What is Environmental Engineering?

The University of Minnesota recently announced that they will be offering Environmental Engineering as an undergraduate major in the upcoming Fall 2014 semester. This led to many interested engineering students rejoicing, and still many more scratching their heads and asking, “What’s Environmental Engineering?”

If you too, are scratching your head wondering whether or not the University of Minnesota just invented a new major, you do not have to feel alone. As I mentioned in one of my first posts on my blog, Environmental Engineering is a field of engineering that many people do not know about. So I have decided to write a blog post for those who are interested in learning what exactly IS Environmental Engineering. I will also include commentary and my personal experiences with the field within the context of academia and industry, and hope to answer any questions to help the unaffiliated undergraduate student decide whether Environmental Engineering is a good fit for her or him.

NOTE: If you are here to learn more about Environmental Engineering as an undergraduate major, and do not wish to read the whole article, I recommend you read the section, Environmental Engineering in Academia, as I hope it will answer some of the questions you (and which I used to) have. 


  • The History of Environmental Engineering
  • What IS Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Engineering in Academia
    • The Curriculum
    • Renewable Energy
    • Sustainability
    • Recommendations
  • Environmental Engineering in Industry
    • Job Titles
  • Environmental Engineering in the World
  • The Future of Environmental Engineering
  • Helpful Links


The History of Environmental Engineering

While the Environmental Engineering major has been a relatively new thing, the field of Environmental Engineering has been around far longer than many people think. Disclaimer: most of what I am about to tell you is a summary of the Wikipedia page. Environmental Engineering has existed for as long as civilization has existed. From the moment humans gathered and decided that they would rather stay in one place and farm rather than follow their food across the land, Environmental Engineering-related problems arose. When many people are in the same place, assurances must be made to ensure that people are not swimming in their own waste. Early civilization realized this, and constructed sewers and aqueducts to bring in clean water, and make sure the dirty water left.

As the industrial revolution arose, people were beginning to realize just how greatly the environment could affect a person’s health. Air and water pollution was damaging not only the environment, but the people who lived in that environment. Once the public realized that life-threating diseases such as Cholera were spreading due to polluted water supply (thanks, to everyone’s favorite Northerner, John Snow), people began to pay attention to where and how they obtained, and disposed, of their water. Thus, the field of public health engineering arose. These were Civil Engineers who rather than construct buildings or bridges, or designed transportation systems, instead designed and constructed intricate underground sewer and water networks. By designing drinking water treatment and sewage treatment systems, the appearance of waterborne diseases drastically reduced.

After World War II, the chemical industry was rapidly growing, producing pharmaceuticals and many marvelous innovations that improved the quality of human life.  Unfortunately, these new products had unforeseen environmental consequences, such as the famous DDT disaster, which birthed the modern environmental movement, and with it, what we know as Environmental Engineering today. Rapid resource extraction also left soils polluted with dangerous elements and chemicals, which meant that engineering and scientists had to devise solutions to clean up the messes.

Now, with the advent of the sustainability movement, Environmental Engineers are starting to find themselves under the proverbial spotlight. And yet, those around them simply squint and ask, “who are you?”

What IS Environmental Engineering?

Here is the crux of the problem. Environmental Engineering has been rapidly evolving to encompass many different fields and many different definitions. Many definitions exist, you need only to look at the various Environmental Engineering Programs in universities all around the world to see this, but I will present a few to you.

Good ol’ Wikipedia defines Environmental Engineering as

“the integration of science and engineering principles to improve the natural environment, to provide healthy water, air and land for human habitation and for other organisms, and to clean up pollution sites.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor defines an Environmental Engineer as someone who uses

“the principles of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems. They are involved in efforts to improve recycling, waste disposal, public health, and water and air pollution control.”

Cornell University, where I study Environmental Engineering, describes Environmental Engineers as people who

“are called upon to understand and shape biological, chemical, ecological, economic, hydrological, physical, and social processes in an effort to balance our material needs with the desire for sustainable environmental quality.”

