Environmental Engineering vs. Environmental Science

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Earning a degree in either environmental engineering or environmental science can qualify the recipient to work in various roles that deal with issues at the intersection of the man-made and natural worlds.

But while these two paths of study have a number of similarities, they also have several important differences that should be recognized and understood before selecting one path over the other.

Here, we have provided a brief introduction to these two areas of study, followed by a side-by-side comparison to help aspiring environmental engineers or scientists reach a final decision.

Similarities, Differences, and Overlap: Environmental Engineering vs. Environmental Science

Environmental science and environmental engineering share some basic similarities. To begin, and perhaps most importantly, both areas of study are concerned with the natural environment and its relationship with the human world. Both environmental scientists and engineers focus on data gathered from the natural environment, particularly data on the past and future effects of human activity and its impact, to devise and implement solutions to a variety of issues.

Beyond that, however, these paths begin to diverge, although it’s fair to say they are complementary and may share the same ultimate goal or goals. Like any scientist, an environmental scientist is generally tasked with performing research for a specific project, gathering data provided by the natural environment focusing on a certain issue, such as environmental degradation and the effects of human activity on a given area. An environmental scientist may then analyze this data, and further, provide a recommendation to be implemented in order to facilitate change or enact future benefits.

Here, the environmental engineer steps in. Once provided with data (an analysis, and a recommendation by a scientist), an engineer can begin using his or her knowledge of both engineering and environmental science to apply it toward a plan and solution. His or her actions could include planning new infrastructure to limit the effects of human activity on a specific space or even shaping a plan to ensure that a given area is rapidly developed to allow for human use.

Ultimately, these two fields of study can be largely understood and differentiated through their related terms: science and engineering. Specifically, an environmental scientist will work like any other scientist, gathering and analyzing a set of data to provide answers to certain questions. And, in contrast, an environmental engineer will utilize a host of engineering principles to create a plan of action using the information provided by the scientist. Of course, these two fields of study are both concerned with the same end goal of answering questions or providing solutions to problems related to the environment, which again highlights the significant overlap between the two.

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Side-by-Side Comparison of Environmental Science and Engineering

To better understand the sometimes subtle distinctions between the two fields, please review the side-by-side comparison of environmental engineering and environmental science below.

Environmental Science Environmental Engineering
How do the fields define and differentiate themselves? Although definitions may vary depending on the source, Iowa State University defines environmental science as a study that “provides an integrated, quantitative, and interdisciplinary approach to the study of environmental systems.” Some consider it a branch of biology concerned with the interconnectivity among organisms and their environment, as well as the study of how our role as humans affect our natural surroundings. Environmental engineering, in general, is a field of study that utilizes existing principles of engineering to develop and implement solutions to environmental issues, often as a result of a recommendation provided by an environmental scientist.
What department is the program typically part of in the institution? In many cases, the environmental science program at a university or college will fall within the natural sciences department, or in the department of geography and environmental sciences. Of course, the program’s location within the institution ultimately depends on several factors. Environmental engineering most often falls within the engineering department at a given university and is even occasionally combined with the sub-department of civil engineering, as well.
Do any specializations exist within these degree programs? A number of specializations may be available to those pursuing a degree in environmental science, including the following:

  • Aquatic biology
  • Applied ecology
  • Alternative energy
  • Environmental agriculture
  • Earth systems
  • Geographic information science.
Depending on the institution, students within programs of environmental engineering may be able to specialize in the following areas, among others:

  • Coastal and ecological engineering
  • Water resources engineering
  • Geophysical engineering.
What courses will students likely take while pursuing this degree? The curriculum for an environmental science program will likely depend on the institution; however, students pursuing this degree will likely take courses on basic science and math; earth sciences (geology, in particular); and natural sciences (such as ecology and hydrology).

Beyond this, students may take courses on public policy; economics; political theory; and various specialization courses, all of which will generally focus on their relation to the environment.

