North Dakota State University was approached earlier this year by the state Department of Environmental Quality, asking for its help measuring COVID-19 in wastewater.

Dr. Wei Lin, civil engineering professor at NDSU, put together a team of civil and environmental engineers and microbiology professors, who then went into the field to take samples at wastewater treatment plants in Bismarck, Fargo and Grand Forks.

“You can measure COVID by the particulates that we breathe, but also in our wastewater streams,” said David Steward, chair of NDSU’s Civil and Environmental Engineering program in Fargo.

Later, the effort led to monitoring wastewater in dormitories at NDSU and in neighborhoods around campus in hopes of better ascertaining the count of COVID within the population.

Currently, Lin and his team are working with Gov. Doug Burgum’s office to get auto samplers in cities’ wastewater pipes to gauge the spread of the virus and what measures should be taken to help protect the population.

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“This is an environmental engineering issue,” Steward said, and one students will be studying as part of a new program offered this fall at the university.

A growing field of study

The Environmental Engineering program aims to offer students experience in the classroom, laboratory and field as they find solutions to complex environmental issues.

Environmental engineering is a newer field of study that is gaining popularity in the region and across the country, according to Steward.

“There are a number of studies out there showing that this is one of the fastest growing engineering disciplines,” he said.

According to Forbes, for instance, the environmental engineering field is fifth on the list of most valuable college majors, with a starting median annual salary of $51,700 and mid-career median average of $88,600.

What’s more, this isn’t a male-dominated field, Steward said, noting it is popular among women. The school is honing its diversity initiative even further in the hopes of attracting more minorities to the program, including tribal students.

The process to get the program on campus started about two years ago, after NDSU received requests for bachelor degrees in the field. The program was approved this past March, and only this fall received its first batch of students.

Surveys the school conducted indicated a need in the job market for some 20 graduates a year and so the school is building the program with that in mind – “and that's a program with 150 students,” he said, “a comparable size to other universities but, as I said, we're just in the beginning phases of this.”

Some students have inquired about transfer opportunities, but since the program is very new it doesn’t have the option to do that just yet; but stay tuned, Steward said.

Of course, NDSU isn’t the only school that offers environmental engineering programs in the region. Western Dakota Tech, which overall experienced high enrollment numbers this fall, also offers a program. There also are several offshoot programs in which students can expand their learning and apply their skills, according to school President Ann Bolman.

“Interestingly enough,” she said, “it has applications into a lot of other fields as well. A lot of our students are hired to work for companies that work with water.

Just about every municipality has a water group, for instance, and so a lot of our students go to work in those areas; but they also might go to work for the Forest Service; they may go to work for people that are working on road construction or find other applications of their background fields.”

One of the offshoots, a beekeeping program, was started by a student organization called the Environmental Action Team and harvested its first batch of honey this year. There also are courses for controlled environment technicians in agriculture.

“Students in environmental engineering are learning, basically, about the different parts of the environment, such as how to sample, what the expected conditions need to be, and how to monitor and calculate; basically, how to make changes in the environment if they need to,” Bolman said. “It's really a combination of chemistry and biology classes with heavy amounts of application, that’s really what the students are picking up on in that program. If I could, I would go take it myself.”

Tackling environmental issues

Environmental engineers are not like other types of engineers, who solve problems that may arise during the construction and design of a building. Environmental engineers “design solutions to problems and environmental issues in three media: gas, liquid and solids,” Steward said, giving the example of the water project he mentioned above.

Students are seen in the lab at NDSU’s new environmental engineering program.
Students are seen in the lab at NDSU’s new environmental engineering program. Image: Courtesy of NDSU

As another example, a senior class on gas takes a look at air pollution such as particulates. “For instance,” he said, “if you're designing a safe environment for people in a painting facility, and you have particulates in the air, how do we make sure that environment is safe and the people who are there are protected? We design things for liquids. How do we make sure that the water we drink is safe? We design solutions for solids. How do we handle the waste that we generate? How do we deal with recyclables, like microplastics that get into the environment? How do we deal with the long-term consequences of having plastics in the environment? How do we take solid wastes and turn them into energy sources? It's a really broad range of problems that students become prepared to address.”

He said students will do a lot of field and lab work. Coursework will include the standard engineering science curriculum, such as math sequences and chemistry, including lab work, and then move through classes on microbiology and fundamental principles of engineering in the environment.

“There's a wide range of courses they take to become prepared,” he said, noting the school also has a successful internship program.

“North Dakota State University already has a reputation for producing hands-on, project-ready engineers,” Steward said. “We've had conversations with the advisory board and industrial representatives, putting into place the kind of the internship experiences that our (environmental engineering) students will need so they can take what they learn in the classroom and in the laboratories into their field experiences, and then understand the practical applications of the design experience so they're ready to hit the ground running when they graduate.”

Steward, an international expert in the study of groundwater depletion, said he is especially excited about the water aspects of the program. He’s worked in a number of countries studying groundwater depletion and finding solutions for this growing environmental problem. Eventually, he will help instruct the environmental engineering program and is excited to share his experience and expertise with students.

“One of my goals coming to North Dakota State University was to be able to share those experiences with the region as we prepare for how it is that we use our groundwater supplies now and in the future, to make sure that we plan for sustainable use of our water supplies for the benefit of society,” Steward said.

“It's just been a wonderful experience working with people and putting the pieces into place for the successes of our students, figuring out the curriculum, figuring out the kind of laboratory experiences they would need, and working with the fundraisers of the region to be able to help support the environmental laboratory needs that our students have.”

He said the growing interest in environmental engineering comes perhaps at no better time.

“We live in a time of uncertainty,” he said. “We also live in a time of transformation, and environmental engineering is a transformative discipline. We have an opportunity now to help prepare the future of society by designing environments that are safer, both now and into the future, and it's timely that we're developing this program. It also is something that has the potential to become incredibly important for us as we move forward.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com.