The Association of Environmental Engineering & Science Professors (AEESP) has an interesting article in its current newsletter by Amy Childress (who teaches this stuff at the University of Nevada, Reno), entitled “Engineering and Green Chemistry Among Predicted ‘Hot’ Academic Careers.”  The article (in the most recent newsletter, here) goes on to say that

The growth expected for academic jobs in environmental engineering mirrors the fast growth expected for the general field of environmental engineering.

and that Money Magazine

predicted that environmental engineering would see 30-percent growth from 2004–2014.

To really get to the crux of these matters, it is important to focus on just what an environmental engineer really is. There are a number of definitions, some put forward by the AEESP itself.  One way to get at a definition is to look at what environmental engineers are supposed to do. This description states

Environmental engineers are qualified to work on a variety of serious environmental issues. For example, they can design municipal water supply and industrial wastewater treatment systems; assess recycling and reclamation processes; conduct hazardous waste management studies; and consult on the environmental effects of various construction projects.

The quote is on the minimal side, but it helps raise an important point.  The field really is so vast (recall that The Environment is Everywhere) that it is necessary to carefully delineate  specific job areas that are subsets of the field.  People who design water supply facilities are by and large not on the same page, nor need the same background, as those who work on hazardous wastes.

The academics in the field wrestle periodically with this issue.  One question sometimes put forward is, should someone doing environmental engineering have at least one course in organic chemistry?  Perhaps not, if they are designing water treatment facilities and focusing on a final product that meets regulatory requirements.  However, in assessing hazardous wastes, which usually consist of a plethora of organic compounds, one would hope those involved would have had some formal study of the properties of those compounds.  Still, many constituents of concern in drinking water are organic compounds as well, and so someone designing a water treatment plant might do a better job if they have this background, as well.

Suffice it to say for the present that a bachelor’s degree in engineering that includes only one or two freshman chemistry courses may not be sufficient for addressing  many environmental problems we face.   There’s a need for further education beyond the bachelor’s degree, obviously.  And  there’s a need for training people for work in specific environmental engineering areas, and for training that allows environmental engineers to communicate and work with  scientists in fields relevant to those areas.  There’s just not enough time in  most degree programs (undergraduate or graduate) to cover important aspects of all or most of them (unless one is a glutton for academia, as in my case).


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