Those students pursuing a degree in environmental engineering at either an undergraduate or graduate level should expect to take courses on several classes, including physics and chemistry; mechanics; thermodynamics; heat transfer; engineering hydrology; air pollution control; and a number of other electives, depending on their schedule.
What existing work will students be prepared for with this degree? Individuals who have a degree in environmental science may be able to utilize their skills in a research position; indeed, environmental scientists may be tasked with researching a specific topic or space for a project, examining and analyzing a number of factors (including human actions and their effects), at which point they may be asked to create recommendations for change or future operation. These scientists may assist with projects aimed to clean public areas or mitigate the effects of human influence on the environment, or teams that work to enact policy change. Ultimately, those with a degree in environmental engineering will likely be able to find work on a number of different projects as an environmental engineer, including those focused on:

  • Public works and recycling
  • Waste disposal and wastewater treatment
  • Air pollution control
  • Environmental impact and climate control.

Furthermore, the services of an environmental engineer may be utilized in projects that extend beyond these, and ultimately wherever solutions need to be implemented in a system that remains connected with the environment.

What emerging work will students be prepared for with this degree? Because the human population is slated to grow consistently for the foreseeable future, environmental scientists will likely always be needed to gather and analyze data and craft suggestions to determine how human beings can continue to exist within their natural surroundings.

To be sure, environmental scientists will be required to work to discover new ways to reduce any climate damage and develop more efficient methods of waste disposal and water treatment, among other tasks.

As human beings continue to grapple with understanding their role within the natural environment and how their actions can affect and degrade their natural surroundings, employment opportunities for environmental engineers should continue to grow.

Indeed, environmental engineers will continuously be needed to develop solutions to impending environmental crises and to help ensure the population is efficiently and effectively living within and connecting with their natural environment.

Three schools that offer online bachelor’s degrees in this field The following is a list of three schools that offer online bachelor’s degrees in environmental science:

  1. Southern New Hampshire University
  2. Oregon State University
  3. American Public University
We could not identify any schools that offer an online bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering, however, there are some campus-based bachelor’s degree programs where some courses may be completed online.
On-campus options include:

  1. Portland State University
  2. The University of Toledo
  3. University of Washington
Five schools that offer online master’s degrees in this field The following is a list of five schools that offer online master’s degrees in environmental science:

  1. Johns Hopkins University
  2. Montana State University
  3. Oregon State University
  4. The University of Colorado at Boulder
  5. University of Illinois – Springfield
The following is a list of five schools that offer online master’s degrees in environmental engineering:

  1. Johns Hopkins University
  2. North Carolina State University
  3. University of New Haven
  4. Villanova University
  5. Worcester Polytechnic Institute
The Bottom Line A degree in environmental science helps an individual to adopt a role as a scientist, one who specifically researches a given topic, analyzes data, and uses this information to help others enact significant change. An environmental scientist may assist in developing new recycling systems, may analyze the human influence on the environment, or may work to enact legislative change through presentations. Ultimately, environmental scientists play an integral role in preserving the quality of the natural surroundings that we share. Environmental engineers, in general, take the information presented by scientists and develop and implement solutions to any issues presented. An environmental engineer may assist in the creation of a new waste disposal project or may help craft a new system to monitor air pollution. Overall, these engineers are responsible for taking action to help protect the integrity of our natural environment.

Online Environmental Science Programs

Southern New Hampshire University

Southern New Hampshire University offers an online bachelor of science (BS) in environmental science providing students with a solid foundation in physical and natural sciences. Students will gain the hands-on experience and education they need for pursuing their passion for the environment. Focusing on real-world environmental scenarios and issues, the program includes instructor-led lab courses that are conducted with lab kits directly mailed to students. Students will also have the opportunity to voluntarily participate in internships, and take experiential courses to gain real-world skills.

The program allows students to choose from two concentration options: data analytics in science and natural resources and conservation. Made up of 121 credits, the program includes courses such as ecological principles and field methods; environmental science research methods; environmental science colloquium; principles of physics; geology; general biology; and fundamentals of chemistry.

At the end of the program, graduates can pursue opportunities in climate science, wildlife ecology, conservation, restoration ecology, environmental ethics, and environmental data analysis. They will be well-positioned to take up careers as health and safety inspectors, environmental law and policy advocates, and sustainability officers.

  • Location: Manchester, NH
  • Accreditation: New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 48 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $320 per credit

Johns Hopkins University

An online master of science program in environmental sciences and policy offered by Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences provides students with combined expertise in policy and science empowering them to become leaders and change agents in private and public organizations that are responsible for safeguarding the environment.

