You mean you’ve never heard of environmental engineering?

By Dr. Daniel Tang Kuok Ho

More than a decade ago, when I had just finished my master’s degree, I faced many instances where I was asked what course of study I took, and whenever I answered, there would more often than not a puzzled look on the enquirer’s face.

If you are wondering what answer I gave, it was ‘environmental engineering’.

Whenever I recall those times, it makes me wonder whether environmental engineering was really that unusual back then. It has actually been around for quite a long time and can perhaps be best explained as being an interdisciplinary engineering field that uses facets of mainly chemical engineering and civil engineering to solve environmental problems.

While a chemical engineer may be engrossed with a host of processes ranging from manufacturing to refining, an environmental engineer would probably be more interested in processes in waste management and the treatment of liquid and gaseous emissions.

I found that after giving my answer, I would often have to go on to explain what the course was all about, and at the end of it all, they would quite nonchalantly just ask what one could do with such a qualification. I could sense that the question was rhetorical even though they would try their best to sound intrigued and mask their perplexed expressions. Nonetheless, armed with my master’s degree in environmental engineering, I quickly landed an environmental engineer position in which I thrived for many years.

Nowadays, whenever I have to answer the same question, I would still get a similar response from some, especially those with limited engineering knowledge. I wish I could tell them just how out of touch they are, how environmental engineering is all the rage, and how tremendously the field has evolved over the years.

When I studied my master’s degree with a sense of mission that I would one day contribute to the well-being of the environment, many others were already coming from different parts of the world to join the course. Half the class was filled with students from China who realised that environmental management would become the trend as their country underwent rapid industrialisation. Indeed, it did and they were very right in choosing environmental engineering!

In recent years, the need for environmental expertise has grown exponentially in Malaysia and many parts of the world as we face the burgeoning challenge of environmental pollution and climate change. Many companies have established environmental departments manned by environmental experts to deal specifically with environmental management and the impacts of their operations.

Being in both the environmental and education fields, I have witnessed this rising demand for environmental expertise, particularly when talking to our industrial panel members on the kinds of talents they seek. Environmental engineers feature very prominently among them.

There is also increasing pressure both nationally and internationally for environmental compliance. As companies jump on the environmental certification bandwagon, certification has become a popular means to gain a competitive business edge while contributing to environmental protection. This has further pushed the demand for environmental auditors and other environmental specialists.

I frequently bring my environmental engineering students on field trips which form a crucial part of their learning experience. The places we have visited include the Bakun Hydropower Dam, Pan-Borneo Highway construction sites, Kuching Barrage and the Kuching Centralised Sewage Treatment Plant, to name a few.

The students treasure such visits and have lauded their usefulness in preparing them for their future careers. The visits provide the students the opportunity to network with potential employers, thus better positioning the students for employment in the future.

Those visits have also connected me to many industrial practitioners whom on more than one occasion have expressed their need for environmental professionals and the importance of environmental safeguards in their operations. In certain instances, they have specified the need for environmental professionals with engineering training as such expertise will give them the versatility to deal with certain environmental aspects such as the design of systems and tools for pollution control.

Environmental engineering has gained much popularity and greater awareness over the last dozen or so years, and while my students still encounter what I went through when asked about their course of study, it is a lot less frequent now. People know more about environmental engineering and its importance, and unlike my experience, my students can speak with confidence and pride about their course of study and people would understand.

They do not have to persuade others that it is worthwhile course, that their qualification really means something and it will take them places. It is already proven in the bountiful job openings advertised online and in the media.

Dr. Daniel Tang Kuok Ho is a senior lecturer in the Bachelor of Environmental Engineering (Honours) programme at Curtin Malaysia. It is a 4-year engineering programme fully accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Board of Malaysia and Engineers Australia. Having an engineering degree recognised in both countries enables graduates to practice in both countries, and under the Washington Accord, in a number of other countries across the world. Dr. Tang can be contacted at daniel.tang@curtin.edu.my.

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