If you have a passion for the natural world around you and want to solve the problems facing the environment, studying environmental engineering could help you achieve your goals. Aspiring environmental engineers must complete plenty of math, science and engineering courses and gain practice applying those concepts to solving environmental problems. Your studies will comprise classroom lectures, laboratory science work and field work.
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Math and Science Coursework for Environmental Engineering
Taking college-level mathematics and basic science courses is an essential step to becoming an engineer. You will need to know the theories of math and the science fields most closely related to environmental preservation before you can apply those concepts in engineering designs.
For environmental engineering majors, math coursework must include studies in calculus, differential equations and probability and statistics. You will use the calculus you learn again in your science classes, particularly when you get to calculus-based physics coursework. Other science classes you will have to take include biological science, earth science and chemistry courses that cover kinetics and equilibrium. Aspiring environmental engineers must also cover a chemistry concept called stoichiometry, the study of quantitative relationships between reactants and products in chemical reactions.
Environmental engineering majors in programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) will spend at least one-quarter of their studies on math and science coursework.
Environmental Engineering Coursework
Environmental engineering is a multidisciplinary field, so students who choose this major will have to complete core coursework from a few different engineering disciplines as well as natural and physical science fields. For example, ABET-accredited programs in environmental engineering must include coursework in fluid mechanics, a subject of study which is typically related to mechanical engineering. As an environmental engineering student, you may also have to take a course in thermodynamics, which is usually offered through a chemical engineering department.
Generally, ABET’s requirements for an environmental engineering degree program focus more on the knowledge and skills a student should have upon graduation than on specific course titles students must take. Some of these skills are more general in nature. Graduates of an undergraduate environmental engineering program should be familiar with project management and professional practice. They also need to understand the different roles involved in environmental policy and regulations and the responsibilities each of those parties has.
Other outcomes are more technical in nature. Environmental engineers need to be able to analyze the quality of water, soil and air as well as the substances in those elements. They need to
formulate and solve material and energy balances and be capable of conducting laboratory experiments regarding water, air, land or environmental health and analyzing their findings. Graduates from an accredited environmental engineering programs design sustainable engineering systems for controlling pollution, disposing of waste and recycling, all while considering the potential environmental impact and any risks involved in their efforts.
Because environmental engineering includes virtually all engineering science and design work related to the natural environment, it is a broad field of study. One way students can focus their education on the area of environmental engineering that they want to work in is by completing an academic track or specialization in an area of emphasis. An academic track could focus on a particular type of technology, like environmental nanotechnology or environmental biotechnology and bioremediation, or a particular type of environmental issue, such as air quality or energy production. Other tracks you might be able to choose include eco-hydrology, vadose-hydrology, environmental chemistry, environmental fluid dynamics and sensors.
One and a half years of study – more than a third of an environmental engineering student’s undergraduate education – will be spent on engineering science and design coursework.
Working in Environmental Engineering
While employers require a bachelor’s degree for entry-level environmental engineer roles, they also look for candidates with hands-on experience, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). How do you get this experience when you’re still a student? There are plenty of opportunities for environmental engineering students to start gaining work experience well before they graduate.
Firstly, the field work that makes up part of your undergraduate coursework can provide you with valuable experience applying what you have learned in the classroom. You can use the work you have done as part of your curriculum when preparing a portfolio of your work, detailing your experience in written cover letters or during job interviews. If your engineering program is ABET-accredited, you also will gain some extensive experience over one or two semesters of working on a major design experience.
If you want more real-world job training than your studies can offer, you could benefit from completing an internship or cooperative program. Both options provide students with the chance to see what life is like working in an engineering firm or other setting that employs engineers. Internships can be paid or unpaid and full-time or part-time positions, and they typically last for one term. If you would consider delaying graduation a little longer in favor of gaining more work experience, a co-op program could be a better option. These full-time paid positions allow students to gain a year or more of work experience and, due to the longer duration, can provide a greater breadth and depth of training than a traditional internship.
A senior project for an environmental engineering major could take the form of testing samples of soil from sites of nuclear disasters or exploring how air pollution contributes to public health.