College Awards First Environmental Engineering Bachelor's Degree

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June 18, 2012

When Kelly McElroy walked across the commencement stage on December 10, 2011, she became the first MSU engineering student to earn a bachelor of science degree in environmental engineering. This marks a major step forward for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and the beginning of new opportunities for CEE students and faculty.

We first proposed a BS in environmental engineering nearly 20 years ago, says CEE professor Susan Masten, who spearheaded efforts to get the degree in place. At the time we did not have the staffing.

However, she points out that the department did have a bachelor's degree in sanitary engineering more than 40 years ago. The sanitary engineering degree focused on the public health sector. As times changed, sanitary engineering morphed into a broader definition that now includes impacts of pollution both on human and ecological health; and since the 1990s, CEE students have been able to choose an environmental engineering option as part of the civil engineering degree program. That program allowed student to focus their studies on environmental engineering. In addition, the department offers both master's and doctorate degrees in environmental engineering.

"By 2009 the environmental engineering staff in the CEE department had doubled and that allowed us the opportunity to work on the creation of a separate BS program, explains Masten.

The increasing importance of environmental issues, such as the emerging contaminants in water, climate change, the design and management of landfills, soil remediation, and ecosystems restoration has been the impetus for establishing the new program. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, environmental engineering is one of only two engineering disciplines that is predicted to experience much faster than average growth over the next 10 years, with a projected growth of 25 percent by 2016.

The environmental engineering (ENE) bachelor's degree has required courses in mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as appropriate courses in humanities and social sciences. Once students have established a broad background, they can select one of two major tracks geoenvironmental or water resource within environmental engineering. Alternatively, students can select a general track and design their own specialization based on personal interest and approval by the department.

The geoenvironmental track is designed for students who wish to extend their core training in the design of treatment and remediation processes to include landfill design, soil remediation, and solid waste management. The water resources track is designed for students who are interested in enhancing their understanding of natural earth processes to prepare for work on water supply, management of surface and groundwater resources, and water pollution.

McElroy was in a unique position to obtain the first ENE bachelor's degree because she had completed all of the foundational courses and had been pursuing the environmental engineering option. Last summer, she had an internship with Dow Chemical Co., which allowed her to get involved with many different types of civil and environmental engineering projects. It was exciting to see concepts that I learned in class applied in a real-world setting, McElroy says.

Getting a bachelor's degree in environmental engineering is very beneficial, because more and more companies are becoming environmentally conscious and they need environmental engineers to assist them in making sure that they are complying with all environmental laws and regulations, says McElroy. In addition, there are many directions you can go with an environmental engineering degree. You can go into water treatment, air quality control, policy, and much more. Simply put, a degree in environmental engineering provides many opportunities.

Fourteen freshmen signed up for the ENE bachelor's degree in the fall of 2011 and other students are expected to graduate with a BS in ENE by May 2013.

We are clearly at a point in time when there is renewed interest in environmental issues, says Neeraj Buch, professor and interim chair of the CEE department. There seems to be widespread agreement, as evidenced by the National Academy of Engineering's Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st century, that we must address global problems, such as climate change, access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation, urban air quality, and the environmental implications of new and existing sources of energy. All of those are issues that environmental engineers can address.

McElroy, now an engineer at the Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant just north of the city of Bridgman, Mich., in Berrien Count, says she believes that the environmental engineering bachelor's degree will quickly become a popular program at MSU. There are many environmental groups and initiatives on campus, such as the Go Spartan Green' campaign, making the ENE degree more appealing. Plus, the professors within the program are all very passionate not only about their research, but also about helping their students to fully understand the material.