Students will have the opportunity to follow a focus area and choose courses that best fulfill their interests. The focus areas include conservation biology; sustainability; international environmental policy; climate and energy; remediation, compliance, and assessment; environmental justice and equity; and science writing.

The major admission requirements include a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. college or university, a minimum grade point average of 3.0, a completed application, and an official transcript confirming degree conferral.

As part of the program, students will delve into core topics such as geological foundations of environmental science; hydrology and water resources; oceanic and atmospheric processes; principles and methods of ecology; environmental applications of GIS; and environmental policymaking and policy analysis.

Recent graduates of this program have been able to secure positions such as senior biologists, environmental protection specialists, senior program officers, information technology specialists, and chief sustainability officers.

  • Location: Baltimore, MD
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Expected Time to Completion: 12 to 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $4,340 per course

Oregon State University

Oregon State University offers an online master of science in environmental sciences or a professional science master’s in environmental sciences providing students with access to knowledge and industry experts that will position them to lead in this field. The MS program requires students to write a thesis or complete a project, while the professional science master’s (PSM) is a non-thesis program with an internship. The PSM in environmental sciences program is recognized by the National Professional Science Master’s Association.

Students in both career pathways will have the option to choose from the following eight tracks: biogeochemistry; climate change; ecology; environmental education; natural resources; quantitative analysis; social science; and water resources. Both pathways require students to complete 45 credits. The curriculum includes courses such as environmental perspectives and methods; experimental design; environmental analysis; geographic information systems; and world views and environmental values.

Admission requirements for the program include a bachelor’s degree with a minimum cumulative grade point average of 3.0, a completed application form, official transcripts from all colleges and universities attended, a cover letter, three professional references, a current CV, and IELTS and TOEFL scores for international students. A commitment from a major professor is required for MS degree applicants.

On successful completion of the program, graduates can take up roles such as environmental scientists, environmental managers, geospatial scientists, environmental consultants, sustainability analysts, wildlife biologists, and restoration specialists.

  • Location: Corvallis, OR
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $560 per credit

Online Environmental Engineering Programs

North Carolina State University

North Carolina State University’s online master of environmental engineering (MENE) program provides students with the foundation for an array of careers related to protecting the planet. This non-thesis program includes concentration options in air quality and air pollution; environmental process engineering; coastal engineering; modeling and systems analysis; water resources; and energy systems.

To get accepted into the program, applicants must have an undergraduate degree in environmental or civil engineering from an accredited institution or its equivalent with an overall grade point average of 3.0. Applicants who have an engineering degree from a US institution will not require GRE scores. TOEFL or IELTS are required for international applicants.

Comprising 30 credits, the program includes courses such as introduction to numerical methods for civil engineers; biological principles of environmental engineering; chemical principles of environmental engineering; engineering principles of air pollution control; principles of air quality engineering; water resources engineering; and environmental exposure and risk analysis.

Graduates of the program will be well prepared to pursue careers such as environmental consultants, air quality inspectors, green building engineers, environmental exposure and risk analysts, and water treatment or wastewater project managers.

  • Location: Raleigh, NC
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $505.28 per credit

University of New Haven

University of New Haven’s online master of science program in environmental engineering can be completed entirely online. Exploring several areas of environmental engineering such as water quality, environmental protection issues, water purification, solid waste management systems, wastewater treatment, emission control measures, and site remediation, students in this program learn to develop sustainable solutions to complex environmental problems.

Consisting of 30 credits, this ten-course program includes coursework in surface water quality management; hazardous waste treatment; open channel hydraulics; air pollution fundamentals; solid waste management; containment fate and transport in the environment; biological treatment of aqueous wastes; and environmental law and legislation.

  • Location: West Haven, CT
  • Accreditation: New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 18 months
  • Estimated Tuition: 990 per credit

Villanova University

The civil and environmental engineering department at Villanova University has state-of-the-art laboratories that support environmental and water resources research and teaching. The university’s online master of science program in water resources and environmental engineering provides students with an engineering view of these fields. Students can complete this program entirely online.

The program comprises 30 credits including courses such as lake, stream and wetland ecology; hazardous waste management; water quality modeling; water resources planning and management; modern structural analysis; wood design; sustainable manufacturing; geoenvironmental engineering; and geoenvironmental processes.

  • Location: Villanova, PA
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,505 per credit