Professor Susan Nesbit retires after 22 years at UBC Civil Engineering

After 22 years of service to the Civil Engineering Department at UBC, professor Susan Nesbit retired in January this year.

During her time in the Department, Professor Nesbit’s knowledge and passion for sustainability in engineering practice strongly influenced the way the Department’s Civil Engineering program is conceptualized and delivered. She became known across UBC’s campus and beyond as someone with significant experience in translating sustainability research into course curricula.

Starting in the early 2000’s, while sustainability in engineering was viewed as a fringe subject, Dr. Nesbit developed and taught numerous sustainability-focused courses, at all levels and including several core courses in UBC Civil Engineering’s undergraduate program. Most recently, she was instrumental in establishing UBC’s new four-year undergraduate Environmental Engineering degree (ENVL), which launched in fall 2020.

Dr. Nesbit selected as one of six inaugural UBC Sustainability Fellows in 2010

Throughout her career, Prof. Nesbit has studied sustainable development and strived to align her teaching practice with research results from studies of university-level education for sustainability. She has been active in the international Engineering Education for Sustainable Development community, co-chairing their biannual conference in 2015, which took place at UBC. She has also been among a small number of UBC Applied Science professors who have published papers in peer-reviewed engineering education journals.

“Looking back at my career makes me feel grateful for my colleagues and friends from across the UBC campus and especially from within the Civil Engineering Department. How fortunate am I to have worked in an arena where all of us value education and, on a personal basis, all of us strive to continually learn and improve,” she says.

Prof. Nesbit graduated from UBC with a degree in Post-Confederation Canadian History in 1981. After time spent working as a salmon gillnet fisher, she decided to return to school to earn a degree in Chemical Engineering. She then worked in the pulp and paper sector for two years, before returning to school to obtain her doctoral degree in Chemical Engineering.

Always interested in environmentalism, it was during her doctoral studies that she became involved with the Sustainability Committee of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (now EGBC), which ignited her passion for sustainability education. In 2000, she became the Civil Engineering Department’s first tenure-track instructor.

Dr. Nesbit with students in 2019

Since then, Dr. Nesbit’s wholistic approach to sustainability education has influenced sustainability teaching at UBC, particularly within Civil Engineering programs.

From 2006 to 2012, an integral component of Dr. Nesbit’s teaching practice was community-based learning (CBEL), which introduced sustainable complexity to engineering students. Over 130 projects were completed by her students, who partnered with community organizations located in Vancouver’s downtown eastside and elsewhere in the Greater Vancouver region. During this period, she was also one of UBC’s inaugural sustainability teaching fellows and, as such, co-developed UBC’s Graduating Student Sustainability Attributes. She subsequently advised the UBC Sustainability Initiative’s teaching and learning office through to 2015 as its senior sustainability teaching fellow.

Dr. Nesbit was also instrumental in the development of the Civil Engineering Department’s program-level learning outcomes and wrote the department’s first Graduate Attributes report which contributed to the successful professional accreditation of our program in 2014.

Student testimonials consistently commend Prof. Nesbit for her insightful, interactive, and applicable ways of teaching sustainability. Peers are inspired by her approach to both delivering course material and motivating students to think critically about their role as future engineers in an ever-changing world.

Over her career, Prof. Nesbit taught thousands of students, mentoring many, participated in numerous student-organized conferences as a discussion panelist or invited speaker, and gave guest lecturers to students both in and outside of UBC. In 2017 and 2018 she co-developed and facilitated week-long sustainability workshops for graduate students studying the built environment, from European, Canadian, and American universities.

“I feel privileged to have been part of the lives of so many students, if only for a brief time. I find student enthusiasm, their capabilities, and tremendous potential, to be wondrous and, well, inspiring,” she says.

Now retired, Dr. Nesbit is cultivating a healthier lifestyle that includes more quality time with family and friends. She is also forging ahead with new ventures. Among them, partnering with her husband on an ecosystem stewardship project, “So much to learn about how nature works and very satisfying to finally walk the talk! Great fun!” she says.