With a new semester now underway, students will not only meet an array of new classes and professors but also a brand-new major: environmental studies.
While the major was approved in the fall of 2012, this semester is the first in which students can formally choose the course of study. At the time of its official approval, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Stephanie Fabritius noted how the new major would prove both valuable and versatile.
“Students will gain practice in using tools from a variety of disciplines to solve problems—a very useful ability,” she said. “Environmental issues reach into any number of disciplines, industries and occupations.”
At its essence, the major explores the way humans influence and are influenced by their non-human surroundings, seeking out equitable and sustainable ways of coexisting with the rest of the planet.
Especially important in terms of a liberal arts education, the environmental studies (ENS) major is by its very nature interdisciplinary, requiring students to take courses spanning the humanities, social studies and science. Core classes range from the ethics of food, nature writing and environmental economics to environmental history, conservation biology and environmental geology.
Though students are exposed to a breadth of content in this major, they are also asked to pick a specific track that allows them to delve deeper into one of the three core areas. The major culminates with a capstone project that engages with a current environmental dilemma or issue.
Complementing the new major is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Brett Werner, who returns to Centre after having taught as an Associated College of the South/Mellon-funded Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Environmental Studies from 2009 to 2011.
Werner explains that, even four years ago, the environmental studies program was expanding quickly.
“Student interest grew in the form of class enrollments, minors and self-designed majors,” he says, “and the faculty and administration took notice.”
Werner credits Professor of Biology and former program chair Anne Lubbers, current program chair and Professor of Anthropology Endre Nyerges and John C. Walkup Professor of Chemistry Preston Miles as the people who brought the new major to fruition.
“Centre has had the ENS minor for 10 years now, and there has been a long-term ambition to add an ENS major,” says Nyerges. “We’ve had a lot of support in achieving this goal, especially with the Associated Colleges of the South Postdoctoral Fellows. When that program was ending, it struck the ENS committee as the perfect time to figure out the logistics of hiring a new faculty member and establishing the major.”
Nyerges is particularly proud of the interdisciplinary quality of the course of study.
“We wanted to ensure that the major made sense for Centre specifically, that it utilized our faculty’s interests and abilities,” he explains. “Our strength is that we have professors in a range of programs who have something to contribute and who are genuinely interested in the issues and the program.”
This integration of fields is particularly advantageous in the context of the liberal arts.
“Motivated students can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the number of choices they have at a liberal arts school,” he explains. “The ENS major is perfect for them, because it provides a structured framework for exploring a wide array of subjects and topics.”
Werner is also looking forward to the opportunities this major will provide for interested students.
“Having environmental studies at Centre will open up the question of interdisciplinary studies to faculty and students in ways that Centre may have ignored previously,” he continues. “Down the road, it could lead to more options, opportunities and deliberate attention in interdisciplinary studies.”
For Werner, the major also represents an integral component of a quality education at a time when environmental concerns are becoming ever more pressing.
“There are no greater challenges in the future than living sustainably,” he explains, “and environmental studies helps students and the world think sustainably, in a rigorous and engaged way.
“Whatever a student’s area of interest might be—biodiversity conservation, environmental health or sustainability—environmental studies are a key area of scholarship and learning,” he adds, “as well as a critical component of practical policy and an important area of practice at home and work.”
By Mariel Smith