In The Graduate, the character played by Dustin Hoffman was told that he should hitch his future to "Plastics!" But if the movie were being made today, the advice to college students might be a little different; the hot field is "hazardous waste." Listen to Ralph Kummler, professor and chairman of chemical and metallurgical engineering at Wayne State University.
"Hazardous waste is probably the single-most booming area in new education in the U.S. today," Kummler says. "Five years ago universities had never heard of the hazardous waste management area, and even two years ago, you could probably count the number of programs on the fingers of one hand. But today a lot of programs have begun, and it's just the tip of the iceberg."
Kummler's own university has offered a graduate certificate (equivalent to half a master's degree) in hazardous waste management since 1986, and is in the process of planning a full master of science program for the fall 1989 semester. And since 1980, Kummler estimates, hundreds of other training programs have sprung up all across the U.S.
The impetus behind all this activity is the simple law of supply and demand. It used to be that companies and government agencies recruited hazardous waste managers from the engineering disciplines and gave them on-the-job training. As recently as 1983, only a few universities even offered continuing education programs for these managers. And as a result, consulting firms, trade groups, professional associations, and government sponsored agencies ended up educating these people.
But in the last few years, manufacturing industries and government agencies have realized that coping effectively with hazardous waste requires more than just an engineering degree and a few haphazard training programs. So they are increasingly looking to universities to turn out the people they need. In fact, the demand for trained hazardous waste managers is expected to double by 1992.
The universities have responded with a variety of programs, as Kummler discovered when he recently began to review all the educational and training courses in hazardous waste on a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Although still gathering information on programs, Kummler has uncovered "hundreds" of short continuing education programs and one-to-five-day seminars offered by universties and private firms. These programs introduce engineering and science graduates to the field and update working professionals about treatment techniques and regulations. At the same time, he estimates 50 universities offer some regular courses so that science and engineering undergraduates and graduates can minor or be exposed to the hazardous waste management area. And a handful of universities, for example Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and Findlay College in Findlay, Ohio, are offering bachelor's or master's degrees.
Unlike the training courses, which handle important short-term issues like emergency spill response procedures, Professor Lin C. Brown, Chairman of the Civil Engineering Department at Tufts, says the degree programs educate professionals for the long term. "Our program shows professionals how the interdisciplinary field fits together while allowing them to focus on one particular subdiscipline," he says.
But because the field crosses so many disciplinary boundaries, putting together a full-fledged program in hazardous waste is no easy task, . "Even though I happen to be the chairman of the chemical engineering department," explains Kummler, "I have to go to civil engineering, chemistry, biology, medicine, occupational and environmental health, and law to be able to produce a comprehensive program." Students need to learn everything from control technology, thermal processing, and toxicology to policy, law, and regulations.
So that puts universities in a bind. As more and more prospective students clamor to learn about hazardous waste, who is going to teach them? "This is a major problem," admits Daniel Hehr, associate professor at Findlay College, where industry consultants make up the majority of faculty in the school's four-year bachelor's program in hazardous waste. "It is very hard to attract people from industry to colleges and universities because it is such a high paying industry," he says.
Lack of time is another factor. Although larger universities have managed to cope so far by enlisting members of other departments, finding a few part-time consultants can be difficult. At Tufts, for example, Brown has been searching for a specialist in groundwater hydrology, but has been finding that qualified people are too busy to teach. "There's a lot of work out there," Brown says, "and only 24 hours in a day."
One hopeful sign for Brown and his counterparts at other universities who may need to add on faculty as the programs grow is that PhD programs in hazardous waste management are attracting more and more students. At Duke University, for example, the number of graduate students has jumped from four in 1972 to about 25. And a majority of the graduates of the 20 or so PhD programs go into research and teaching rather than industry. Says Aarne Vesilind, Professor and Chairman of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University, "the role of the research-oriented institution is to give students a very broad and very thorough education so they can become the future leaders of this field."
In fact, what makes universities' involvement in hazardous waste so challenging, says Kummler, is that techniques and strategies to deal with the pressing problem of waste are changing rapidly. "And as the field evolves, the universities will adapt to provide the best education possible," he says.
Carole Gan is a freelance science writer based in Philadelphia.