What Is Environmental Engineering?

Curious about what environmental engineering is, and what an environmental engineer does? Read on to find out! We've even got a hands-on environmental project for you—and it's delicious. (Yes, delicious!)

What is Environmental Engineering?

Environmental Engineers are really important for people and the planet. They work hard to keep the environment safe. By doing their job, Environmental Engineers keep us safe, too!

Environmental Engineers give us good advice! Think about when a building is constructed. We have to dig the dirt, cut down trees and put in cement. Environmental Engineers tell us how this kind of project can affect the environment (including native plant and animal species).

Environmental Engineers design things! They design tools that help us measure things that are bad for the environment, like car emissions. Sometimes, Environmental Engineers will work with big companies to reduce their air pollution levels.

Environmental Engineers solve problems! They invent better ways to recycle paper, plastics and glass. An Environmental Engineer may also help come up with ways to treat water that is contaminated by bacteria and chemicals that could be harmful to our health and do the environment.

Look around! How have Environmental Engineers made your life better? The work that an Environmental Engineer does is very important because they help make the world a better, healthier place.

What Is Environmental Engineering? environmental engineer

Environmental Engineering Student Spotlight: Breanna

What Is Environmental Engineering? environmental engineerBreanna is a senior at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado.  She is also an undergraduate research assistant in a lab where she studies dangerous man-made chemicals in mouse blood.

What made you decide to study Environmental Engineering?

I always wanted to take care of our planet and make it a better place. I became involved in my elementary school environmental club, and I started the environmental club in my high school. I enjoyed how interesting and challenging math and science classes were. Environmental Engineering is not easy, but it is important to save the planet.

Can you describe your day as an Environmental Engineering student?

Studying Environmental Engineering is not easy, but it is super rewarding. Every day I finish my homework and make sure I study. I meet with professors to ask about things I am confused about. My friends and I study together. I also do research in a lab at my school. I work hard, but I also make sure I take care of myself. I like to get outdoors and explore. I try to keep a balance of studying and having fun.

What kinds of challenges have you faced as a female studying Environmental Engineering? How did you overcome them?

Only 3 out of 10 students at my school are women because the university offers only engineering degrees. I have noticed at times that some of the men do not listen to the ideas that girls share. I learned to overcome this by taking on leadership roles in groups. I make sure that everyone is heard. Stepping up to be a leader can also be good for your self-esteem.

It is also important to have a support group of other women. I joined the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) when I first started at the Colorado School of Mines. I was really shy at first, but liked volunteering and going to events. I ended up making some great friends. I am now the Girl Scout Outreach Director of our section. Having people around you that support you will push you to do some amazing things.

Do you have any advice for aspiring Environmental Engineers?

Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid of challenges. If you are confident in yourself, you will be able to go outside of your comfort zone. If you are able to challenge yourself and try new things, you will build confidence. Find your support group. It can be your friends, classmates, teachers or family. When you are surrounded by people who believe in you, you might be surprised by the amazing things you can do. Also, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Put on a set of waders and measure stream flow. Try new things, stay curious and join clubs.

When you are surrounded by people who believe in you, you might be surprised by the amazing things you can do.

What Is Environmental Engineering? environmental engineer

Environmental Engineer Spotlight: Dr. Bridget Hegarty

What Is Environmental Engineering? environmental engineerThe EngineerGirl website is a free website with tons of information about engineering. It’s a great place to read about women engineers and what they do. We found this great article on Bridget Hegarty, PhD, an Environmental Engineer. This article was written by Melina Joseph.

When Bridget was a little girl, she wanted to save the rain forests. In fact, she insisted on it. She went to Cornell University, where she studied Biological Engineering and focused on Environmental Engineering.

Now, Bridget is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Michigan. She is using tools from biology to improve human health and preserve the environment.

Bridget has always wanted to help people and the environment. She found that she really liked math and science. She attended a research camp after her Junior year of high school. It was there that she decided that she wanted to study engineering. With all of the worries about climate change, Bridget decided to focus on Environmental Engineering.

In her free time, Bridget likes to have fun, too! Some of the things she likes to do include skiing, photography and reading. Bridget also volunteers with lots of clubs and organizations to teach young girls about how amazing Environmental Engineering is. She hopes to inspire young girls to study engineering too!

Read more about Bridget here.

