Engineering Courses: How to clean up (and make money too)

Technology graduates who care about our planet are in demand. By Helen Hague
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Those who combine an aptitude for science with a desire to make a practical contribution to helping to solve the planet's environmental problems need not resort to direct action against road-builders or oil companies. A career in engineering offers a chance to develop "greener" technologies that will conserve scarce resources and design products that do not damage the natural world.

Professor Roland Clift, head of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey, is a vociferous advocate of "clean technology". This aims to provide a human benefit that, overall, uses less resources and causes less environmental damage than alternative means with which it is economically competitive. Waste reduction programmes that cut costs and improve the environment are an obvious example.

Clean technology, Professor Clift argues, is rapidly gaining acceptance. Coupled with life-cycle analysis - an approach to environmental management which follows flows of materials and energy from primary resources to disposal - it can yield greater benefits. Life-cycle training provides a framework for assessing strategies for waste management. For instance, is it environmentally better to recycle paper or plastic or to use such waste material as fuel?

The Centre for Environmental Strategy is a multidisciplinary postgraduate institution. And undergraduates at Surrey can benefit directly from its influence and expertise. At the department of chemical and process engineering, environmental subjects are seen as an integral part of first-degree courses in chemical engineering and chemical and bioprocess engineering.

There are modules on life-cycle analysis as part of four-year undergraduate courses. A year in industry will help to clear the overdraft - students on placement can expect to get paid 70 per cent of a qualified engineer's salary - as well as speed up the process of gaining a professional qualification: the time in industry counts towards professional accreditation by the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

Job prospects and starting salaries are enhanced by the year off campus. Chemical engineers are at the top end of engineering salary scales: exceptional students will earn pounds 20,000 in their first jobs. At Surrey, engineering courses are modular and run for two 15-week semesters each year.

In the next academic year, the department is introducing an undergraduate course in environmental chemical engineering in the hope of attracting students with science A-levels who are concerned about the environment but may not have considered chemical engineering as a career choice. "We are keen to attract biologists and chemists who may only have thought in terms of degree courses in natural sciences and give them the intellectual training to allow them to help solve environmental problems," says Professor Smith.

The department of manufacturing and engineering systems at Brunel University offers a degree in engineering for the environment. Students are challenged to develop an understanding of the complexities of environmental problems, and in their second year get a chance to work as consultants to a company, carrying out an environmental audit. Local company projects have included a feasibility study on a combined heat and power programme and a pollution audit at the local crematorium.

Rita van der Vorst has pioneered environmental teaching in the department. She believes that students should develop social and environmental awareness and transferable skills alongside a good grounding in engineering. "We try to encourage students to think about problem-solving at the design stage, giving them skills to prevent the design of technologies that inflict environmental harm."

Industry is hungry for thinkers who can work in teams and who are good communicators, she says. "More and more companies are bringing in environmental management systems, so there is a growing need for people who know the language and are equipped to find solutions."

Professor Julia Higgins is dean of City and Guilds College, the main engineering faculty at Imperial College in London. She believes that those who care about the environment and have the relevant academic qualifications should seriously consider studying engineering.

Engineering is not a soft option, however. The Engineering Council says: "Engineers of tomorrow must be technically competent, market-conscious, commercially adept, environmentally sensitive and responsive to human needs."

It sounds a daunting checklist. But at least the job prospects don't look bad. As we move towards the 21st century, pundits predict that demand for professional engineers will continue to increase.

Courses that encourage students to embrace clean technology and sustainable development look set to become more attractive for employers. Who knows, by the end of the century, engineering could be seen as a worthwhile - even glamorous - discipline.