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New environmental studies degree marries liberal arts with science

August 25, 2010

We live in a fragile environment – and in the southwestern United States it is all the more evident. Small changes in climate can have devastating impacts on our societies. Both water and soil conservation are crucial to desert sustainability, making management of environmental resources and a scientifically savvy work force critical to a prosperous future for Arizona.

In response to this need, the School of Earth and Space Exploration recently announced an addition to its current program offerings, a new Bachelor of Arts degree in Earth and Environmental Studies.

The sustainability slogans and “green” behaviors of today are not a fad, but rather a way of life that is becoming part of the collective social consciousness. We face a growing number of complex environmental challenges that will require bold, inspired and carefully planned responses, with education as the determining factor of our success.

With an ever-more regulated environment, the Arizona Board of Regents recent approval of the new B.A. in Earth and Environmental Studies degree program is timely, occurring when the demand for green-collar jobs nationally and around the state is on the rise. Companies are yearning for people who think green – who understand the environment and our place in it. Green jobs can be found in all sectors of the economy from business to law to government. In as little as two years, Valley businesses will be able to tap these newly minted green-collar managers.

The future of human societies depends on understanding our home world well enough – through historical studies, through monitoring of the pulse of the planet today, and through theoretical studies of possible futures – to know how to co-evolve with it. Earth science research in the School of Earth and Space Exploration increasingly concentrates on modern earth system processes, addressing questions about how the Earth works today as a context for creating and evaluating models for how our planet may evolve in the future. With the addition of new faculty hires such as hydrologist Enrique Vivoni, and a strong team of earth scientists, the school now has the ability to provide the leadership needed to train our community for the green-collar jobs of the future.

Designed to give students a flexible liberal arts training with a foundation in environmental earth science, the new B.A. degree begins with the broader concepts of earth systems science (such as the physical and chemical processes that shape Earth’s surface and affect the natural environment) so topics such as sustainability can be approached from the basis of how Earth works. It is a natural outgrowth of the environmental research being conducted within the school ranging from the study of earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions to water management studies and sustainable energy solutions and is an effective means of making science accessible to more students.

“We know there is a demand for this,” said Kelin Whipple, professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who lead the charge to pass the new degree. “Students are more environmentally aware. They are hearing about the environment in their high school classes and in the news. They’re joining eco-friendly groups on Facebook and signing environmental petitions. Students see that many companies and the government are focused on it and they want to get in on the ground floor.”

The program is designed to attract undergraduates who want a liberal arts degree, but who are intrigued by the scientific context for humanity’s long-term survival. While important questions remain regarding the precise nature and impacts of coming changes (a focus of the school’s B.S. and graduate degrees), effective implementation of current knowledge into resource management, planning, energy policy, national and international technological investment strategy is at least as important as the further pursuit of scientific knowledge.

The situation where environmental degree programs emphasize either science or social studies but not both is common at many American universities. With its blend of natural sciences and social sciences, this new ASU degree is unique.

“Many students are out there looking for this kind of program – a program that is interdisciplinary, project-based, and research-driven that will provide the practical applications and skills to support a wide range of existing and new green careers,” Whipple said. “Especially appealing to many of these students is that this degree allows them to make a difference in the world applying scientific understanding without wearing a white lab coat or using beakers.”

“Programs in environmental studies are extremely popular and among the fastest growing degree programs in state and private universities across the nation,” Whipple said. “Many students deeply concerned about the environment appreciate the value of science, but do not want to become scientists themselves – they want to help put scientific understanding to work helping society. Most environmental studies programs lack a foundation in science and are little more than 'geology-lite' – the B.S. in geology without the math, chemistry and physics. Our degree is a unique blend of the best of both these types of degree programs and one we feel will be popular, effective, and thus gain national recognition.”

Despite containing a substantial component of science, the new degree is not a science degree and is not intended to be preparatory for graduate studies in the hard sciences. Instead, the goal is to graduate scientifically literate students with a firm understanding of the workings of our natural world and the roles we play in its future evolution. Founded in scientific inquiry into environmental problems and sustainable natural resource management, the new B.A. in Earth and Environmental Studies dovetails well with the policy and social science emphasis of the existing sustainability degree. Indeed, the new degree program was designed to be suitable as a double major with a B.A. or B.S. in Sustainability.

“Since many B.A. degrees are in social sciences or humanities, this will offer more science to a wider audience of students,” said Kayla Iacovino, an undergraduate in SESE majoring in geological sciences. “I would love to see more politicians and businessmen learning about earth sciences so that they can understand the impacts they have on our world. All too often scientific issues are turned into political ones. If the general public, business people, and politicians had a better understanding of science through the eyes of a real scientist, I think they would be able to make better decisions that affect our planet Earth.”

An urgent need exists for a new generation of green-collar business leaders, managers, planners, commentators, politicians, and journalists that have an essential understanding of earth system science and especially issues of climate and landuse change, ecological impacts, and energy, water, and soil resources. By developing a breadth of knowledge, and by acquiring the skills to integrate various domains of knowledge, ASU’s Earth & Environmental Studies students will be prepared to overcome tomorrow’s environmental challenges. The first graduates of the program in 2014 will be well-equipped for the estimated 40,000+ positions in industry, consultancy, utilities, regulatory agencies, nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations. The program will produce a new breed of environmental scientist able to function in an increasingly regulated world, and a workforce that can design and manage environmental investigations and monitoring programs and technologies.

“Environmental education is important not only for our graduates, but for our society. A citizenry literate in the natural sciences is essential to guiding this effort and the development of future policy,” Whipple said. “As we face significant challenges, from preserving our water supplies to combating global warming, SESE graduates will be at the forefront of this critical sector of society, prepared to provide the environmental expertise and leadership essential to our future.”

A key feature of the program is a capstone project at the end of the senior year that will bring students together to tackle an authentic environmental problem in the Southwest. Students will need to analyze all angles of the problem from discerning the science issues to determining policy issues and economic impacts, and then put forth a plan.

As a result of the new program, the school will be offering five new courses. Two are introductory level laboratory science courses that are intended to both serve the new major and to function as vehicles to reach non-majors to enhance their science literacy and awareness of the workings of the natural world that provide the context for many of the greatest challenges facing us.

The new lab course Habitable Worlds (GLG 106) is expected to be very popular. Closely related to the research conducted by the university’s NASA Astrobiology team, students will survey the physical, chemical, biological and geological processes that make the Earth a planet conducive to supporting life, the reasons that other planets might – or might not – be inhabited, and the future of our inhabited world.

“We need 21st century degrees that prepare students to make a positive impact on their home planet while moving their own careers forward,” says Whipple. “And that’s what this new degree in Earth and Environmental Studies does.”

In addition to the new degree program, the school offers undergraduate degrees in Earth and Space Exploration with concentrations in four areas (astrophysics, astrobiology, geological sciences, and systems design), as well as a B.A.E. in Earth and Space Education (in collaboration with the College of Education) and a B.S.E. in Aerospace Engineering (in collaboration with the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering). For more information about the B.A. in Earth and Environmental Studies, please visit: