On Environmental Engineering

I recently received an email from an incoming student regarding a common question and felt that since so many people ask this, it would be good to share a response:

How closely linked are civil and environmental engineering? I am much more interested in environmental. Do the two overlap very much?

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article in no way reflect the views of the university, civil/environmental engineering department, or ASCE.  They are one person’s opinions based on one life experience.

Response:

In my experience, you only share a couple of classes with civil engineering (CE) (general track) majors, like statics, fluid mechanics, risk analysis, etc.  Those are kind of “core” engineering classes anyway, but each engineering department has its own version of the class.  You will share the most classes with CE (environmental emphasis) majors, and barely any with CE (structural/building science) majors.  As an environmental engineering major (ENE), you will not have to take classes in dynamics, materials, transportation, concrete, or steel.  However, you will take much more biology and chemistry than CE majors.  The heart of ENE lies in water and wastewater treatment, with some air pollution and solid waste management.

This summer, I am interning at a civil engineering consulting firm in Hawaii.  In Hawaii, most of the “environmental engineering” jobs are covered by civil firms because there isn’t enough environmental engineering work to warrant entire companies that only focus on that.  As a result, I learned many transportation, construction, and project management concepts on my own because I didn’t take those classes in school. I’m still figuring things out, but it seems to me that unless you’re interested in research, a lot of the chemistry and biology might not be used too often in design.

All in all, it just depends on what you want to do.  I think that if I had known the relationship between college classes and the work situation before I started, I might have chosen a different major.  I love taking the classes in the ENE major, but if I had known I wanted to return to Hawaii after graduating, I might have chosen to major in civil engineering with an environmental emphasis, just so I had that broader background.  I know there are definitely environmental engineering firms out there, so it just depends on where you want to end up.  Just keep in mind that many “environmental engineering” jobs are hidden within civil engineering firms.  Other schools don’t even offer ENE as a separate major from CE, so some companies might think that the ENE degree limits your knowledge in areas besides water and wastewater treatment.

Bottom line: If you’re really passionate about the classes in the ENE major, then stick with it. Just don’t close yourself off entirely to civil engineering as a whole because your career may be more related to that.