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Department Debates

2019 Debate

Tuesday, April 9th
6:00 - 8:00 PM
Location Tech LR3

2019 Topic:

Plastic waste is creating an environmental nightmare. Each year, approximately 18 billion pounds of plastic waste gets dumped into the ocean from coastal regions, and less than a fifth of all plastic is recycled. To increase public awareness and action, the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering is hosting a debate regarding the regulation of plastics and the role in environmental pollution in connection with One Book One Northwestern centered on the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. The book takes place in an environmental dystopia in which pollution has caused plummeting fertility rates. The Chemical Engineering department debate will focus particularly on the recent role of plastics in our society and the repercussions we will face in the future without regulation. Two teams composed of ChBE faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students will participate in a formal debate on this topic.

The Genesis of the Debates

Real engineering problems are rarely black and white. This is particularly true when problems are placed on the canvas of societal, economical, ethical, environmental, and political considerations. There are, however, few (if any) places in the standard undergraduate curriculum to discuss and debate complex interconnected issues, exploring the pros and cons of various positions.

With that in mind, in 1997, the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern University initiated a novel activity designed to achieve several differing goals. It is known as our annual Chemical and Biological Engineering Debates.

The idea for the debate program grew out of the following issues connected with our undergraduate program:

  • A need for significant discussion of chemical engineering issues in the context of societal, environmental, and political constraints.
  • A desire for informal faculty/graduate student/undergraduate interactions.
  • A need for intellectual discussion amoung students and faculty members on issues outside of the classroom or curricular issues.
  • A need to counter-balance the ever-increasing tendency for faculty members and students to narrow their focus to issues of immediate professional and/or academic interests.

Another concern, perhaps less prominent at the time, was the desire to take some steps to focus attention on awareness of broad societal issues and on the importance of lifelong learning among our students, as mandated in the then up coming ABET EC 2000 expectations.

Learn more about our departmental debates by reading J.M. Ottino & J.S. Dranoff's "Chemical Engineering Debates," Chemical Engineering education 2000, 362–365.