Education 2k

The winds of change are blowing through the hallowed halls of academia and the effect on what students are taught and how the information is conveyed will impact all. Not since the post World War II era have there been such major changes in the way that institutions of higher learning educate. Several factors have contributed to the change. Some of the most notable are the blurring of physical boundaries of a university through the use of web-based instruction, the emphasis on cross-disciplinary training and the need for a more global perspective in thinking. Being a multi-disciplinary curriculum — designed to face the challenges of pollutants that readily cross international boundaries — environmental engineering and science (EES) education is directly impacted by these changes.

Class makeup

Of the many engineering specialties, environmental engineering may be the most diverse in the ethnicity and gender of its professionals. With this diversity, come differences in perspective that may account for the great adaptability in the past and bodes well for future changes. Environmental engineering students come from numerous disciplinary backgrounds, particularly in graduate school. However, the makeup of engineering major populations is much less diverse than actually seen in our society.

Environmental engineers and scientists need to be socially aware and sensitive, politically astute and skilled communicators who can integrate all stakeholders in the decision making process.

By the time they enter college, only two percent of first-year female students say that they intend to major in engineering while nine percent of male students list engineering as their probable field of study. Of the 1999 M.S. degrees awarded environmental engineering, 3.2, 3.9, and 35 percent went to Hispanic, African Americans and women respectively, compared to 2.7, 2.8 and 20.5 percent for all M.S. engineering degrees1. Of all the Ph.D.s awarded in engineering 14.7 percent are awarded to women, 1.6 percent to Hispanics, and 2.0 percent to African Americans compared to 24.3, no data available and 1.9 percent in environmental engineering2. The data would indicate that enrollment of women in many graduate and undergraduate programs is among the highest population of the engineering professions.

Defining the field

Just what is an environmental engineer? What is an environmental scientist? The answer is not simple. It is a point of contention with many. Historically, environmental engineers evolved from sanitary engineers responsible for water and wastewater treatment operations. Sanitary engineers were begot from civil engineers with the mission of engineering solutions for the people. The table of contents of an environmental engineering textbook might include water and wastewater treatment, solid waste, air pollution, hazardous waste, industrial ecology and noise pollution. Woven throughout many texts are explanations of federal regulations stipulating compliance requirements, many of which were promulgated due to pollution problems created from human activities.

And what is an environmental scientist? Their textbooks are more likely to emphasize principles of resource conservation, populations and ecology (in addition to the other topics), but presented in more qualitative terms and without the engineering design components. It is not surprising that we usually educate engineers and scientists separately. When you examine the faculty of EES programs, you are likely to find scientists and engineers with very diverse backgrounds. It is common to find biologists, chemists, chemical engineers, civil engineers and other types purporting to be environmental engineers or scientists. Reaching consensus in program direction can be a challenge with so many perspectives to consider.

The future is likely to see a continuation in this trend of crossover among the disciplines. A diverse faculty will likely result in greater student diversity. Diversity in academic disciplines, gender and ethnicity will continue to be fueled by research and education programs that encourage this movement. A significant amount of funding is being directed to the K-12 education to increase the number of students capable of and interested in advanced studies in engineering and science. The current downward spiral in the number of students electing to pursue engineering and science degrees in college will hopefully be reversed as this pool of students comes of age. The environmental arena has always attracted a diverse population of students (in terms of disciplinary interests) and will likely continue to do so in the future. However, there is a need to improve the recruitment of minority students to the profession. It takes a multitude of diverse people and skills to solve environmental problems. While envir onmental engineering programs have a common fundamental basis, each will have their own unique strengths and emphases (at both the graduate and undergraduate levels). Such diversity can be seen as an asset to the profession.

Over the course of the last two years, the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP) sponsored a workshop (1998) and a conference (1999) on the future of environmental engineering with emerging needs for the profession. Although AEESP passed a resolution identifying the Master of Science degree as the first professional degree for entry into the practice of environmental engineering, it still considers undergraduate education an important aspect of its mission. Meanwhile, several baccalaureate programs of environmental engineering have been developed and are being accredited. There are now 23 universities that offer such programs, including Manhattan College, Northwestern University and the University of California Riverside. Graduate and undergraduate programs are being developed that make course material available through the Internet — particularly appealing to the busy professional desiring continuing education. A critical objective of the educational process is tha t the curriculum must prepare students for both current and emerging areas.