Did you get all that? A lot of lists, right? This is why I think people don’t know what is Environmental Engineering, and why Environmental Engineers struggle so much to describe what they do. I confess, I struggle to come up with a succinct definition, especially because nowadays Environmental Engineering includes so many fields (indeed, none of the definitions listed mention Renewable Energy, which the Environmental Engineering field, at least in academia, has adopted as one of its areas of focus).

But perhaps I am being unfair. It is, at least for me, quite difficult to actually describe any engineering discipline. A better way to define an engineering discipline is not what they ARE but what they DO. But we can’t just say a Mechanical Engineer designs cars or planes. An Electrical Engineer also designs cars and planes, but different PARTS of the car and plane. Both Chemical Engineers and Biological Engineers work on pharmaceuticals, but one may work on designing the prototype while the other may work on streamlining the process for efficient manufacturing. This is also why I think engineering itself is so misunderstood in society, as people are unclear what exactly an engineer does because media and academia do not property define engineering, and its disciplines. So while an Environmental Engineer designs sewer systems, water treatment plants, solid waste processing facilities, and pollution control systems, one has to be aware that many different kinds of engineers are involved in all those industries.

The area that Environmental Engineering covers is evolving, and varies depending on where you are (geographically, and for you time travelers – temporally).  I also think that the definition varies depending on whether you ask an Environmental Engineer in industry, or one in academia. It is a major concern of the Environmental Engineering field:  the disconnect between academia and industry.

Environmental Engineering in Academia

The Curriculum

Before the formalization of the Environmental Engineering undergraduate major in universities, if one wanted to eventually become an Environmental Engineer, he or she would first major in either Chemical or Civil engineering and then pursue a Masters in Science degree in Environmental Engineering. This may seem odd, as Civil and Chemical Engineering are two very different disciplines (just look at their curriculums), how can one major in either of these and end up studying the same discipline? This confusion is one of the reasons why I think universities were persuaded into creating the Environmental Engineering Major. Civil Environmental Engineers focused on infrastructure systems, such as water and wastewater networks (aqueducts, irrigation and sewers), flood control, and water resources planning while Chemical Environmental Engineers focused on air and ground pollution, and process design in water and wastewater treatment plants. The Environmental Engineering major in universities nowadays combines these two specialized areas of Chemical and Civil Engineering to create the Environmental Engineering major. It is this reason why the Environmental Engineering Major is often found in the university’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering or in rarer cases, the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Indeed, because of this School affiliation, you can often get a good idea of the Environmental Engineering curriculum. Those in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering tend to have curriculums that focus more on the Civil Environmental areas while those in the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering focus more on the Chemical Environmental areas.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING MAJOR IS STILL A RELATIVELY NEW MAJOR, AND THEREFORE DOES NOT HAVE A STANDARD CURRICULUM, so as a prospective Environmental Engineering major, be sure to ask the major coordinator at your university what the curriculum looks like and what areas the faculty and courses offered focus on. Indeed, at Cornell University, there are many ways to obtain an Environmental Engineering education. You can major in Civil Engineering with a focus on Environmental Engineering, major in Biological Engineering with a concentration in Bioenvironmental Engineering or you can major in Environmental Engineering … and then you must affiliate with either the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) or the School of Biological and Environmental Engineering (BEE). Each path varies slightly in required courses to take, and if you also include Chemical Engineering with an unofficial focus in Environmental Engineering, then it becomes clear that a standardized Environmental Engineering curriculum will be difficult to reach. The Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology (ABET) offers accreditation for the Environmental Engineering major, which offers standardization because the accreditation requires the curriculum to cover certain topics specified by professional organizations. Some universities even offer majors such as Biosystems Engineering, so it is important to ask faculty, students and program coordinators what the differences are. Don’t be discouraged if the program you are enrolled in focuses on an area of Environmental Engineering in which you are not interested. Engineering curriculums have some room for customization (depending on the major), and you are free to take related courses in different engineering disciplines (minors in Environmental Engineering are common, and Air Pollution courses are often found in the Chemical Engineering department).

