While most Engineers in Training have a degree in Civil Engineering, I graduated with a degree in Biosystems Engineering from Auburn University in 2015. In fact, we have a couple of Biosystems graduates on our team. This engineering major offers a broad curriculum base including civil, environmental, ecological, agricultural, electrical, chemical and biological engineering. While it’s a less traditional path than a civil engineering major, focusing on the chemical and biological components rather than direct construction applications, I’ve found that my unique Biosystems training prepared me very well for the site design work I do every day.
Biosystems Engineering goes by various names depending on the university, and Auburn University describes the goal of the major as follows: “Biosystems engineers ensure that we have the necessities of life: a safe and plentiful supply of food and fiber, clean water to drink, renewable fuels and alternative energy sources and a safe and healthy environment. Auburn biosystems engineering graduates apply engineering to the challenges and opportunities presented by living ecosystems and the natural environment.” Per this description, you can see why a lot of Biosystems graduates go on to work in environmental engineering or renewable energy, and for permitting agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Personally, I worked on undergraduate research related to the organization of small aquatic ecosystems, and my senior project team designed an automated system to clean and process biomass before it is turned into ethanol.
Amid this environmental-focused training, I also acquired several skills that I now use every day in my more traditional civil engineering role.
Site design. This is my job as a civil engineer in a nutshell. I create construction plans and perform all necessary calculations for sites around the country. At Auburn, Biosystems students are exposed to the complex process of designing a site and creating a submittal package on a real site, including plans and calculations, that would be used for permitting approval. As a project analyst at Foresite Group, I now do this daily.
Hydraulics. Water runoff is related to many issues sites may encounter, making hydrology a heavy focus in the site design process. Biosystems Engineering focuses heavily on hydraulics. Many courses involve water flow in closed systems and in the natural environment, and almost every class had some component focused on hydrology, whether it be runoff, streams, rivers, wetland, designing storm sewers, etc. This training gave me a greater depth of understanding of the water issues that can impact a site, which now informs my designs.
GIS. GIS is a tool many civil engineers utilize when designing and planning developments, and Biosystems students are taught how to collect and analyze spatial data for a wide variety of applications. You can learn more about how engineers use GIS for data-supported solutions here.
Natural resource conservation. Civil engineers design for the challenges presented by the natural environment. In Biosystems, I learned the fundamentals of rainfall, runoff, soil erosion, hydraulic structures, and open channel hydraulics. These topics directly apply to the projects I work on every day, such as designing erosion controls plans or performing inspections for ADEM. When designing stormwater management ponds and systems, I draw on what I learned regarding controlling runoff as it relates to streams and ponds and the various structures used in managing stormwater. We also learned a lot about pollutants and other factors that have negative effects on water quality. Now, when designing sites in cities with water quality issues, I have some experience in utilizing various methods to treat the issues.
Many students are drawn to Biosystems out of a respect for the environment. We want the work we do to have a low impact on streams, natural vegetation, native species and wetlands. As environmental awareness increases globally, this is also the direction our civil engineering industry is headed in terms of encouraging green infrastructure and low-impact, sustainable designs. So while Biosystems Engineering may seem like a less traditional major for a future civil engineer, there are many reasons why it’s actually a great fit for the future of the industry.
About Andy Young, PE
Andy Young, PE, is a Project Manager for Foresite Group’s Land Development Division in Auburn, Alabama. Andy graduated from Auburn University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biosystems Engineering. He has a background in hydrology, erosion control, and commercial and residential land development. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time outdoors with his wife, Sarah, and two sons, Abel and Eli.