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Preparing for a churning world

Stretching students’ knowledge for 21 century challenges and careers

September 20, 2016

Consider some of the most pressing issues facing our rapidly changing world. From climate change to water contamination to the Zika epidemic, many of the subjects leading the news and touching our lives connect to the environment.

This is how Becky Ryan introduces the field of environmental studies to UW-Madison students, telling them it will take every single discipline, skill and perspective to solve the world’s environmental problems.

As undergraduate advisor for the Nelson Institute, Ryan guides more than 700 students pursuing the undergraduate major or certificate in environmental studies.

Both the major, which launched in 2011 in tandem with the College of Letters and Science, and certificate are pursued simultaneously with another undergraduate major, meaning students learn to link environmental science, policy, literature, history and more to another chosen field. Current environmental studies students represent majors as far ranging as business, biology, economics, geography, journalism, math and Spanish – a unified group thinking about the environment through many lenses.

“We have 731 students in our program who all share the common denominator of environmental studies, bringing in all these perspectives from engineering, sciences, humanities and social studies,” says Ryan. “So when they’re in classes together, they’re experiencing an interdisciplinary worldview.”

student skills

Both the environmental studies major and certificate are pursued simultaneously with another undergraduate major, meaning students learn to link environmental science, policy, literature, history and more to another chosen field. “Real employability comes from an ability to bridge to other ways of thinking,” says Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins. 


Forging opportunities for students to stretch their knowledge is one of UW-Madison’s greatest strengths, and something the environmental studies program strives for, says Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins. And students have been adding this credential with no cost to time; in the five years since the launch of the major, the mean time to graduation for environmental studies double majors is 3.9 years.

“Real employability comes from an ability to bridge to other ways of thinking,” Robbins says. “Say you’re a wizard at economics, or coming out of a hard science or engineering. You need to train those skills but also stretch outside your strengths. This is what this campus does really well; it takes burrowed-down thinkers and it gives them that stretch.”

Like cross-training for an athlete, these complementary perspectives help students build analytical muscle. Robbins sees one role of the environmental studies program as encouraging students “to think like somebody totally unlike yourself.”

“If you’re getting technical training, you’re going to learn policy. If you know how to write, you’re going to learn numbers,” he says. “Whatever skills are missing, environmental studies fills.”

Also contributing to this broader perspective is an emphasis on hands-on education, bridging the classroom and community. An environmental studies capstone course, usually service learning-based, is a required component for students completing the major. Capstone projects range from providing nature-based mentoring to students at Madison’s Sherman Middle School to improving access to healthy foods and training urban farmers in South Madison.

“The environment touches our lives in different ways, and the only way to get a true appreciation for that is to get out in the world and see it,” says Ryan, noting that a large number of environmental studies students also study abroad. “Knowing your own place is just one very small piece of the puzzle.”

As the world changes at an unprecedented rate and scale, Robbins believes it’s especially urgent to prepare graduates to adapt to and solve complex modern challenges and to apply lessons learned from studying “the churning context” of environmental systems. Whether considering how climate change and risk management apply to 21st century industries, or how the availability of food and other resources connects to social services, Robbins says whatever job students choose, having studied the environment prepares them to understand our dynamic world.

“By being immersed in and thinking about the constancy of change, even if you are not interested in an environmental career, you’re going to be thinking with a ‘change hat’ a whole lot better,” he explains. “That’s a larger set of abilities; it’s about adaptation in a changing environment, and that’s useful for everybody.”


The Nelson Institute fosters new environmental citizens:

  • Those who seek not only to conserve the Earth’s last best places but to also create the best new places
  • Those whose source of knowledge and action emerges from outside the walls of the academy, within diverse communities
  • Those who understand that the environment is at work all around us, even and especially in cities
  • Those with skills drawn not only from the Earth sciences, but from the traditions of social science and the humanities: history, ethics, culture
  • Those who know to integrate business with the environment



“A strong package for environmental problem solving”

UW-Madison Professor Matt Turner

Last fall, Matt Turner, a professor of geography, was elected chair of the Nelson Institute’s undergraduate major program committee. He succeeds Professor Marty Kanarek, who championed the environmental studies major for much of his career and guided the major through its approval process.

Ahead of a new academic year, Turner shared some of his priorities for the environmental studies program and its students.

In Common: You’ve been teaching undergraduate students for more than 20 years. What are some recent changes you’ve seen in how students approach their education? 

Turner: We are all affected by the politics and economies of our time. Students and their families have experienced long periods of economic and political stagnation. Today’s students tend to be cynical about national politics and very much focused on their future job security.

At the same time, in this era of the Anthropocene, students are aware of environmental threats such as climate change that they are inheriting from my generation.

I find today’s undergraduates more aware of environmental threats but less inclined, as a whole, to engage in the politics that are necessary to lead to social change, although this has changed a bit over the past year.

The concern of undergraduates for job security has contributed to a shift toward STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines. Those STEM majors who are interested in environmental questions have increasingly looked to the environmental studies major or certificate to gain grounding in the social sciences and humanities. In so doing, they realize that environmental problems and their solutions are as much about social processes as they are biophysical.

What skills do you think today’s students must develop to be employable and effective when they graduate?

I am a real believer in a liberal education (as are many employers). The training that our majors receive – environmental studies coupled with a major in a discipline – very much follows the liberal education model. Interdisciplinary training with grounding within a particular disciplinary tradition is a strong package for environmental problem solving.

Two additional components of our program – the establishment of teamwork and analytical skills – are also very important. I urge students to develop their skills packages not only through coursework, but through extracurricular activities as volunteers and interns.

It is often difficult for graduates to articulate the benefits of their interdisciplinary training to potential employers. Not only do policy, fieldwork and group research efforts provide opportunities to build skills, they also provide concrete examples that graduates can point to as evidence of the benefits of their training. Our commitment to providing such experiences is seen in our capstone program, which provides opportunities to work in small groups on important environmental issues.

Turner interview conducted by Rachael Lallensack.

Hopes, fears, and the future

What hopes and fears do tomorrow's leaders have about the future? View two Nelson student perspectives – from Fatma Ben Said of Environmental Conservation and Olivia Sanderfoot of Environment and Resources, who earned an undergraduate environmental studies certificate in 2015 – on challenges and areas of optimism.