You should ensure that your Environmental Engineering curriculum is ABET accredited. If it is not, it’s not the end of the world, it just means that you will have to fulfill some extra requirements in order to become a licensed Professional Engineer (P.E.), which may be crucial for career advancement depending on the industry.

In order to be ABET accredited, the Environmental Engineering Curriculum must include the following:

“The curriculum must prepare graduates to apply knowledge of mathematics through differential equations, probability and statistics, calculus-based physics, chemistry (including stoichiometry, equilibrium, and kinetics), an earth science, a biological science, fluid mechanics. The curriculum must prepare graduates to formulate material and energy balances, and analyze the fate and transport of substances in and between air, water, and soil phases; conduct laboratory experiments and analyze and interpret the resulting data in more than one major environmental engineering focus area, (e.g., air, water, land, environmental health); design environmental engineering systems that include considerations of risk, uncertainty, sustainability, life-cycle principles, and environmental impacts; and apply advanced principles and practice relevant to the program objectives. The curriculum must prepare graduates to understand concepts of professional practice, project management, and the roles and responsibilities of public institutions and private organizations pertaining to environmental policy and regulations.”

I took the liberty of researching a few Environmental Engineering curriculum and tallied up which required courses were similar, and which were different. I should also note that due to different course names, I may have actually missed courses that were actually similar. For instance, all curricula had some form of “Environmental Engineering Fundamentals” but it was unclear whether they all covered the same topics within the course.

The following courses are REQUIRED in all curricuala:

  • Engineering Math (Single and Multivariable Calculus, Differential Equations)
  • Intro to Computer Science
  • Physics (Mechanics at least)
  • Inorganic Chemistry (1 course)
  • Organic Chemistry (1 course)
  • Statistics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Fluid Mechanics
  • Environmental Engineering Lab
  • Aquatic/Environmental Microbiology
  • Environmental Engineering Systems Modeling
  • Economics

The following courses are REQUIRED in some, but not all curricula:

  • Intro Biology (ecology or cell and molecular)
  • Linear Algebra
  • Air Pollution/Air Quality
  • Watershed Engineering
  • Geotechnical Engineering
  • Civil Engineering Project Management
  • Dynamics
  • Statics and Mechanics of Materials
  • Heat and Mass Transfer
  • Physical Chemistry
  • Solid Waste
  • Water Treatment/Quality

Some curricula require Environmental Engineers to take one class in at least each area of Environmental Engineering, while others allow you to choose which areas on which to focus.

Renewable Energy

While Environmental Engineering curricula still cover the traditional areas of the discipline, additional areas are being enveloped into its grasp, which is confusing for undergraduates and the public. Renewable energy is starting to become a popular topic in Environmental Engineering, despite the fact that in Industry, Environmental Engineers had not dealt with these systems before. While I believe that the water sector and energy sector have much in common, and are invariably intertwined (indeed, that is why we have the term the “water-energy nexus”), the inclusion of Renewable Energy presents some problems. First off let me say, IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN RENEWABLE ENERGY, DO NOT STUDY ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING. Before the roar of disapproval becomes too overwhelming, let me explain. Renewable energy, whether it is biomass, wind, solar, or even hydro, has historically been under the fields of Biological (biomass), Chemical (solar) and Mechanical (hydro and wind) Engineering. If you want to study renewable energy technologies and make these technologies more efficient, there is a greater chance that you will be more satisfied with majoring in one of the above mentioned disciplines, as these disciplines will better prepare you for the technical fundamentals of energy generation. There is no such thing as an engineering major that focuses exclusively on renewable energy, and I personally think it is silly that Environmental Engineering tries to be that major, its core curriculum is not set up to teach the technical fundamentals, especially when there are many fundamentals to teach. There may be minors (which, at Cornell is offered by Chemical, Mechanical and Material Science Engineering, NOT Environmental) for Renewable Energy, but I think it is important for undergrads to understand this distinction. Environmental Engineers in the waste-related areas (wastewater and solid waste) often try to find new uses for the waste material (e.g., recycling), and waste-to-energy (whether through incineration, anaerobic digestion, etc.) is a common application. So in this sense, Environmental Engineers do cover an aspect of renewable energy, but not ALL aspects of renewable energy, just like any other engineering major. I know of a fellow student who thought that Environmental Engineering would be about building windmills or designing better solar panels, but was sadly mistaken and was too far into his academic path to switch.  The renewable energy classes that I have taken within the Environmental Engineering curriculum have been mostly system and surface level. This may be different at other universities, but these courses do not delve into the intricacies or actual fundamentals to design the technology. You will need to take Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, or even Material Science Engineering or Civil Engineering courses to obtain that kind of knowledge. Perhaps due to student pressure, academia decided to incorporate all of renewable energy into the Environmental Engineering curriculum, but I believe that Environmental Engineering programs should make it clear that this is not feasible.