What Is Environmental Engineering? environmental engineer

Environmental Engineering Activity: Incredible Edible Aquifer

Environmental Engineers continually work to prevent pollution so that our air is safe to breathe and our water is safe to drink. They explore new, creative ideas to lower air emissions, such as designing more efficient vehicles, industrial filters to reduce the amount of particulate matter released into the atmosphere, and indoor air filters to keep our indoor air clean.

Environmental Engineers guard the quality of our environmental resources in many ways including: environmental cleanup, water quality treatment, smart waste disposal and preventing air pollution. They design water and sewage treatment plants that clean water for human use.  They design industrial systems and filters that make sure factory-released water is not polluting our environment. They are challenged to clean groundwater and restore it to a natural or usable state so that it remains free of harmful chemicals that could make people sick.

We are going to be Environmental Engineers by building our own aquifers* to illustrate their geologic formation, how pollution can get into ground water and how this pollution can end up in drinking water wells.

*Aquifer: A natural underground area where large quantities of ground water fill the spaces between rocks and sediment.

What You Will Need:
  • Chocolate sprinkles
  • Clear plastic cup 12-14 oz
  • Clear soda (e.g., lemon-lime): 12 oz
  • Crushed ice
  • Mini marshmallows
  • Chocolate chips
  • Puffed cocoa cereal
  • Red Kool-Aid® (sweetened and dry)
  • Spoon
  • Straw (preferably clear)
  • Vanilla ice cream

Ground water supplies 30% of the drinking water in the United States. Wells are drilled through soil and rock into ground water aquifers to supply drinking water. Unfortunately, ground water can become contaminated by improper use or disposal of chemicals such as fertilizers and household cleaners. These chemicals can percolate down through the soil and rock into an aquifer and eventually into drinking water wells. This contamination can pose a significant threat to human health.

What Is Environmental Engineering? environmental engineer

  • Step 1.  Fill a clear plastic cup 1/3 full (total) with a layer of crushed ice followed by a layer of mini marshmallows and chocolate chips. These represent gravels and sands that make up the aquifer. Notice the different sizes and shapes and how the pieces have spaces or “voids” between them.
  • Step 2. Add enough soda to almost reach the top of the layer. The soda represents ground water. Notice that the soda fills all the spaces among the marshmallows, chocolate chips and ice. The aquifer is now saturated with soda. It is a “saturated zone.” The top of the saturated zone is called the “water table.”
  • Step 3.  Add a layer of ice cream. This layer, called a “confining layer” is impermeable or significantly less permeable than the aquifer below it. It is difficult for water to soak through. It helps protect the aquifer from contamination and is usually made of rock and/or clay.
  • Step 4. Add puffed cocoa cereal on top of the ice cream. This represents the unsaturated zone, the area where air fills most of the pores (spaces) in the soil and rock.
  • Step 5. Scatter chocolate sprinkles over the top. The sprinkles represent the soil, which is very porous.

Now that your aquifer is built, we are going to look at how contaminants and wells interact with the aquifer.

  • Step 6. Sprinkle the dry Kool-Aid® powder over the top of the soil. The Kool-Aid represents contaminants on the ground like fertilizer or oil that leaks from cars. Does anything happen to the Kool-Aid?
  • Step 7. Using a drinking straw, drill a well into the center of the aquifer. Observe the aquifer and Kool-Aid. What happens when the well is drilled?
  • Step 8. Begin to “pump” the well by slowly sucking on the straw. Watch the decline in the level of soda below the ice cream layer and observe what happens to the contaminants. Do contaminants (red Kool-Aid®) leak through the confining area (ice cream) and get sucked into the well?
  • Step 9. Pour a small amount of soda over the top. The soda represents rain. It recharges the aquifer by adding new water. Watch how the Kool-Aid dissolves and moves into the aquifer. The same thing happens when contaminants are spilled on the ground. Do you think you could get the Kool-Aid back out of the soda?

Think about your neighborhood. What could you do to help protect the ground water? Try building an aquifer without the confining layer (ice cream). Does it change how the contaminants move through the system?

Now you can do a little environmental clean-up and eat your aquifer!


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    SWE Blog provides up-to-date information and news about the Society and how our members are making a difference every day. You’ll find stories about SWE members, engineering, technology, and other STEM-related topics.

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