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Environmental Systems Engineering

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Environmental Systems Engineering

The Environmental Systems Engineering degree combines a technical engineering foundation with a broader vision of the political, social, and economic aspects of the challenges in the hands-on design of environmentally sustainable strategies, practices and infrastructure.

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Why did we create the Environmental Systems Engineering B.S. degree?

Environmental Systems Engineering Undergraduate

A number of students at Stanford are interested in careers where they will be able to contribute to solving major environmental challenges.

Many aspire to be involved in the hands-on design of environmentally sustainable strategies, practices and infrastructure — these students will need to combine a technical engineering foundation with a broader vision of the political, social, and economic aspects of the challenges they seek to solve. And they will need the skills to compellingly communicate their ideas orally, visually, and in writing.

The EnvSE degree is designed to bring all of this together in a flexible package, which includes the option of counting certain overseas classes and Introsems.  The major integrates the important elements outlined above in a way that leaves ample room to add a personal touch to the degree.

We see this degree as the perfect complement to the highly successful Earth Systems degree, which includes many of these broader goals but has a natural sciences emphasis rather than a focus on engineering tools and skills.

Why freshwater, coastal, and urban systems?

Climate change and population increase in the 21st century will impact urban environments in many different ways — water scarcity, global sea rise, more frequent and severe storms and hurricanes And the impacts of global warming and urban pollutant discharge/runoff on the ocean and its health are especially enormous — ocean acidification, desertification, destruction of coastal ecosystems. A major engineering challenge facing us is how to create and rebuild cities-of-the-future to be fully sustainable.

By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas — this represents an increase of 3.5 billion people over today. Already, in the continental U.S., counties adjacent to the coast account for 39% of the total population, even though they constitute less than 10% of the total land area.

A systems approach to addressing these challenges is needed. Producing engineers with deep technical and analytical skills who can function effectively in a policy and decision-making world will be critical. 

The EnvSE degree is intended as a “launch pad” for these 21st-century engineers. Students in the EnvSE major can choose to specialize in urban environments, freshwater environments, or coastal environments:

  • Urban environments focuses on sustainable design and construction of urban infrastructure, including both building-scale and urban-scale issues Students learn about sustainable construction practices, energy technologies, water supply systems, and urban planning.
  • Freshwater environments aims to achieve sustainable design, management, and protection of water supply systems for urban areas The curriculum includes water resources, water treatment and reuse, and design principles for urban waterways.
  • Coastal environments considers the impacts of urban areas on coastal waters, and vice versa.  Topics include physical oceanography, sources and control strategies for coastal contaminants, and issues in coastal planning and policy.

How can students explore EnvSE as a major?

Students can easily explore the EnvSE major early on, via selected IntroSems which can count towards the major.

And a new class, “Introduction to Environmental Systems Engineering” (CEE 1), offers interested students an opportunity to explore the EnvSE major out in the real world. This year, CEE 1 involved field trips to San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal project, the Ox Mountain landfill gas to energy facility, and the Palo Alto wastewater treatment and reclamation plant, with CEE faculty members serving as tour guides. A bike field trip followed an urban waterway to estuaries in the South Bay, allowing students to see, up close, the urban policy, planning, and flooding issues faced by our local cities.

What can graduates do with this degree?


EnvSE should appeal to students with a wide variety of career goals. Graduates can:

  • Focus on urban infrastructure design and renewal, as consulting engineers
  • Go on to graduate school, for example in civil and environmental engineering, or in scientific fields such as hydrology and oceanography
  • Work for NGOs and foundations focusing on solving environmental challenges (and perhaps ultimately go on to law or business school)

What’s the difference between this major and the environmental track of the Civil Engineering major?

  • Professional Considerations: The Civil Engineering B.S. degree is ABET-accredited, while the Environmental Systems Engineering major is not.
  • Pragmatic Considerations: The Civil Engineering major (116 units) provides a structured curriculum that ensures breadth across different areas specified by ABET. The Environmental Systems Engineering major (96 units) offers much more flexibility in choosing courses, and the ability to focus on a specific topic area.

What is ABET accreditation, and should I care about it?

A degree accredited by ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) is a first step toward a professional engineering license. In California, you must accrue 6 years of work experience under the supervision of a licensed professional engineer before being allowed to take the licensing exam. An ABET-accredited B.S. degree counts as 4 years of this required work experience. Earning a M.S. degree from a department (like our CEE Dept.) that offers an ABET-accredited B.S. degree will give you credit for a total of 5 years of work experience in California, regardless of whether or not your B.S. degree is ABET-accredited. This policy regarding the M.S. degree can be found in the official 2019 document issued by the California Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists, titled “Board Rules and Regulations Relating to the Practices of Professional Engineering...” (PDF, see p. 20, item (b)(4) for policy, and p. 2, item (h) for definition of term).

If you envision a career providing, supervising or managing professional engineering services (e.g. engineering investigations, design), you will likely need to become a licensed professional engineer and should aim, via your chosen BS and/or coterm (or MS) degrees, to earn ABET credit for 4-5 years of work experience.

Requirements for the major are provided in the Handbook for Undergraduate Engineering Programs