The reason why students believe that Environmental Engineering includes renewable energy is because of the rise of the term, “Sustainability.” So let me give my second piece of advice, DO NOT STUDY ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING IF YOUR ONLY REASON IS BECAUSE YOU LIKE “SUSTAINABILITY.” Because of the word “environment” in its name, Environmental Engineering is often regarded as the “environmentalist’s engineering major.” If I had a penny for every time someone asked me if I was a “hippie” or an environmentalist after I told him or her my major…I wouldn’t be rich, but I would have a lot of pennies. The “Environment” in Environmental Engineering means that Environmental Engineers deal with problems associated with the environment, which includes both the natural environment and built environment. I know an Environmental Engineer that works on the water recycling systems of spacecraft, because for an astronaut, the spacecraft will be his or her environment. Environmental Engineering does not necessarily equate to Environmentalist. While yes, many environmental engineers may be environmentalists (you must obviously have some appreciation for the environment to be one), the assumption that ALL Environmental Engineers are environmentalists should not be made. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t study Environmental Engineering if you like sustainability, I’m just saying that Environmental Engineering is not the ONLY engineering major that deals with sustainability. ALL ENGINEERING MAJORS, in fact, all majors, can deal with sustainability issues in some way or another. Mechanical Engineers design more efficient power plants, Chemical Engineers design biodegradable plastics, Civil Engineers work on constructing buildings with less or greener materials, Electrical and Computer Engineers develop products that help us solve problems before they even happen.  These are all sustainability-related efforts that while an Environmental Engineering curriculum could prepare you to do with additional coursework, another major would better prepare you to be able to do those things. Environmental Engineering is a very focused major (or at least, it should be), which prepares you for a few very specific jobs in a few related industries.


In the end, I recommend the Environmental Engineering major for those who have a good idea of what they want to work on, and that one should try to look for a curriculum that offers the best chance of pursuing that area of interest. While specific in scope, the field offers plenty of opportunities to make an impact, as each of the areas that Environmental Engineers concentrate in are pressing global issues. If you are unsure (or if your university does not offer Environmental Engineering at the undergraduate level), I would recommend majoring in a field that offers the possibility of concentrating in Environmental Engineering (such as Civil or Chemical Engineering). You can also simply take a few classes within the field to gain a better understanding. The main thing to remember is that you are in charge of your own education, and while there are curriculums and certain majors more suited for certain areas, you ultimately decide what and how you want to learn.

Additionally, supplement your academic coursework with practical experience. Join project teams and/or conduct undergraduate research. For your first and second summers, I suggest applying for REUs or similar research programs, as they are more likely to hire less experienced undergraduates. If possible, try to obtain an internship your summer after the third year. Internships are competitive, but don’t lose hope and be persistent! If you highly value practical experience in your education, consider a Co-operative engineering program. Engineering firms highly value practical experience.

If you have further questions or concerns, feel free to contact me.

