Graduate Schools and Colleges
"An Eco-friendly Career"
Environmental engineers are out to do more than just save the planet. They want to make it a better place to live.
By Anna Mulrine
Alexandria Boehm grew up in Oahu, Hawaii, in love with the ocean. "I spent a lot of time in the water," she says, "but I didn’t know I’d end up studying coastal waters. It just sort of developed that way." She does, however, remember what helped her decide to take up environmental engineering. In her mom’s backyard in Hawaii, there’s a canal. "We used to swim in there," she recalls. "But now it’s too disgusting and polluted."
Today, as an environmental engineering professor at Stanford University, Boehm gets students to share her passion. Recently Boehm’s undergraduates measured the microbes in polluted waters running into the ocean. But environmental engineers not only work to solve the problems of coastal runoff; they also investigate ways to make the air cleaner and polluted water drinkable.
Throughout the course of their major, students at Penn State-Harrisburg get practical learning experiences: They study design by working in water treatment facilities and learn about wetlands by collecting water samples. Says engineering professor Charles Cole, "Fieldwork will hopefully balance out mundane required courses like calculus, physics, and engineering graphics."
Environmental engineering majors do have to be more familiar with biology and chemistry than the average engineering major, says Ryan Dupont, director of Utah State University’s environmental engineering program. But after four years of undergraduate coursework, these majors can embark on a wide range of careers. One of Utah State’s grads now works at Frito-Lay managing the waste that comes with the production of millions of potato chips. Even the transmission of viruses is an environmental engineering problem. "Sneezing and coughing are symptoms, but surfaces are also being contaminated," says Penn State’s Cole. Environmental engineers study how airborne diseases can be transmitted and the ways in which they interact with various surfaces. Today, the job prospects for environmental engineers are excellent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2012 the environmental engineering field will expand by 38 percent. And considering the relatively low enrollment in these programs nationwide, Dupont says there’s a "looming shortage that makes environmental engineering a field with lots of opportunities."
Back in California, Boehm, who received a federal grant to investigate how sea surface temperature affects pollution at Southern California beaches, teaches students that environmental engineering is an everchanging discipline. One of the hot fields of study is bioremediation—the process of using organisms to eat up, say, nasty oil spills. "If you feed the organism molasses, it will grow and help to degrade waste products," Boehm explains. Twenty-five years ago, such a solution was unthinkable.
With common drugs like aspirin, Prozac, and ibuprofen increasingly ending up in the ocean, environmental engineers are beginning to examine their potential effects, especially how such chemicals might interfere with the life cycles of marine organisms. Boehm has developed a service-learning class in which Stanford freshmen and sophomores conduct field projects by studying pollution in a local body of water. She knows from her own surfing days that direct contact can help spark a lifelong interest in the environment. "You can learn about the tides and the waves in a classroom," she says, "but when you’re sitting on the beach for six hours straight, you actually see the tide coming up. That’s what really drives students’ curiosity and their desire to learn more."
Content excerpted from ENGINEERING, GO FOR IT!
with permission from the American Society for Engineering Education.
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