What draws students to fields like environmental science and engineering? What’s it like to prepare for a career in ecosystem restoration, conservation, or sustainable design in the midst of such a challenging job market?  To begin to find out, we chatted with Biohabitats’ summer interns, Bobby Compton and Nick Cloyd.

Meet the interns.

Bobby is in his final year of study towards a Masters degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Florida. He is focusing on wetlands science and ecological engineering at the Howard T. OdumCenter for Wetlands. Nick just graduated from the University of Maryland, where he earned his B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology with a concentration in ecological technology and design.

Why environmental engineering?

Neither intern began his academic experience as an environmental engineering student. Bobby initially studied mathematics and then civil engineering and Nick began school as a business major. Both, however, ultimately felt the tug toward a field more deeply connected with their passion for the outdoors, and their desire to make a difference. Since making that shift, neither Bobby nor Nick has looked back. “From that point on, I knew I was in the right field,” said Nick. “Suddenly, I actually enjoyed studying. It wasn’t painful to go to class. It was exciting.”

Bobby not only appreciates his graduate program’s focus on wetlands, but also its emphasis on ecological engineering and whole scale ecosystems thinking, “The integration of human and natural systems is at the heart of the Center’s mission,” said Bobby, “and that is very unique.” Bobby’s program has also given him the opportunity to get some hands on experience in the field—the type of experience most students anticipate as they embark on summer internships. According to Bobby, this can sometimes lead to some pretty disappointing realities

You won’t find these interns fetching coffee and making copies.

“At my last internship before Biohabitats,” said Bobby, “I spent the bulk of my day making labels for books in a library of publications and manuals.”

Not so this time. Bobby and Nick spent the bulk of their summer in the field collaborating on a technology to restore habitat and ecosystem function to urban coastlines hardened by bulkheads. Working in the field along the edge of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and continuing on work initiated in the spring of 2013 by University of Maryland (UMD) students, Nick and Bobby altered and developed new “green bulkhead” designs and monitored previously installed designs.

The UMD students’ original design re-creates an algal turf scrubber, typically a horizontal structure, to grow on a vertical bulkhead. Water from the InnerHarbor is pumped over a screen on which algae grows. As the algae grows, it removes nitrogen and phosphorous from the water, and adds dissolved oxygen to the water.

Building off of that effort, Bobby and Nick were challenged this summer to develop a design that would work more like a vertical wetland. Through many design iterations, the interns were able to test different types of structures (rolls, mats, cylinders, and cages) and media (recycled plastic and oyster shells). They explored the use of passive designs, which rely on the Harbor’s tidal changes to circulate water through the system, and those which actively pump water.

Though only in the rudimentary, prototype stage, the project gave Nick and Bobby the unique opportunity to bring their designs to life by constructing, implementing, and monitoring them. So far, their analysis of the prototypes has only been qualitative. Once design options are narrowed down, more detailed, quantitative studies will be conducted.

Given the high visibility of the testing site along Baltimore’s InnerHarbor, they also did quite a bit of public outreach in the form of face-to-face conversations with the tourists, commuters, and residents. “The bulkheads are intended to create habitat and provide water quality treatment,” said Bobby, “but some of the most important goals are public education and aesthetic value. We want people to see these systems, and understand why they are important.”

How do you get the most out of an intern?

Expect more out of your interns and they’ll deliver.  Trust them and give them a little room for creativity.

The real world.

Did the internship bring them any insight as to how well their education has prepared them for the life of a practitioner?

“You can learn all these things [about ecological engineering] in class, but until you actually get out there and see how it works in the real world, you don’t have a full understanding of the subject,” said Nick. According to the interns, two aspects of ecological engineering (and applied science in general) that seem to have been under-addressed in the classroom were permitting and funding.

“It seems like the bulk of a professional’s time is spent on permitting and acquiring funding,” said Bobby.

“You’re taught the disciplines of the sciences,” said Nick, “but not the ‘red tape’ you have to go through to get work done. There could be a whole class dedicated to TMDLs, nutrient trading, wetland mitigation, etc.”

Bobby agreed. “More emphasis on permit writing and proposal writing, as opposed to a couple of PowerPoint slides on the subject would have been very helpful,” he said.  “Academics can say, ‘This brand-new science is going to work so much better than the status quo!’ But in real world, there may not be enough stakeholders who are receptive to this new idea, and no one’s going to give the money to implement it.”

Educational silos disappearing

Education did not fail the interns when it came to conveying the importance of integrating multiple disciplines in environmental work. “Interdisciplinary collaboration and learning is a core concept at the Center for Wetlands,” said Bobby.  “Nearly every grant I’ve seen recently has a section addressing interdisciplinary collaboration.  For example, our lab just wrote a proposal for a National Science Foundation grant related to sea level rise.  Four or five departments collaborated on this proposal to build a comprehensive model that not only incorporated ecological and environmental effects of sea level rise, but economic and socio-economic effects.”

This was true of Nick’s undergraduate experience at the University of Maryland. “The basis of our curriculum in ecological design and technology and environmental science involved connecting different disciplines,” he said. “It was really interesting to see many of the classes I took earlier, like calculus, physics, chemistry, ecology, and soils, really come together my senior year. We also had classes with students who were majoring in landscape architecture, CADD, and GIS.

What makes a good professor?

Both interns said that they value a professor who engages students and has had real world experience and can share relevant, enlightening stories from that experience. “You can tell which professors are at the university to teach and which ones are there to do their studies,” said Nick. “My favorite classes were the ones where the class was engaged in discussion and the teacher was more or less there to mentor and answer questions. Classes with active discussion and debate lead to real learning and creativity.”

The REAL real world: finding a job.

According to Bobby and Nick, entry level positions in ecological restoration, environmental engineering, conservation planning, and regenerative design can be hard to find.  “It’s frustrating to see the job postings that say “Entry level engineer wanted; two years of experience required,” said Bobby.  “It’s a catch-22. How can I get experience if I can’t find a job? But how can I find a job if I need experience to get it?  This underscores the importance of getting as much experience through internships while you are still in school.” Increased competition for these jobs adds to the challenge. “In Florida,” said Bobby, “environmental regulatory agency funds have been reduced, and a lot of environmental scientists and engineers have been laid off. Now they’re competing for the same jobs we’re looking for.”

With a new generation comes a fresh wave of hope.

Despite the challenging job market, and despite an acute awareness of the environmental degradation caused by previous generations, today’s students are hopeful.   “We have done quite a number on our environment,” said Nick, “but destruction breeds creation, and the movement is happening. I do have hope. That’s why I’m in this field.”

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