Duales Studium, where students apply to their studies via a potential employer, is quite recent. The program in DH Baden-Württemberg , for instance, dates only from 2009. This system has proven very flexible in meeting workplace needs for well-trained personnel, whether in technical, engineering, or business applications; unsurprisingly, this approach has led to the creation of a whole array of new private universities, all focussed on workplace training. Being private, they collect tuition. But under the Duales Studium system, it is the employers who pay the students tuition; after all the school is providing the training system for them. But this is not just narrow training; since these universities needed government accreditation, they must offer a true education, covering a breadth of topics. It is hard to see a downside for students. Traditional universities may argue that these new players are taking the cream of the crop; but these offerings are few in numbers and there is ample room for diversity in the system. If anything, it is the traditional technical colleges (such as HAW) that may lose the best students.

Details can be found here, here, or here (in German). I particularly like this search engine site here: students look for a company first, and only then look for a partner university. Completely the opposite of what students do here. Something to consider, anyways. (I like to imagine the development of a well trained work force of environmental engineers and technicians pioneering this system in Canada…am I a dreamer?)

Written by enviropaul

February 10, 2016 at 1:02 pm