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What is Environmental Engineering?


Environmental engineers play a vital role in maintaining the quality of both human environmental systems and the natural environment. Environmental engineering encompasses the scientific assessment and development of engineering solutions to environmental problems impacting the biosphere, land, water and air quality. Environmental Engineers DESIGN drinking water treatment plants, municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants, landfills, air pollution control equipment for power plants and industry, groundwater remediation systems, etc. Environmental issues affect almost all commercial and industrial sectors, and are a central concern for the public, for all levels of government, and in international relations. These issues include safe drinking water, wastewater processing, solid and hazardous waste disposal, outdoor air pollution, indoor air pollution and transfer of infectious diseases, human health and ecological risk management, and prevention of pollution through product or process design.

To address these challenges, environmental engineers work in a multidisciplinary arena. Solutions to many environmental problems require contributions from engineers, scientists, lawyers, business people and the public. Good communication skills, as well as technical proficiency, are essential for success in this arena. In addition, technology designed to address environmental problems is marketed globally, opening up increasing opportunities for international work in the environmental engineering field.

Professional Licensure

The path to professional licensure normally begins with students graduating from an ABET-accredited engineering degree program. Typically in the final semester of their undergraduate education, students take the 8-hour Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. All engineering students take a "General" exam covering fundamental topics such as chemistry, calculus, and thermodynamics during the morning. In the afternoon, there is a subject-specific portion for Environmental Engineering.
After 4 years of practice under a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and often further coursework and a Master's degree, engineers take the 8-hour PE exam. Environmental Engineering is a recognized specialty on professional engineering licensing exams.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts over 54,000 environmental engineers employed in the U.S. Jones et al. (2005) reported that the upper range may be as high as 100,000. As a profession, environmental engineering is significantly largerthan chemical and biomedical engineering which employed only 30,000 and 14,000 engineers, respectively, in the U.S. in 2006 (per Bureau of Labor Statistics). These are workers who self-identify as environmental engineers. Their formal training may include degrees in environmental engineering, other engineering disciplines, and sometimes sciences (geology, chemistry, etc.).

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Job Outlook

The projected 25% growth in the number of environmental engineers to 68,000 by 2016 is the largest of any engineering discipline. Environmental engineering is only one of two engineering disciplines predicted to have "much faster than average growth" over the next 10 years by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In an Oct. 2010 article from, Environmental Engineering was listed with a 10-year job growth forecast of 31% and an overall "Best Jobs in America" rating of #5. The full CNN story can be found here.

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Environmental Engineering has grown as a profession out of roots in Civil Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and related sciences.
Some good references on the history of environmental engineering are:
Anderson, William C. "A History of Environmental Engineering in the United States." and David J. Allee and Leonard B. Dworsky "Water Quality in America since 1980: From Nitrates & Non-Point to Ecosystems, Toxics and Terrorists" In Environmental and Water Resources History, ASCE Civil Engineering Conference and Exposition 2002, Jerry R. Rogers, Augustine J. Fredrich - Editors, November 37, 2002, Washington, D.C., USA.
Symons, G.E., "The Origins of Environmental Engineering: Prologue to the 20th Century, Journal of the New England Water Works Association (JNEWWA), 115, 4, 253-287 (December, 2001)

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