Planning for tomorrow

In order to prepare future environmental engineers and scientists for the complex and challenging issues posed by a hopefully sustainable society, we must provide them with tools and skills that will adapt to the vicissitudes of a dynamic career. In general, curricula are based on a solid foundation of mathematics, natural sciences, engineering science and engineering design. Although applications often change, fundamental principles do not. A reductionist teaching approach that highlights the solution of problems through the application of first principles is often efficacious in preparing thoughtful adaptive engineers. At the undergraduate level and perhaps even at an early graduate (MS) level, we can segregate the knowledge that should be conveyed into three general categories.

Mass and energy balances (with appropriate reaction terms). Certainly this material could be the subject of many courses. If properly presented, students would see similarities in everything from natural and engineering processes to population dynamics to epidemiology to industrial ecology. In its essence, this material becomes various applications of thermodynamics and perhaps Newton's laws (if force and moment balances are also required, as with hydrodynamics).

Uncertainty in data. Understanding the appropriate uses and limitations of data is absolutely critical in environmental decision making. This subject matter is centered on a solid understanding of probability and statistics and should focus on confidence intervals, extreme value problems, correlation and causation, parameter estimations and sensitivity analysis, among other topics. Statistics are commonly unused or misapplied. Engineers and scientists must have a solid understanding of the quality and implications of their data.

Metrics of decisions. Metrics must be understood and appreciated — how do we make decisions when we try to balance many incommensurable parameters? The most common approach to quantifying decision-making processes is through the use of economics. Both environmental and engineering economics should be covered so that costs and benefits can be best understood and appropriate decisions made.

Of course, the first principles approach must be tempered with appropriate applications to design (generally thought to separate engineers from scientists). The education system must not only expose students to these areas and hope they will be perceptive enough to see how these topics are related to the ultimate goal of sustainable development. Faculties must assume responsibility for showing students how to bring everything together as systems integrating professionals. They must also show students how to work with other important disciplines (toxicologists, lawyers, social scientists, etc.) and imbue them with a strong sense of social responsibility. Engineers have not often been present at the table when decisions or policies have been made or established by non-technical professionals such as politicians, lawyers and economists. For us to eventually realize a sustainable techno-society, engineers must assume a more prominent role in societal leadership.

This approach would be broadly extensible, long-lived, appropriate and could be used in addressing important environmental topics today and in the future (day to day practice e.g. a publicly owned treatment work design global warming, sustainable development, transboundary pollution, methyl tertiary butyl ether MTBE, resistant pathogens, etc.) Most curricula are based on a set of foundation courses that remain fairly constant, adjusted as progress is made in our depth of understanding or new problems are identified. However, incorporating the concept of sustainable management will likely require the development of new courses and/or modifications to existing ones. Environmental engineering and science programs can take advantage of the recently recognized need to cross-train or provide more interdisciplinary training to engineering and science students. Most programs have responded to industry's cry for students with better communication skills, although developing such skills under administration impo sed curriculum hours is a constant battle. Environmental engineers and scientists need to be socially aware and sensitive, politically astute and skilled communicators who can integrate all stakeholders in the decision making process.

Technology in the classroom

The Internet can be both a tremendous asset to education and a fiendish threat. Course Web sites can provide students 24-hour access to assignments, chat rooms, solutions, example tests and more, eliminating tedious hours spent outside a professor's door waiting to ask questions. Administrators argue in favor of the cost effectiveness of Web-based courses that reduce the number of faculty needed at a given location. Interactive television is another option available for course offerings. As remarkable as televideo systems are, it is not the same as being in the same room as the lecturer. Can the Socratic lecture style adapt to the web or should it be done away with altogether? Does the actual face-to-face interaction with a professor really make a difference? The answer is yes to both. Electronic media can enhance the educational process and be integrated into curriculum. However, televideo classrooms and the Internet are not yet equal to high quality, traditional instruction. The trick is to capitalize o n the best of both and to avoid depriving students of the quality education they deserve in spite of attractive economic incentives.

In January 1998, the National Science Foundation sponsored an AEESP workshop attended by leaders in environmental engineering and science. Four major areas of research-need were identified3 including complex systems, sustainable management, analytical (micro) tools and new process technologies. In August 1999, AEESP hosted a research conference focused on these four areas with a combination of platform speakers, posters, and break sessions. The next step is to incorporate into undergraduate and/or graduate curriculum appropriate aspects of the emerging areas not already covered.

