CSE adds environmental engineering major

The new major will premiere this fall and focus on issues of pollution and natural resources.

by Lyra Fontaine

Tyler Olsen didn’t have trouble finding his passion, but until recently, he did struggle to find a major that fit it.

The University of Minnesota junior said he wants to work as an environmental engineering consultant to protect one of the world’s most vital natural resources — water.

And though he currently researches water resources at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, there hasn’t been a University major that fit his career trajectory. But that’s going to change.

This fall, the College of Science and Engineering is rolling out a new environmental engineering major that will focus on dealing with issues like water treatment, hazardous waste and air pollution.

“It fits exactly what I want to do,” said Olsen, who recently decided he will switch from a civil engineering major to the new environmental engineering major.

The University’s undergraduate environmental engineering major will be the only one of its kind in the state, said Joseph Labuz, head of the Department of Civil Engineering.

Tim LaPara, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies for the new major, said “onerous” requirements for getting the new major accredited slowed the process of making it a reality.

“We’ve talked about this for 10 to 15 years,” said Labuz, who pushed for the major’s creation.

The major, which addresses environmental issues like clean water and air pollution, is a critical area of scholarship, LaPara said.

He said that society “would start to fall apart” without environmental engineering.

“If you don’t have drinking water, things fall apart. If you don’t have sewage treatment, we would be wallowing in our own filth,” LaPara said.

In the past, the civil engineering department offered just a graduate degree in environmental engineering. Undergraduates were able to take only a handful of courses in the subject area.

Most future graduates of the major will likely work in government agencies, LaPara said. Teaching specialist Erin Surdo, who’s developing the major’s lab course, said some graduates will be asked to find ways to keep up with federal regulations on things like carbon emissions.

A formalized undergraduate degree could also help expand recent environmental engineering research led by University faculty members, including the studies on the chemical triclosan that accelerated the chemical’s statewide ban this legislative session.

Conner Dunteman, a University sophomore, switched from a biological to an environmental engineering major after it was announced in spring.

“I want go out there and do something good,” he said.