From the first Roman aqueducts to the many industrial recycling plants around the world today, environmental engineering has always been critical to a civilization’s health and well-being. But what is environmental engineering and what does it actually involve? What do environmental engineers do to make the world cleaner, safer, and more liveable for humans and other living things? And how can we give students the skills for a future career in this field?
The Basics of Environmental Engineering
A professional sub-discipline of civil and chemical engineering, environmental engineering provides solutions to many of modern life’s biggest problems, spanning areas like:
- Wastewater management
- Waste disposal
- Pollution management
- Public health
The discipline involves chemistry, biology, mathematics, and other scientific topics, and looking for ways to protect the environment and maintain ecosystems in ways that are beneficial to human health. Its importance is greater than ever as the planet faces the climate crisis head-on.
Although today’s environmental engineering solutions involve advanced technology and infrastructure, dealing with modern issues like factory emissions, the discipline goes back to the first days of civilization, when early humans had to come up with ways to obtain clean water and dispose of waste.
What Do Environmental Engineers Do?
Because environmental engineering is such a broad discipline, environmental engineering jobs can vary greatly.
An engineer working in agriculture might spend their day collecting soil samples, analyzing pollutants in the sample, and delivering reports to farming associations and the local government. They might then work with farmers to develop new systems and processes that minimize soil pollution. Meanwhile, an engineer working in a factory may be responsible for implementing and overseeing recycling and waste management workflows.
In general, environmental engineers are responsible for coming up with practical solutions to environmental challenges, implementing workflows, developing and enforcing national and local regulations, carrying out assessments on proposals, and more.
Environmental engineers typically have a background in biology, chemistry, or another field of science, and apply their knowledge to issues like wastewater management, recycling, and pollution.
Famous Environmental Engineers
Environmental engineers have been vital throughout history to solve environmental problems, and several have gained fame through their groundbreaking solutions. Some of the most notable names associated with this field include:
Ellen Swallow Richards (1842–1911)
A pioneering engineer and feminist icon, Ellen Swallow Richards has been labeled the first female environmental engineer. Her work focused on domestic science and sanitary engineering.
For almost 30 years, Richards worked as an instructor at the laboratory of sanitary chemistry at the Lawrence Experiment Station while also holding the same position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her groundbreaking work led to Massachusetts devising the first standards for water quality in the United States and the first modern sewage treatment plant.
Richards was also a committed feminist and devoted much of her life to women’s education. In 1992, her former home in Boston was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Abel Wolman (1892–1989)
Considered the godfather of modern sanitation, American engineer Abel Wolman began his long career in 1914, working for public health organizations for a number of decades before moving into academia to teach sanitary engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Wolman’s greatest achievement was devising a system for chlorinating water to make it safe to drink. Although other scientists had tried it before him, Wolman and his research partner Linn H. Enslow came up with an effective method for determining the correct amount of chlorine for a given volume of water, helping reduce infant deaths in North America.
According to Stephen F. Gorden, former president of the American Water Works Association, “Abel Wolman played a vitally important role in inaugurating the system that today provides Americans with some of the safest, cleanest drinking water available anywhere in the world.”
G. D. Agrawal (1932–2018)
A graduate in civil engineering and later a visiting professor for environmental engineering at the University of Roorkee in Northern India, environmentalist G. D. Agrawal didn’t follow a standard engineering career path.
Equipped with his knowledge of engineering and a passion for environmental causes, Agrawal devoted much of his life to activism, particularly regarding the cleanliness of the river Ganges. He was also a religious leader, becoming a Hindu sannyasi in 2011.
In June 2018, Agrawal began a fast — a form of voluntary starvation — in protest against the Indian government’s lack of commitment to protecting the Ganges. On the 111th day of his fast, Agrawal died at the age of 86. His death inspired a group of activists in the region of Pune to stop using household products containing river-polluting chemicals.
Environmental Engineering in the Classroom
A strong immersion in STEM subjects can prepare a student for a future career in environmental engineering. Skills can be developed in a number of subjects, including biology, chemistry, and geography.
Practical activities can cover themes like recycling and clean water. K–2 pupils could be tasked with differentiating recyclable waste from landfill waste and imagining what new products could be made with the recyclable matter. For students in grades 3–5, NASA’s Cleaning Water Activity can teach students how to build their own water filtering system, giving them a basic understanding of sanitary engineering. Suitable for grades 3–12+, the Sphero Oil Spill Challenge teaches students to design and build a robotic tool that can clean up an oil spill.
Environmental engineering is a broad discipline that deals with some of the most critical challenges faced by civilization. Get started with Sphero’s STEM tools to introduce students to this exciting area of work and education.