What Is the Difference Between a Degree in Agricultural Engineering and a Degree in Environmental Engineering?

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As you explore different engineering programs, trying to decide which major is the best fit for you, you might wonder how agricultural engineering and environmental engineering compare. Both branches of engineering are likely to appeal to students who are outdoorsy as well as creative, curious and resourceful. However, both the curricula that makes up these degree programs and the work that graduates from these programs do differ in some significant ways.

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Agricultural Engineering Education

You may not think that farming has much in common with advanced science and mathematics, but agricultural engineering is the discipline of engineering that involves applying science and math concepts to solve agricultural problems of all kinds. To do this work, students need a college education that includes not only those science and math courses but also courses in other disciplines that help agricultural engineers understand and address problems. Like other branches of engineering, agricultural engineering programs are accredited by ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). A bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering typically requires four years of full-time study to complete.

Coursework such as biology, chemistry, physics and advanced calculus make up the science and math components of an agricultural engineer’s education, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Often, students in an agricultural engineering degree program round out their education with classes in business, sales and marketing, economics, computer modeling and public policy. Practical work experience is an important part of an agricultural engineering degree program, just as hands-on work with agricultural solutions is an integral part of the career.

Agricultural engineering programs aren’t as plentiful as other engineering degree paths. Studying biological engineering is another option to prepare for this career path.

Environmental Engineering Degree Programs

Environmental engineers and agricultural engineers need much of the same knowledge, including an undergraduate education in engineering principles, biology, chemistry and soil science. An environmental engineering degree program also includes a strong emphasis on practical experience gain from field studies, internships and cooperative work programs as well as education through classroom lectures and laboratory science courses.

However, the problems an environmental engineer applies these concepts to solve are somewhat different from the focus of an agricultural engineer. Environmental engineers focus on broader environmental problems, such as pollution, public health issues, climate change, environmental sustainability and unsafe drinking water, according to the BLS. To become prepared to address these issues, students need to take courses such as environmental engineering foundations, geology, sustainable systems engineering, environmental systems design, hydrology and air pollution engineering. Often, students in environmental engineering degree programs have the opportunity to specialize in a subject area such as climate, energy, water resources, sustainable water systems and waste removal and contaminant transport.

If you’re not able to attend a school with an ABET-accredited environmental engineering program, you can also study general engineering or a related field like chemical or civil engineering.

The Work of an Agricultural Engineer

What exactly will you do as an agricultural engineer? You will put the science, math and engineering foundations you learned in school to practical use solving problems involved in the fields of farming, food processing and forestry, the BLS reported. You might develop more efficient machines for planting, harvesting and processing crops or smoother and more cost-effective methods for storing harvested food and turning crops into processed food items. Even pollution and power supplies – specifically, in terms of how they impact agriculture – can fall under the domain of an agricultural engineer.

Agricultural engineers work primarily in indoor offices, but they also spend time at both indoor and outdoor worksites. More than one in five agricultural engineers work in the crop production industry, according to the BLS. Other major employers of agricultural engineers include the federal government, colleges and universities, engineering services firms and management and technical consulting companies.

Though engineers have a median annual salary in the $90,000 range, agricultural engineers earn a wage closer to $74,780, the BLS reported. Those working in engineering services enjoyed the highest median salary at $87,760, followed by agricultural engineers employed by the government, who earned $84,190. Colleges and universities, which employ around 11 percent of agricultural engineers, offered some of the lowest salaries, with a median wage of $58,970.

By some estimates, the demand for agricultural engineers among agricultural firms, government entities and consulting agencies is at an all-time high.

Environmental Engineering Jobs

A career as an environmental engineer can allow you the opportunity to use your knowledge of science, math and engineering to solve broad environmental problems such as acid rain, pollution, unsafe drinking water, waste disposal problems, climate change and public health threats. The work of an environmental engineer can include everything from investigating and reporting on environmental threats to developing plans to protect the environment. The goal of an environmental engineer is to find solutions that are effective in solving problems and sufficiently sustainable to avoid creating new problems.

The engineering services industry is the largest employer of environmental engineers, with 25 percent of these engineering professionals working in the field. Another 20 percent of environmental engineers work in management and technical consulting agencies. About 30 percent of environmental engineers work in some government entity, most at the state level, followed by the local level and finally the federal level. The pay for environmental engineers is somewhat closer to the median wage for all engineers, at $86,800 per year. Environmental engineers working for the government earn a median wage in the six-figure range.

There are 53,800 environmental engineers and just 2,700 agricultural engineers working in the United States, according to the BLS.

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