Environmental Engineering in Industry

I’m assuming like many engineering students, the majority of Environmental Engineering students will work in Industry, rather than in academia as a professor or researcher (who are just as important!). I should also preface this section with the fact that I am still and undergraduate student, and as such, sadly do not have any direct experience with the industry, so everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. I do however, read quite a bit of articles related to the Environmental Engineering profession, so this section will consist of my opinions on where I think the Environmental Engineering industry is at the moment, and where it will be heading in the new future.

Environmental Engineers can work for a variety of industry sectors. As their careers progress Environmental Engineers usually specialize in one of the core areas of Environmental Engineering (air pollution control, water treatment, wastewater treatment, soil remediation, water resources, solid/hazardous waste). The first industry that comes to mind is in the Architecture and Engineering sector. Architecture and Engineering firms (or A/E firms) and Engineering Firms are businesses that are hired to design a specific project – anything from large buildings, to campuses to natural environments.

Another sector that employs Environmental Engineers is Engineering Consulting firms, which are similar to A/E firms. Honestly, I am still not sure what the difference is between Consulting firms and A/E firms, but they both work on a variety of projects and provide solutions to specific problems. Environmental Engineers in the first two industries usually do more design work, developing plans for treatment plants, or site design for the built environment, and restoring bodies of water. Environmental Engineers working in these two fields will often be working with a variety of other professions, such as Architects, Landscape Architects, Planners, Hydrologists, and Environmental Scientists.

The utility sector also employs many Environmental Engineers. Instead of designing treatment plants, these Environmental Engineers maintain and operate the plants, making sure everything runs smoothly. Utilities include water treatment, wastewater treatment and solid waste collection/processing. They also make sure that everything is running in compliance with environmental regulations.

The government (local, state and federal) also employs Environmental Engineers, often to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments or to ensure that companies are complying with environmental regulations. There are a lot of data collections and on-site testing involved, and probably quite a bit of work dealing with policy and politics.

Environmental Engineers can also work for private manufacturing and design companies. These engineers are hired to make sure that the companies are complying with environmental regulations, but also can work as Process Engineers to ensure that the manufacturing process is environmentally (and economically) friendly. These engineers are usually hired to make sure that all the value can be utilized by the raw materials, and as little as possible is wasted (a field called industrial ecology). Other times, these engineers develop treatment technologies to sell to firms. These companies can be designing and manufacturing Environmental Engineering-related technologies (such as reactors, or remediation technologies), but can also be food processing, and even consumer technology companies.

As always, there are non-traditional paths one can take with an Environmental Engineering degree. As mentioned before, Environmental Engineers can help design spacecraft life-support systems. Water-related Environmental Engineering fields are quickly gaining more popularity, and are attracting investors due to rising frequencies of drought. There IS a culture of water technology start-ups, consisting of small groups of engineers, rising in the Environmental Engineering field. A good example is the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Water Start-up Incubator, The Water Council.

Job Titles

Environmental Engineering majors usually end up applying for jobs with the job title: Environmental Engineer. However, there are also Job Titles that one should look for when on the job/internship search. Civil/Environmental Engineer, Project Engineering, Water Resources Engineer, Civil Engineer are all titles that you can look for in A/E and Consulting firms. As always, you should read the job description of the listing to make sure that the job works in the area in which you are interested. Other titles include Environmental Engineer/Scientist, Process Engineer, Remediation Engineer, and Design Engineer.

As you may have guessed, some of these jobs seem to include a variety of majors such as Civil and Chemical Engineers (and sometimes even Mechanical Engineers), and even Environmental Scientists. This should give you a better idea of what kind of work this job will be doing. As stated earlier, the Environmental Engineering undergraduate curriculum varies somewhat depending on the university, but regardless, the major should position you well to apply for these specific jobs. Make sure to highlight the advantages your academic coursework (and possible internship and research experience) provides you that the other majors cannot offer. Environmental Engineering curricula should equip you with a fairly good knowledge of industry standard practices and terminology that other majors may not know.

