New cross-disciplinary major blends engineering and health sciences

It’s hard to become a visionary if your vision is narrow. That’s why Northeastern’s new combined major—Environmental Engineering and Health Sciences—provides students an opportunity to become more complete practitioners in their field.

“The combination of these two disciplines will make better engineers and better public health professionals,” said Edward Beighley, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “With a traditional degree, students don’t get courses that explore what happens to the human body when people are exposed to various contaminants and the impact that it has on their lives.”

Although the degree is heavily weighted towards engineering—with 16 courses in engineering compared to nine in the health sciences—health students stand to gain a great deal as well.

“Even if they don’t do a combined major, Bouvé students will have engineering students in their classes and benefit from learning how they think about health issues,” said Sharon Harlan, chair of the Department of Health Sciences. “Many of our students are pre-clinical and therefore we want them to develop an awareness of environmental health, the social determinants of health, and how the built environment influences human health.”

At the same time, engineers gain a greater understanding of how technical solutions to pollution, industry, and infrastructure can have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities.

“Engineers who are not exposed to environmental justice research might not think of proximity to toxins as part of the design they should consider,” said Harlan. “This is the importance of interdisciplinary work.”

Beighley agrees. “When engineers think about public health, they are usually thinking about large systems of water and air treatment. The public health perspective will help them consider these issue on a more localized level by the city block or individual houses.”

He also notes many environmental engineers gravitate to professions that straddle the line between traditional engineering and public health. This includes working in government agencies at the state and federal level that set environmental policy, positions on the municipal level that manage environmental infrastructure, and the insurance industry where technical expertise essential to understand the risk posed by earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods.

Forbes Magazineranked environmental engineering fifth on its list of “College Majors That Are Worth It.”This was due largely to the high pay and continued growth in the field.

In addition to the engineering and health science courses, the five-year program includes three co-ops, three required courses in mathematics, two in writing, one in chemistry, and one in environmental earth science.

The reason this major is so important, said Harlan and Beighley, is that environmental engineering and public health are so tightly entwined in the real world.

“Engineering students receive the added benefit of the public health perspective and vice versa,” said Beighley. “We put the two pieces together.”

Join Professor Thomas for his exciting new course offered this Spring

Introductory Skills for Healthcare and Rehabilitation (HLTH 2001).

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