By Peter Murphy
Published May 13, 2021
Environmental engineer John D. Atkinson has been named the first Scott and Coleen Stevens Chair in Engineering Sustainability.
An associate professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, Atkinson serves as the graduate studies director of the engineering sustainability Masters’ degree program in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and is the director of the University’s most popular study abroad course, Costa Rica: Sustainability in Latin America, which he created in 2018.
As the Scott and Coleen Stevens Chair in Engineering Sustainability, Atkinson will focus on enhancing the educational program and growing engineering sustainability research. This includes the areas of sustainability fundamentals, renewable energy, economics, environmental quality and engineering practice, ethics, and manufacturing.
“The Stevens’ gift allows us to take our already strong engineering programs to the next level and elevate to a place where we’re doing more than educating,” Atkinson says. “A gift of this magnitude has the ability to change the way we educate engineers - we’re impacting the students, we’re impacting the communities we live and work in, and we’re impacting the world more broadly.”
Atkinson adds that this chair position will help increase the engineering sustainability offerings available to engineering students and researchers at UB as well as provide more opportunities to work with communities to enhance sustainability.
“During my first year teaching Sustainability at UB, it was obvious that students wanted more. Students have their finger on the pulse better than any of us, and they know that this isn’t just something; this is everything,” Atkinson says. “That really motivated me. Sustainability’s not just a class I teach or something that feeds research papers. It’s everything, because it needs to be. I live it now.”
Sustainability became a focal point for Atkinson’s research dating back to his time as an undergraduate student. He studied chemistry and wanted to incorporate his work into something with more tangible impacts. He switched to engineering and applied chemistry as a graduate student and developed an interest in making materials that prevent the release of air pollution.
He has continued working with materials at UB, and along with collaborators, has started to work in the areas of waste management, waste-to-energy and recycling. These projects have allowed Atkinson to collaborate with regulators and businesses to have immediate impact.
He has been recognized by the University at Buffalo as an Experiential Learning Faculty Fellow and Best Undergraduate Mentor, and by the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as an Early Career Teacher of the Year.
In addition to his own research interests, seeing his students’ reaction to learning about sustainability had a significant impact on Atkinson.
“We need to expose students to diversity. We need to expose them to people, students, faculty, countries and languages different from what they see and think about every single day.” Atkinson says. “That’s how we’re going to fix these global-scale problems that are literally eating away at the planet, and I am excited to lead that charge.”
“The timing of this gift is perfect, as we are seeing societal needs increasing in this area, reflected by strong growth in the engineering sustainability program,” says Joseph Atkinson, professor and chair of the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. “This named chair is a significant event for our department and provides a real ‘shot in the arm’ for growing research in engineering sustainability. “
In addition to the endowed chair, Scott and Coleen’s generosity has made a material difference to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In Bonner Hall, undergraduates gather in the Stevens Center, a multimedia-equipped collaborative meeting space. In front of Davis Hall, the school community can sit in the Scott and Coleen Stevens Courtyard to gather and enjoy the outdoors.
“I am deeply grateful for Scott and Coleen, for their vision and commitment to further develop sustained excellence in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Their gift and legacy will continue to solidify our status at UB as one of the top research institutions in the country,” says Kemper Lewis, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The Stevens’ hope that through their support for UB, new graduates will enjoy the kind of success they’ve had. “We feel a great sense of gratitude to the university because our educations there made such a huge difference in our lives,” Coleen Stevens says.
Through their generosity, Atkinson, as the Scott and Coleen Stevens Chair in Engineering Sustainability, will ignite ideas that could make an outsized difference to the planet one day, the largest gift anyone can give.
Learn more about donors Scott and Coleen Stevens.
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