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What Does a Career as an Environmental Scientist Look Like?

"What are you going to do with your life?"... the one question every undecided senior dreads! Choosing a college major is a big step that directs a student towards a specific career path. Going through this can be stressful, especially since the correct path isn't always clear.

As high school teachers, we have the opportunity to not only teach, but help students find their path. High school juniors and seniors focused on college applications have a lot of questions. "What am I going to do with my life? Which college major will I find fulfilling? Does a career in this field pay well? What does a person in this career actually do?" These are tough questions to answer. The career world is big and intimidating to someone who has little to no experience in it.

I know personally I made my college major decision based off of my academic achievements. I was good at math and science, and engineering seemed like a decent fit. My Uncle was a successful PhD chemical engineer, and he told me that if I pursued chemical engineering, then the world would be my oyster out of college. That sounded good to me, so I chose that major not knowing what a chemical engineer actually did as a career. As I progressed through college, I learned more about the industry. I realized that I had an appreciation for chemical engineering, but not an adoration, and I didn't want to pursue it as a career. Environmental engineering and environmental science were more in alignment with my passions, so I switched my major senior year of college. Thankfully many of the classes and credits overlapped with my new major. This put me on a career path to environmental consulting, and then on to teaching high school physics and environmental science.

Most teachers reading this article teach environmental science students. We do a great job educating about environmental issues, but from my personal experience, I can't say that I have always conveyed a clear picture of what an environmental scientist does as a career. I wanted to create something that helps answer this question for students.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of my former environmental consulting colleagues, Jen Gresh. I edited an awesome 80 minute Zoom call down to a 30 minute conversation about her career. She does an excellent job explaining what an environmental consultant does day to day, and shares some very interesting environmental disaster stories. Below are potential classroom discussion questions should you share this with your students in class.

Potential Classroom Discussion Questions:

In regards to career choice:

  • Environmental consulting is just one of many career paths that an environmental scientist can pursue. After watching this video, how did it compare or contrast with your preconceived notions about the environmental science field?

  • Those of you who do know what you want to study in college, have you researched what kind of jobs are out there for your field of study?

  • What questions do you have about a career in environmental science?

APES curriculum discussion points:

  • Unit 4: While performing a Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment (ESA), why do you think it's important to analyze the soil composition and soil properties on a site? What could a water or soil sample tell you about the history of the property?

  • Unit 5: Identify a few negative impacts of agricultural practices that an environmental consultant might look for during a Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment?

  • Unit 5: What kind of steps might an environmental consultant take to remedy contaminated soils or groundwater after performing a Phase 1 ESA?

  • Unit 7: Manufacturers in the United States have to meet certain air quality emission standards set by the EPA and State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). If a factory fails an air emission test, why might an environmental consultant be brought in to help remedy the issue?

  • Unit 8: In the Wilmington, DE, Brandywine Fibre case, Jen's investigation showed that five different owners created major environmental issues on this property over a span of 100 years. The bank purchased the property not knowing extent of environmental issues. Why is so important to do due diligence before acquiring a property? Why is forensics so significant in the field of environmental consulting?

  • Unit 8: Hazardous soils were found on the Brandywine Fibre's property. They contained heavy metals (tannery waste) and white phosphorus (match factory waste). Hazardous soils like these can sometimes be sent to a treatment plant, but that remediation process is very expensive. Often the cheaper solution is shipping the hazardous soils to a landfill that will accept hazardous materials. In the video, Jen mentioned that the white phosphorus soil was placed in 55 gallon drums with water and shipped on a train out to Nevada. Identify the pros and cons of this solution.

  • Unit 8: In Woodstown, NJ, there was gas station with a leaky underground storage tank that spilled thousands of gallons of gasoline. The free product contaminated and floated on the shallow water table of the town. Pretend you're an environmental consultant in charge of the clean-up. Propose a solution to remedy the situation while keeping everyone in town healthy.

  • Unit 9: Jen talked about the future of environmental consulting. What did she identify as the focus, and why do you think environmental consulting will move in this direction?

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