Major in Environmental Engineering or Urban Planning or Sustainability and the Built Environment(?)

Hi! I’m currently a junior in HS, about to be senior, and I’m wondering what would be best for me to major in. I’m interested in the societal implications of technology and engineering, like sustainability access for lower socioeconomic groups, urban design and its relationship to politics, stuff like that. I really like CAD and the design aspect of this type of thing, but not enough artistically to put together a portfolio or anything like an architecture major. My sort of ideal line of work would be designing green roofing for cities to lower emissions while feeding the homeless or something similar–I quite literally have 0 interest in engineering in anything that isn’t sustainable. I really love the kinds of classes in environmental policy offered at schools like Pitzer College, but I also don’t want to completely go the polisci route, because I really do enjoy the math and design parts too. What should I major in? Are there any programs I should look into? For reference, I’m a girl and have a 1560 SAT and 4.1 GPA if that narrows down recommendations.

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You aren’t ready to narrow the field quite so much this early. Spend the next year or so looking at programs, learning the language. Look at the ‘environmental design’ programs at UC-B, NCSU, Auburn, Rutgers, and U CO-Boulder in some detail- see what makes you react with ‘ooooh- that sounds really interesting!’. Also look at ‘urban planning’ programs at places such as USC, Texas A&M, UC-B, Cornell, and Ohio State, again to see what elements you respond to. As your fluency in the language of these fields grows follows the threads that you respond to most strongly.

In the meantime, rule #1 for all college-bound students: have the money talk with your family. What can- and will!- they spend on college for you? Once you know your budget, then think a bit about ‘other’ factors: big/small, near/far, etc that will affect your overall college experience.

Then put the two together, working from the bottom up: using what you have learned about these areas, what are some schools that you are sure to get into, be able to afford, and have a program that you would genuinely be interested in? Repeat with ‘match’ schools, and then get giddy with ‘reach’ schools.

But start by learning more about what these fields look like.


This area is not my area of expertise. But, it sounds as though you might want to look into an Environmental Design/Architecture degree. This list has 51 colleges with that major listed in IPEDS, including Berkeley, Davis, and Irvin among the UC campuses (if you’re a California resident).

This is a list of colleges offering a major in some iteration of natural resources & conservation.

But there are majors in Agroecology & Sustainability (UC Davis or Santa Cruz) or Sustainability Studies or any number of other possibilities.

I do think it would be beneficial for you to start digging in a little further to some of the majors to see what sounds interesting. But you’re also approximately 17 years old. Knowing that you’re interested in doing work related to the environment is great. You don’t need to know now what you major is going to be.

One major that I think you need to look closely at is environmental engineering. How do you feel about those classes? How do you feel about math and physics and chemistry, and doing lots of them? If you think that field remains a distinct possibility, then I would consider narrowing your focus to the 91 schools that are ABET accredited for environmental engineering, as most engineering firms only want to hire someone from an ABET-accredited program (and several Cali publics are on it). Of course, individuals who are accredited in civil engineering would also probably work, and there are many more of those programs (294 in the U.S.).

But I would find out your budget and see if you can see which majors actually interest you. (Again, it doesn’t have to be just one; it can still be several.) Then I’d start looking for schools that offer those majors, and go from there. We’ll be happy to help come up with schools once we have a bit clearer of an idea of what you might want (as well as budget, region of the country, budget, preferred university size, budget, type of experiences you’d like to have, budget, any activities you’d like to pursue, budget, etc.)


What’s your home state, budget, etc.?

There’s a big difference between knowing what sphere you want to work in (i.e. green energy, green building, etc.), and knowing what skill-set you want to bring and what role you want to fill, within that sphere. It’s fine to say,

but… what does that mean in terms of your willingness to put in the time and work in foundational engineering classes that will equip you to make a contribution to sustainability-focused projects, but that won’t be specifically sustainability-focused as a learning experience?


… does this mean you wouldn’t want a studio-based learning experience, or do you just mean you aren’t prepared to submit a portfolio in order to apply? Because, there are programs that don’t require a portfolio in the application process, if that’s the barrier.

A couple of example programs at Cal Poly SLO:

  • The General Engineering program has an individualized option that students have customized to focus on sustainable energy: General Engineering | Cal Poly
  • Landscape Architecture is a 5-year pre-professional program; landscape architects can absolutely work in the green building industry, and can choose sustainability-oriented projects to focus on during their training

Admissions-wise, your 1560 won’t help you at any CA public anymore, as they’ve gone test blind; and a 4.1 weighted GPA would get you into some SLO programs but not others. OTOH, a major like this at Cal Poly Humboldt would certainly be a safety for you Environmental Resources Engineering | Cal Poly Humboldt and here’s a similar program on the east coast Undergraduate Studies | Environmental Resources Engineering | SUNY ESF

Northeastern has a pre-professional BLA program that might appeal; a portfolio is optional in the application process Landscape Architecture, BLA - Northeastern CAMD

The CU Boulder ENVD program Environmental Design | University of Colorado Boulder Architecture, starts with a common first-year core, and then branches into specializations in environmental product design, landscape architecture & sustainable planning, and urban design. Could be a great program for you to get your feet wet before deciding what to focus on.

If you would like an architecture program with a strong focus on community engagement and sustainability, and no portfolio requirement, you might like the program at Portland State Architecture Bachelor's Degree and Minor Programs | Architecture The architecture school has very close ties to the surrounding community, as well as being involved in international projects. Check out the work of The Center for Public Interest Design PSU also has undergrad majors in Urban & Public Affairs, Environmental Studies, and Environmental Engineering… and a minor in Sustainable Urban Development. If you’re in a Western state, the WUE discount can make PSU quite affordable.

At the Claremont Colleges, Pitzer and Pomona both have the Environmental Analysis major, which has multiple tracks. There’s a track that is more politics/policy oriented, and also the “sustainability and the built environment” track (from which I assume you’re quoting in the title of your thread). The core requirements of each track still leave plenty of room to sample coursework in other areas or even double-major in something else, although the closest thing to an engineering option is the option to take the Harvey Mudd “Intro to Engineering Design” class and follow that with additional classes in the Human-Centered Design sequence offered through The Hive (a.k.a. The Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity), the shared Design center for the 5C’s. I would suggest applying to both Pitzer and Scripps. The EA major is structured slightly differently at Pomona vs. Pitzer, and Scripps students get to choose between the two, whereas Pitzer students have to follow the Pitzer curriculum. My daughter benefited from that flexibility and ended up deciding on the Pomona EA program, although she took a good number of Pitzer classes too. Even though Pitzer has a more environmentally-focused reputation as an institution, a Scripps student can take all of the same classes and get involved in all of the same EC’s, and quite a few do.

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