The University of Wisconsin-Madison introduced environmental engineering last year as a new major. Prior to this, the subject was solely a branch of the civil engineering major.
Environmental Engineering Degree Program Director Greg Harrington explained that the purpose behind the split had a great deal to do with enrollment purposes, following in the footsteps of other Big Ten universities and listening to the requests of engineering students on campus.
Harrington led the push to turn environmental engineering into its own degree program with the help of other engineering constituents.
“There were five people working diligently for the two years that it took to put the final proposal together, but I’ve probably [been] working on it for six years,” Harrington said. “Within our department, we have 17 faculty members that we call environmental engineers and then there are a few others in other departments. It's probably a group of about 25 of us that were really supporting this and making it go.”
The implementation of the new major has come with two additional classes, but has otherwise left the curriculum fairly similar to what it was when housed in the civil engineering program. One new major requirement is a “materials” class. UW-Madison is one of the only universities that offers and requires this type of course Harrington explained.
Motivation behind the creation of the course stems from events such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Harrington explained. If the pipes had not been created using lead, the crisis would not have occurred.
“The basic, fundamental understanding of materials, and how strong they are and what they can leach into water or those sorts of things, we think is vitally important,” said Harrington.
Before the establishment of the major, there was an organization on campus that allowed students to explore the field of environmental engineering. The Environmental Engineering Club was founded in 2016 as a way for students to learn more about different career paths, research and experts’ experiences in the field through guest speakers, explained Environmental Engineering Club Vice President Melina Dennis.
Dennis explained that she is adding to her focus by attempting to make the club both socially based and educational.
“We have been shifting toward being a place for people to find community,” Dennis said. “Especially since it's a new major, we're having a lot more people come through, not really knowing where they fit in, wanting to meet more people who are interested in the same thing as them.”
Dennis expressed how she and the current president have worked to grow the club from a few consistent members attending meetings to 15 to 30 attendees. She explained how the organization is still attempting to recover from low membership numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I joined last semester, other than the board, there were only about two or three consistent people going to meetings,” Dennis said. “In our first two meetings of this semester, we had about 30 people.”
Harrington, who works as the advisor for the organization, cited the development of the environmental engineering major as a reason for the increase in club membership and meeting attendance numbers.
“One thing we've learned so far is that the new degree program has created increasing numbers in membership for the club,” Harrington said.
Although it’s only her second semester in the club, Dennis decided to take on a leadership role when most became vacant.
“Most of last semester's board quit except one senior,” said Dennis. “The first half of the semester, it was just me and one senior as vice president and as president. Just the two of us doing all this work.”
However, the two leaders' work paid off as they have been filling board members’ spots and increasing meeting attendance.
“We currently have eight board members now, so we were able to pick up six people,” Dennis said. “I think we're doing a lot better and we're still growing.”
Both Dennis and Harrington emphasized the importance of understanding what environmental engineering is as well as the vast number of places the major’s implications can be found throughout the world.
“Just about anything from a water protection standpoint that you see in the news is something that environmental engineers touch. We're also engaged heavily in alternative energy and reduction of energy use, so energy and climate change,” Harrington said. “Those sorts of things are all in the news, and if you're in our field, you have an opportunity to participate in those things.”