Santa Clara University

Center for Sustainability Banner

Sustainability Update

Back to Blog

Tonya Nilsson: Engineering a Better Future

Monday, Feb. 3, 2014
Profile: Tonya Nilsson

As a lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering, Tonya not only provides students with an educational foundation, but also facilitates hands-on learning through her support of extra-curricular initiatives. For Tonya, sustainability impacts both her daily life and the way she hopes to make the world a better place.

On campus, Tonya works with groups of students on the Solar Decathlon House and with members of the student organization, Engineers without Borders, working as both a mentor and a motivator. The Solar Decathlon House is a biennial competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy where twenty college teams compete to design, build, and operate a home that is both energy efficient and attractive. This competition gives students a chance to put their education into practice, all through the lens of sustainability. Santa Clara placed 3rd overall in both the 2007 and 2009 competitions and had a strong finish in 2013 after taking 2011 off. When asked what sustainability-related project she was most proud of, Tonya told us that it was her work with students to develop bamboo i-joists (engineered wood joints and gravity walls for the 2013 Radiant House. This is an excellent example and reminder of the fact that sustainability not only stems from our daily habits, but the way we construct our world. Students who want to learn more can check it out at

Tonya further upholds her commitment to sustainability as a faculty advisor for Santa Clara’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) program. This nationwide group has partnered with over 60 campuses, including Santa Clara, to fulfill their commitment to designing and implementing engineering projects in developing communities around the world. Focusing on community outreach, education, water quality, energy, and sanitation, Santa Clara has been sending teams for years to tackle problems worldwide. The Santa Clara chapter’s most recent trip to El Pital, Honduras, challenged students to address the lack of water distribution throughout the community-- a problem Tonya feels is the world’s most pressing sustainability-related challenge. Tonya has helped facilitate more hands-on experiences for undergraduate engineers in the context of a developing community.Her collaboration with SCU students help us remember that millions of people worldwide lack basic sanitation, water, and energy needs--essentials we often take for granted here in the United States. Check out EWB’s website at

Here at Santa Clara, Tonya is also concerned with the way we approach sustainability in our daily lives and how engineering can provide solutions. For campus, she advocates for efficient use of energy, especially turning lights off in residence halls and classrooms and closing windows when heating rooms; and, feels that consciousness, coupled with improved natural lighting and ventilation in our future buildings on campus, will allow for less demand and less use. As a leader of social, environmental, and economic change here on campus, Tonya exemplifies the power of leadership and engineering in our dynamic world today.

Contributed by Tom Wheeler ‘16, Sustainability Intern, Academic Programs

Tags: Climate Neutrality, Community Engagement, Energy, Living Laboratory, Profiles



The Center for Sustainability sends Sustainability Updates to SCU students, faculty, and staff through non-Essential SCU Global E-Mail Distribution Lists. Others are welcome to subscribe to these monthly e-mails using this link.


Read past Sustainability Update articles. Articles are sorted by tags for quick browsing. Visit the archives.

Suggest future content

Have a suggestion for a program or person we should showcase? Want an upcoming event included next month? Please contact the Center for Sustainability with your idea.