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Mentoring the Next Generation of Environmental Professionals

Earlier this year we shared our community involvement volunteer experience with DeGage Ministries in Grand Rapids. More recently, we had another opportunity to give back by participating with Michigan State University’s College of Engineering in selecting participants in the Environmental Challenge International (ECi) competition sponsored by the Air & Waste Management Association (A&WMA).

The ECi is an annual competition open to undergraduate students, graduate students, Ph.D. candidates, and recent graduates in the environmental field. The competition provides student teams experience with proposing effective solutions to a simulated environmental problem, which is based on real-world site conditions and events. The teams present their solution to a panel of environmental professionals at the Annual Conference in June in Quebec City.

Although the challenge is somewhat qualitative, teams are expected to address a wide range of concerns related to the environment, energy, government, transportation and health. Teams are evaluated on a variety of issues, such as, how the problem is interpreted, how conclusions were determined, and how well the team can communicate its reasoning and judgements.

CFR’s involvement with the A&WMA began back in 2010. That was the year that I started my tenure on the board of the West Michigan chapter located in Grand Rapids. One of my assignments with the chapter was to lead the outreach committee. The outreach committee’s job was to “reach out” to local communities to promote the environmental profession for future generations. One of the groups that I became involved with was the A&WMA student chapter at MSU.

The engineering professor that sponsors the student chapter also teaches a senior level air pollution course. One of the class assignments is the ECi student competition. The class is divided into groups of three to five people and each group proposes a solution to the current ECi problem. This includes preparation of a short 3-page paper (plus attachments) and an oral presentation that includes a poster. As a past mentor to the student chapter, I was asked to be one of the judges for their competition. 2019 is the third year the coursework included the ECi problem and the third year I’ve had the privilege of being a judge. The winning team goes on to participate in the international competition in Quebec City.

We take it for granted that after years of professional experience, our writing skills have become refined. Not so much for young engineering students. The good news is that there is a lot of room for growth, at least in terms of written communication. Some more good news is that the future of our profession is bright. In the middle of finals week, the students were clearly burning the candles from both ends. Despite these challenges, they still brought positive energy to impress the panel of judges. The interest in the environment as a profession is far greater than it was when I was starting my career.

My personal involvement with these young professionals has been an extraordinary experience. It connects me with a budding environmental community and gives me an opportunity to influence those coming up through the ranks. This is another version of “Do the Right Thing” in our industry. By sharing and passing along our professional experience, we help ensure the future health of our profession… and sneaking out of the office for the day is almost never a bad thing.

Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to mentor someone in our industry. Remember, young people are watching very carefully. Give them an example they’ll want to emulate. Consider encouraging your company to mentor as well. You might find that a small investment pays big rewards.

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