Hello Sierra. These are great questions you are asking, and at the perfect time. Let’s get right to it:
1) What sort of classes should I take in high school to prepare for this field?
I think you should focus on taking as many courses in sciences and math as you can. If your school offers honors and Advanced Placement (AP) levels, I strongly suggest you enroll in as many as is comfortable. But it is also very important to be a well-rounded student. So be sure to include some classes that will add to you as a person and an engineer. Philosophy, writing, and a foreign language are all excellent options.
I went to a very poor school district in Puerto Rico, with limited electives. A course I wish had been offered in my high school was computer programming, as it would have helped me out in my college career.
2) What kind of college course(s) and degree would be optimal for a successful job in environmental engineering?
The most potent degree is Chemical Engineering with Environmental Engineering electives. Be prepared; it is very challenging, but you will be head and shoulders over your peers in the market. If you follow this route, the more intense focus on chemistry will give you superior knowledge when analyzing contaminant transport and remediation techniques. In other words, you will be able to observe with more accuracy any environmental problem you may encounter.
In addition to the required courses, such as Engineering Design, Fluid Dynamics, and Environmental Chemistry, try to add Groundwater Hydrology, Hazardous Materials Management, and Air Pollution for an understanding of all media: water, air, and land.
I have a degree in Civil Engineering, but most of my classes had an environmental focus. The courses I have used the most in my career, in addition to the ones I mentioned before, are the following: Environmental Toxicology, Groundwater Modeling, Risk Analysis, and Water Reuse.
3) As an environmental engineer, what sort of tasks/ obligations do you have?
As a civil servant, I have the obligation to protect human health and the environment by ensuring adequacy of cleanup activities under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) corrective action program. I manage and direct all technical and engineering work conducted at assigned RCRA facilities, including investigations and remediation. I develop cleanup strategies and schedules to meet legal mandates; manage and direct the work for issuing hazardous waste permits; and assist EPA’s counsel office in defending legal challenges to a permit. I also provide guidance and policy to stakeholders on RCRA and Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) issues, communicate technical information verbally to varied audiences, and ensure the proper storage, treatment, and disposal of hazardous waste.
4) What kind of company is best to work at for an environmental engineer?
It is not who you are working for, but what you are doing. If you are engaged in projects that are important to you, then the name or type of the company is not significant.
I have worked with many kinds of companies: research institutions, private corporations, consulting firms, state government, federal agencies, and not-for-profit organizations. The most important factor for all of them was what I was doing.
5) What kind of college is best for an aspiring environmental engineer?
I think that most universities in the USA will provide you a sound education in engineering. When choosing a university, just make sure that the engineering program has been accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
My three favorite universities are the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the École polytechnique (also known as X) in Palaiseau, France.
6) What things can I do now to prepare for this field?
Other than the standards, such as volunteer work and internships, get in contact with local environmental organizations and find out what help is needed locally. This will give you experience in the real world with very little pressure; and it will help you to “think globally, act locally.”