Ten undergraduate students at the University of Missouri-Rolla are learning how to balance humanity’s impact on the environment with the world’s growing engineering needs as part of a new degree program that began last fall. The students are enrolled in the state’s first environmental engineering degree program, one of the few available in the Midwest.
"We know as a society we’re going to have an impact on the environment," says Dr. Joel Burken, associate professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at UMR. "We all want to drive cars and have televisions and many other amenities. We’re going to have an impact, but as environmental engineers we need to know how to minimize that while maintaining or improving our standard of living."
During the past seven years, the number of new environmental engineering programs has increased threefold, Burken says.
"As we develop different areas of society and technology, different engineering needs pop up," Burken explains. "Right now in the environmental engineering area, we need to address air pollution, public health and wastewater treatment. Where previously environmental engineering needs fell under many different departments, it’s becoming a stand-alone process. The environmental engineering faculty actually reside in many different departments civil, architectural and environmental engineering; geology and geophysics; geological and petroleum engineering; biological sciences; and chemical and biological engineering. It’s a very interdisciplinary degree, and I think it’s probably the most scientifically diverse amongst engineering degrees."
The amount of natural sciences included in the program gives students an edge when it comes to solving the global environmental problems.
"Being problem-solvers as engineers, defining the problem is the first step," Burken explains. "If we don’t understand the science and the problem, there’s very little chance that we can come up with a good solution."
For Leonor Valdez of Moberly, Mo., a junior in environmental engineering at UMR, the chance to study a range of sciences and help the environment was one she couldn’t resist.
"When I researched universities, UMR was my number one choice because not only was it the best engineering school in Missouri, but it was also just starting a new bachelor of science program for environmental engineering," Valdez explains. "Besides studying classes that I enjoy, I love that this program is helping me develop skills that will give me the chance to help the environment."
Research is an integral part of the program. Valdez is working with Michelle Von Arb of Rolla, Mo., a graduate student in environmental engineering studying microbial diversity in anaerobic swine lagoons.
"I have been working with Michelle since last June and have been learning something new each day," Valdez says. "I have learned how to use different equipment that I have been studying about, done anaerobic-microbiology work on samples, and I am also learning how to do some molecular biology research on microbial DNA. It has been a great learning experience."
Industries also need someone who can handle everything from the cleanup of hazardous waste to air pollution treatment, Burken says. "That diversity didn’t exist in any one degree 10 years ago, for the most part," Burken adds. "Now there’s a demand for that position and that person. We saw the need and developed a program to fill that void."
Potential employers include environmental engineering consulting firms, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal regulatory bodies. "The program is unique in that a lot of people have an interest in biology or chemistry and this gives them a career where they can help the environment," Burken says. "There are a lot of possibilities to work in this field, whereas in other areas of working with ‘the environment,’ there are not that many jobs and roles you can take. For many, environmental engineering may offer a career and something they like."