Confronting the issues.

It can be argued that all human activities and therefore all technological advancements impact the environment. As such, any potential development should be evaluated with consideration to the potential environmental impact. This is certainly the foundation of 'green engineering' and whole life cycle analysis. Where we concerned ourselves with end-of-pipe problems in the past, we now are looking up the pipeline and into the plant to prevent the problem before it is created. In the past, the emphasis was on what might be considered reactive topics. For example, it was the lack of clean water that created the need for treatment plants. And so it is with other environmental problems, a situation was created and solutions were sought. Today we are poised to assume a more proactive role. Ironically, some of the most pressing environmental issues have us going back to our roots of origin and public health issues.

It is predicted that the single factor to limit future global growth and development will be water. A global water crisis is predicted. Water quality has deteriorated with blame to be shared by industry, agriculture, non-point run-off from cities and over-population. Chemicals are being classified as chemicals of concern, disinfection by-products, biologically active agents, bioaccumulative compounds, regulatory chemicals and endocrine disrupters. There is evidence that pharmaceutical chemicals such as hormone replacement drugs and chemotherapy compounds released from the body may not be completely eliminated by standard wastewater treatment practices resulting in their discharge to the environment. Some studies indicate that nanogram concentrations can result in hormonal changes to indigenous animal populations. The fear is that these chemicals could enter drinking water supplies, groundwater or surface water and further expose the human population. Should such fears play out, process design modifications will be necessary for our water and wastewater treatment facilities. All water is recycled. There is a relatively constant quantity of water on our planet. Some argue that it is the rate of recycle that is accelerating due to increased human activities. As drinkable water becomes scarce, it will become more valuable.

What's next

Sir Isaac Newton taught us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If an aberration is caused in one part of the ecosystem, will there be repercussions in other parts? Understanding complex systems adequately to effectively manage our activities and engineer appropriate solutions is a challenge that continues to elude us. Complex systems include: the urban atmosphere; lakes, oceans and coastal waters; and underground (subsurface) settings. Although these systems vary in size and character, each system is held together by a web of biological, physical and chemical interactions that govern reactions and transport processes within the system. The engineers and scientists of the future must be able to apply analytical and problem-solving skills to understand these complex environmental systems and be able to implement strategies for repair. The need for multi-disciplinary teams is an absolute requirement in understanding complex systems. Until we learn to look beyond the boundaries of ou r disciplines, we will continue to overlook or not recognize the ramifications of our actions.

The American public should be proud of the vast improvements made to the health of their environment in the last 25 years. The environmental fad of the 1970s appears to have lasted longer than many would have predicted. Indeed, the U.S. environmental consciousness continues to be raised and an improvement in the overall quality of life for the masses is a goal for all environmental engineers and scientists. Education is the cornerstone for advancement. Educators should listen to the public, industry, regulators and other stakeholders, but avoid the temptation to leap to curriculum changes for the chemical du jour. Broad based training in the fundamental principles ensures the longevity and adaptability of an individual's career. The greatest changes are being made to how we teach. More effective tools are being brought to the hands of educators to benefit students. The ability to adapt to a changing world in response to its needs is key to ensuring the health and well being of the human race and planet ear th.

Accredited undergraduate programs in environmental engineering
California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo
Louisiana State University
Manhattan College
Michigan Technological University
Montana Tech of the University of Montana
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology
North Carolina State University at Raleigh
Northwestern Arizona University
Northwestern University
Oregon State University
Renesselaer polytechnic Institute
Stevens Institute of Technology
Syracuse University
Tufts University
United States Airforce Academy
Unites States Military Academy
University of California, Irvine
University of California, Riverside
University of Central Florida
University of Florida
University of Southern California
Utah State University
Wilkes University


  1. Engineering Workforce Commission of the American Association of Engineering societies, Inc., "Engineering and Technology Degrees 1999."
  2. Findings from the Condition of Education 1997: Women in Mathematics and Science, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.edgob/pubs97/97982.html
  3. Bruce Logan and Bruce Rittmann, 1998, "Finding Solutions for Tough Environmental Problems," Environmental Science & Technology, 32(21): 502A-507A.
    1. This article appeared in Environmental Protection, Volume 11, Number 9, September 2000, Page 18.

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This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.