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Students conduct experiments in CEE’s Environmental Engineering Mechanics class
March 13, 2023

One-of-a-kind environmental engineering class overflows with real-world examples

Written By: Alex Holloway

A new course in environmental engineering is teaching students how the materials they use in civil infrastructure can have broad, lasting impacts on the world around us.

Mohan Qin, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is teaching CEE 325, the environmental engineering materials course. The course includes two lectures and one lab session per week, all focused on teaching students about how the building blocks of civil infrastructure interact with water and air.

Throughout the course, students learn how different materials behave and react to certain conditions, and how to conduct tests and interpret results to understand how those materials are performing. They also learn how to conduct forensic studies to determine how material properties may play a role in the event of a water treatment or conveyance system’s failure.

Qin says this knowledge may be useful for typical purposes—for example, determining what types of pipes are best for regions with corrosive soil environment. It can also have huge implications for the health of entire communities.

“Initially, when we design a system and put pipes down, we expect that the material can be stable or work safely for several decades,” Qin says. “But if the water or soil are too corrosive, it can wear that material down and cause corrosion and contamination, which will be a big focus of our course.”

The widely publicized crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a potent example of what can happen when environmental systems fail. An analysis by the American Chemical Society found that water from the Flint River was high in chloride ions, which can exacerbate corrosion in water pipes. That, combined with a too-low pH level in Flint’s water treatment plants, accelerated the degradation of the protective layer within Flint’s lead pipes, igniting a devastating public health crisis.

Beyond the lessons of system failures from places like Flint, students learn how factors like density and porosity, thermal expansion and contraction, and microbial growth will impact the materials they select for environmental infrastructure.

This environmental engineering materials course launched in fall 2022, with more than 20 students, as a permanent piece of the College of Engineering’s BS in environmental engineering program. As the environmental engineering bachelor’s degree program grows, she expects that 70 to 80 students will take the course each year.

Aubrey Barthel is a sophomore environmental engineering student in Qin’s class for the spring 2023 semester. She wants to go into wastewater management or environmental remediation, and says the class is providing important knowledge for future engineers to know how to use the best materials for their work.

Barthel chose the environmental engineering program for its hands-on experiences, and says Qin’s materials class gives students a chance to see how what they’ve learned impacts the world around them. “It’s all applicable,” she says. “Everything we’ve learned in chemistry or physics before coming into this class, we get to apply to real-world situations, which has been really nice to see.”

Qin says it’s been rewarding to see students take the lessons from the classroom to their everyday lives. “In the 2021 pilot course, after we talked about corrosion, my students called home to their parents about the materials they have in the water systems inside their own homes,” she says. “It was really encouraging to see them picking up what we’re learning and applying it to their lives.”

A course in environmental engineering materials is unique to UW-Madison. Qin and Professor Greg Harrington, the CEE undergraduate program chair, say the course is, to their knowledge, the only one of its type in the United States.

“This is the type of course that I think will be very beneficial for students,” Qin says. “Greg and I plan to talk about this course at a conference in the summer. We will tell our colleagues in the field about this course, to get feedback from them and to encourage others to have this sort of course in their programs.”

Featured image caption: Students conduct experiments in CEE’s Environmental Engineering Mechanics class. The class, taught by assistant professor Mohoan Qin, is a new, integral part of the Environmental Engineering program. Credit: Joel Hallberg.