Making a World of Difference

Civil engineers are at the forefront of environmental engineering innovation.

Now is an especially exciting and rewarding time to enter the civil engineering profession. Population and economic growth in rapidly developing countries such as China and India necessitates explosive growth in supporting infrastructure- roads, water supply and treatment, sanitation, environmental controls, and building construction-all of which place enormous pressure on the globe's natural resources. Here in the U.S., we face aging infrastructures, overdrawn groundwater aquifers, rapid development in some parts of the country, and redevelopment projects in many cities. In addition, global climate change has mobilized interest and investment in various forms of renewable energy and in projects to reduce carbon emissions.

Joan Miller (BSCE '79), is senior vice president of CH2M HILL

When I entered the civil engineering field 26 years ago, in all honesty I didn't know much about it. I also didn't appreciate how integral the civil engineer's role is to the overall success of any given project. When I chose my field of study, I was drawn to civil engineering because I wanted to take a project from concept through design and construction, and then see the completed project come to life. I had the good fortune to join CH2M HILL, where experience soon revealed that my education put me squarely in the middle of the action on our projects;I often served as the project or program manager. After all, the civil engineer's role as the integrator of all engineering disciplines gives us an intrinsic vantage point for understanding the project as a whole. As project managers, civil engineers can lead the integration of global development needs with the protection of our natural systems and resources. Sustainable solutions-where engineers balance environmental, social, and developmental needs-are our future, because the health and wealth of our societies depend on them. Sustainable solutions ask us to think big and bold. They ask us to develop new technologies and solutions. And across the board, the special analytical skills of engineers will be critical in shaping a sustainable world.

We can no longer view natural systems as an endless source of raw materials or a bottomless sink for waste products. Although environmental regulations are still a strong driver for mitigating the environmental impacts associated with projects we design and build, our clients increasingly want to go beyond environmental compliance. Why? Because sustainable solutions can reduce their costs as well as enhance the reputation of their businesses with the public, investors, and other stakeholders. I see examples at CH2M HILL every day:

  • Throughout the U.S., green buildings are being designed and constructed under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEEDTM green building rating system.
  • In multiple locations, natural water treatment systems such as constructed wetlands are being using to treat wastewater.
  • In the Nevada desert, a new power station uses an air-cooled condenser that consumes 90 percent less cooling water than a conventionally designed plant.
  • In Vietnam, a shoe manufacturing facility uses sustainable architectural elements to help cool and light the interior of a 101,200-square-foot factory.
  • In Singapore, reclaimed municipal wastewater is treated for reuse as ultrapure water by the nation's high-tech manufacturing industry.
  • A Canadian oil and gas company is improving its greenhouse gas (GHG) measurement and reporting practices and exploring comprehensive ways to prevent global warming.
  • In California, treated municipal wastewater is piped 40 miles away, where it is injected into an aquifer to recharge a geyser basin. The resulting steam is used to generate electricity.

Today's issues have generated research and investment in a broad range of new technologies, all of which have expanded the civil engineering field. In storm-water management, for example, the new tenets of low-impact development (to reduce flows and increase infiltration) have created myriad new building products and design methodologies, such as porous pavements, bioswales, and green roofs. On the renewable energy front, civil engineers now design and construct sustainable systems ranging from wind turbines and solar installations to biofuel plants and landfill gas-to-energy systems. The watersupply field is also active, with highly developed filtration systems creating newly available sources of water through desalination and wastewater reuse. And transportation engineers more frequently consider "context-sensitive" options in roadway design to promote community safety, identity, and walkability.

It's easy to see that civil engineers play an important role in building a better world. At Purdue, students continue to build an exceptionally strong foundation in civil engineering and they're developing the creativity and capabilities required to look beyond traditional outcomes for inspired solutions. When these students take full advantage of their opportunities they'll make the world a better place.