Which Program is the Best?

I sometimes get asked which engineering program to pick for the best future career prospects.  I generally won’t answer that because its not the greatest way of selecting a program, and ignores individual aptitude and interest.  Being stuck in a career you don’t like is a likely outcome of that approach.

However there are some technical and societal trends that might be worthwhile thinking about for long-term opportunities and challenges.  And there are some programs that lend themselves to those trends, as I’ll point out.  If these areas are of interest, maybe one or more of the programs I mention are worth a look if you hadn’t thought of them before.  Many of these trends are related to climate change, which is a research and teaching interest of mine.  So here they are, in no particular order.

Big Data

Programs, apps, and all sorts of consumer, commercial and industrial devices have been capturing data for years.  Now the challenge is to make rationale use of it to improve things, minimize energy use, anticipate part failures, optimize use of resources, etc.  Students from a variety of our programs get involved with this, but our Management Engineering program curriculum is specifically set up to cover the math, computer science, and statistical tools relevant to this field  (in the theme areas of “Operations Research” and “Information Technologies”).

Water Supply

It’s clear in many parts of the world that fresh water supply is a major and growing problem, due to precipitation changes, aquifer and glacier depletion, and salt water infiltration.  Desalination, recycling, minimizing and reusing water are likely to be things that need a lot of engineering talent.  Engineering programs that would lead to work in these areas would typically be chemical, civil, environmental, geological, mechanical and systems design.

Water Infrastructure

It’s been clear for decades that the water and sewer infrastructure in our cities is aging and failing more frequently.  Also, with increasing extreme precipitation events the storm water management systems are getting overwhelmed and need to be modified.  Sea level rise is putting pressure on port infrastructure too.  These problems will keep civil, environmental and geological engineers busy for quite a while.

Decarbonization

The 2015 Paris Agreement set the stage for hopefully some progress on significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Fundamentally this means reducing the world’s use of fossil fuels over the coming few decades, and this is a massive technical challenge on many fronts.  This area can probably be broken down into several sub-areas:

Energy Efficiency

Making better use of the current energy is the quickest and “easiest” approach, whether it’s in consumer products, housing, transportation, or industrial processes.  Pretty well all of our programs might touch on this, but the ones that especially come to mind are chemical, civil, electrical, environmental, management, mechanical, and systems design.

Alternative Energy

Displacing carbon-based energy will require a variety of alternatives, whether it’s solar, wind, tidal, hydroelectric, hydrogen, nuclear, or carbon-neutral biofuels and biogas.  Again, all of our programs can touch on these areas.  The list in the previous section applies, perhaps with the addition of mechatronics (for anything electro-mechanical) and nanotechnology (for advanced materials and photovoltaics) .

Electrification

A significant part of decarbonization revolves around switching to more electricity use for various things, like transportation and heating.  Generating all this electricity and moving it around where it’s needed at the right times is a substantial problem, especially since many of our grid systems do not have the capacity at present.  Clearly this will require lots of electrical engineering, but also management or systems design (for planning and optimization of grid systems) and civil, environmental and geological (for infrastructure construction).

Conclusion

Those are just a few quick thoughts; I’ve left out  a number of other topics like alternative new materials, reuse of materials, waste to energy,…

I should also point out that environmental engineering plays a role in almost any area, because many infrastructure construction projects require environmental impact assessments before approval, not just water and wastewater.

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