UT launches environmental engineering undergraduate degree

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After years of planning, the Cockrell School of Engineering launched a new undergraduate degree in environmental engineering this fall.

The new degree offers undergraduate students the opportunity to learn from more than 20 faculty members from the department of environmental and water resources engineering. A graduate program has been in place for some time and is currently ranked No. 4 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

The inaugural class of the undergraduate program includes 65 freshmen, 10 more than the department initially aimed to have enrolled, said Sarah Shields, academic advising coordinator for civil, architectural and environmental engineering. There are also 16 transfer students, all from the civil engineering program.

Civil engineering junior Savanna Smith is pursuing an environmental focus and said she would have been interested in the environmental engineering program if it had been offered earlier.

“I would rather spend my time here taking classes that will be more applicable for me,” Smith said. “Civil (engineering) is so broad, and there’s just not the time to be able to delve that deeply into the sub-disciplines.”

While it was initially thought that the new offering would lead to a decline in enrollment in civil and chemical engineering, this has not been the case.

“On the civil side, I haven’t necessarily seen that trend,” Shields said. “The number of applications for civil is still trending up.”

She added that this may indicate that the program is drawing students to UT that may not have otherwise considered the University.

Freshman environmental engineering student Griffin Harper said the program influenced his decision to attend UT.

“I was really excited to see that UT had this program because I’ve always been interested in engineering, and I knew UT had a really good engineering program,” Harper said. “So seeing that they were opening up a new environmental program made me really excited.”

Although current first-year students have not yet begun environmental engineering courses, the department is offering a brand new optional seminar led by Charles Werth, Bettie Margaret Smith Chair in Environmental Health Engineering , to introduce students to areas within the field.

“(The seminar has) been really eye-opening in showing us some of the things we may do in the future as environmental engineers,” Harper said.

The degree plan also allows students to take electives geared toward their specific interests within environmental engineering. Students can choose from four focuses including: air, climate and energy, sustainable water systems, containment and fate transport, and water resources and the environment. They may take classes in civil, architectural and chemical engineering to fulfill these focuses, as well as electives from the College of Natural Sciences.

“(The department) is trying to see what other things around UT we can integrate in with this program,” Shields said. “The focus is on interdisciplinary studies. They want students to not feel like they’re locked into engineering-only classes.”

While nearly every engineering major has a dedicated student organization, the environmental engineering program does not currently. Shields says that students are currently trying to start a UT chapter of the national organization American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists.

Even with the absence of a dedicated environmental engineering organization, Shields said the students have really come together, something she credits to the seminar class.  She said they bond over their classes and some have even volunteered together to help victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Harper agrees that there’s a strong sense of community within the program.

“It’s a great community. We all have very similar ideas about what we want to do in the world,” Harper said. “We all pretty much agree on all things sustainable and environmental.”