Addressing social justice issues with an engineering master’s degree

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Old plumbing fixtures.

The ongoing (as of April 2019) water crisis in Flint, Michigan, illustrates how the technical processes of water treatment and environmental engineering intersect with social justice issues. Communities that lack access to clean and sufficiently treated water are exposed to major health hazards, which threaten the well-being and ultimately the lives of residents. Experienced environmental engineers can help address these issues.

How lead contamination is intertwined with the struggle for social justice

Like many municipalities, Flint had historically relied on lead service lines (LSLs) to connect its homes to local water supplies. LSLs and plumbing have a long history; in fact, the English word “plumbing” derives from the Latin word for lead, “plumbum.” Lead’s durability and malleability made it ideal for forming pipes, but these attributes are outweighed by its toxicity to humans.

While numerous LSLs remain in use with the potential to contaminate the water passing through them, corrosion inhibitors are widely used to mitigate this possibility. In Flint’s case, though, these chemicals were not applied after the city switched its water source from the Detroit River to the Flint River in 2014. Water quality suffered as a result and was worsened by other issues, including significant bacterial contamination of the new water supply as well as complications from the overuse of chlorine to kill those same bacteria.

Flint is not alone in facing such challenges in ensuring clean water. A 2016 USA Today study found that 2,000 water systems, spread across all 50 states and serving 6 million Americans, contained elevated lead levels. Moreover, 600 of them had water with lead content measuring 40 parts per billion — double the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level and something the agency considers an imminent threat to children and pregnant women.

Low-income communities and communities of color — Flint qualifies as both — are disproportionately likely to suffer from environmental hazards, including contaminated water. Discrimination against these communities contributes to numerous risks, such as high concentrations of hazardous waste sites in their vicinities and unusually contaminated water supplies. It also increases the chances of their members being the victims of municipal cost-cutting measures — which were the original catalyst of the Flint crisis, since switching to the Flint River was driven by cost considerations.

From a social justice perspective, the severity and protracted nature of the Flint water crisis can be seen as another form of redlining, i.e. the denial of essential services to particular communities, often for racist reasons. Addressing it requires a multi-pronged approach, with increased resources for engineering an important part of any effective strategy. Environmental engineers with an online Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) from the University of California, Riverside (UCR) have the background and experience to apply principles of environmental justice in tandem with proven engineering practices that keep water clean.

What environmental engineers can do to advance the cause of social justice

The UCR MSE includes multiple specialization tracks. One of them, environmental engineering, focuses predominantly on water treatment processes. Students will complete four courses each in the MSE core and in environmental engineering, along with a capstone project. No residency is required, and all coursework can be completed online.

Let’s take a closer look at what MSE students learn from the concentration-specific courses.

Water Chemistry in Natural and Engineered Systems

This class explores chemical equilibrium within both natural and manmade (treated) water systems. Students will also examine concepts in water quality measurement, chemical thermodynamics and chemical speciations that provide insight into the bioavailability and toxicity of certain elements within water systems.

Physical and Chemical Separation Processes

In this course, MSE students look at the relevant physical and chemical processes present in natural and engineered water systems. Additional topics include the chemistry of colloids, the use of sedimentation to remove solid particles from water during treatment, how coagulation allows for the removal of larger particles through charge neutralization and the workings of different forms of water filtration.

Biological Treatment Processes

This course delves into exactly how water systems like Flint’s become contaminated by harmful chemicals. It also examines the modern treatment processes for preventing, mitigating and reversing such contamination. Specific topics include the use of fixed-film systems that employ a medium such as rock, wood or plastic to filter water and the mechanics of suspended treatment processes. Finally, this class also focused on the chemical, kinetic and thermodynamic characteristics of biological reactions.

Advanced Treatment Systems

There are many possible treatment methodologies for both drinking water and wastewater, beyond the ones discussed above. This courses zeroes in on some of the more sophisticated techniques on this front, including the use of reverse osmosis to remove molecules, ions and other particles from water, how membrane filtration keeps large particles out of treated water, and advanced chemical oxidation processes using chemicals like hydrogen peroxide and ozone.

With the knowledge and experienced gained from these courses, environmental engineers can help identify and implement the treatment processes that will ensure cleaner water for any community. The technical and managerial focus of the program core — which includes the courses Engineering in the Global Environment, Technology Innovation and Strategy for Engineers, Introduction to Systems Engineering and Principles of Engineering Management — also prepares engineers to work well in teams and navigate challenges when engaging with different project stakeholders. While engineering alone is not enough to solve social justice problems, it is necessary to overcoming the dangers presented by LSL leaching and bacterial contamination of water supplies.

How you can begin your path to an online engineering degree

The UCR online engineering degree is designed to be both flexible and rigorous. It can be completed in only 13 months without ever setting foot on the UCR campus. The degree you earn will also be identical to the one you would have received from an on-campus program. Visit the main engineering page today for an overview of the degree. You can also answer a few questions to receive a free copy of our brochure.

Recommended Reading:

What Are Advanced Water Treatment Processes? The Growing Need for Advanced Water Treatment


How America forgot about the lead in its tap water

Beyond Flint: Excessive lead levels found in almost 2,000 water systems across all 50 states

A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy