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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 a number of 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 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, in order 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 in order 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 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.

Featured Environmental Engineering Programs

Johns Hopkins University

  • Master of Environmental Engineering
  • MS - Environmental Engineering & Science
Arizona State University

  • Sustainable Engineering (MSE)

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 the 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 affects 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 a number of 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:

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

  1. Coastal and ecological engineering;
  2. Water resources engineering; and
  3. 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 a number of 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:

  1. Public works and recycling;
  2. Waste disposal and wastewater treatment;
  3. Air pollution control; and
  4. 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 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, the 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.
Name 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
The following is one of the only schools that offers an online bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering:

  1. California National University

(Note that there are also some hybrid-online bachelor’s degree programs where some but not all courses may be completed online.)

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

  1. Johns Hopkins University
  2. Villanova University
  3. University of New Haven
  4. Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  5. North Carolina State University
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 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 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.