However, I believe some areas that are within the Environmental Engineering industry are not taught well within today’s Environmental Engineering curricula. For instance, a growing industry – the Water Treatment Sector – requires engineers to develop novel and economically viable processes to obtain drinkable water. These technologies are increasingly using tools like biotechnology and require advanced chemistry knowledge. Chemical Engineers are usually best equipped with the knowledge to take on these challenges straight from undergrad.  Biological, Chemical and Physical treatment processes are not discussed in depth until the Masters level of Environmental Engineering. After which, Environmental Engineers would be more likely to be hired over Chemical Engineers. In this case, the Chemical Engineering curriculum better equips the undergraduate with advanced physical and biological chemistry knowledge than the Environmental Engineer curriculum, despite the fact that Environmental Engineering curricula are specially focused. This is something I think undergrad Environmental Engineering curricula should address. Regardless, I believe all environmental engineers should obtain graduate degrees. It doesn’t have to be right after undergrad, but an Environmental Engineer should seriously consider getting a secondary degree, as it opens up many opportunities for career advancement. You also learn more in-depth concepts related to a specific area of Environmental Engineering.

Also, Environmental Engineering jobs require quite a bit of technical writing, so polish up those writing and communication skills! The nature of built and natural environments is that it has many stakeholders, and you will find yourself working with and communicating with not just engineers, but scientists, politicians, architects, private firms, government bodies, non-profit organizations, and whole hosts of other professions and groups of people. It’s a messy and large area to work in, but the important thing is to remember what your role as an Environmental Engineer is in all of it. This is one of the main reasons the Environmental Engineering undergraduate curriculum is having so much difficulty defining itself, it is taking on too many roles in very complex issues.

Environmental Engineering in the World

I write this article with many acknowledged biases.  I am a fourth year undergrad student in an Environmental Engineering program, I have no industry experience, and I live in the Midwest and go to school in Upstate NY. Therefore, there’s a lot about Environmental Engineering that I still don’t know. One thing I have realized, is that the Environmental Engineering major, while gaining popularity in the States, has been around for a little longer internationally. Asian countries especially, have embraced this major and influenced its direction. The need for clean water, air and soil is a very prevalent problem in rapidly growing countries, and as such, the Environmental Engineering profession is dearly needed. In the States, a more “established” country, does not seem to feel this urgency, despite its environmental crises. International work is a very real possibility for Environmental Engineers, and the concept of an Environmental Engineer is probably more understood in beyond the United States.

The Future of Environmental Engineering

While it is still trying to define itself, I believe the Environmental Engineering curriculum will reach a common definition and “standardized curriculum”. Environmental Engineering itself is a very interdisciplinary field of engineering, and as such, there will always be some differences among different groups. The interdisciplinary nature of the field means that the field strongly needs to outline its areas of focus and make sure they are not stepping too far into other similar fields, effectively becoming obsolete. It needs to justify its existence. Some believe a Civil Engineer implies a broader background and would also know everything an Environmental Engineer knows, the Environmental Engineering program must show that it has something unique to offer (which I believe it can). Its growing popularity is more of a reaction to the societal climate (which is not necessarily a bad thing), putting it at risk of trying to be something it is not, and becoming a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I would not have been exposed to the environmental engineering field if my university did not offer it as a separate engineering major. I feel that increasing the presence and accurately communicating the purpose of Environmental Engineering will be crucial to reconciling differences between the Environmental Engineering Curriculum, and the industry.

I believe that the industry will continue to grow, and be increasingly involved in the world’s most pressing issues. The water-energy nexus is a problem that even the United States is starting to realize. Its interdisciplinary nature also equips Environmental Engineers to develop unique solutions. Investors are starting to pour funds into the development of novel technologies. I remain optimistic and believe the industry outlook is quite positive. My hope is that the public will gain a better understanding of what Environmental Engineers do, and how they are crucial to society.

Helpful Links

If you have any questions or concerns feel free to contact me.

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