Growth field: Environmental studies a "college major with a future"

September 13, 2012

For the second year in a row, a leading magazine has named environmental studies a "hot" college major and singled out UW-Madison for its undergraduate programs in this growing field.

A U.S. News & World Report article published this week cites environmental studies – with specific mention of UW-Madison’s new environmental studies and environmental sciences programs – as one of nine “new college majors with a future” and a defining issue of the century.

“Beyond the expanding litany of pressing environmental problems, something has happened in the way we think about the environment that opens up new curiosity and new opportunity,” says Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, which administers UW-Madison’s environmental studies major in tandem with the College of Letters and Science (L&S).

UW-Madison environmental studies students
A recent U.S. News & World Report article cites
environmental studies – with specific mention of
UW-Madison – as a “new college major with a future.”

“No longer viewed as only a specialized kind of problem, people – especially younger people – are seeing that the environment inhabits everything,” he continues. “Students are coming to us from literature and from business, from the sciences and from the arts.”

Since its debut in September 2011, interest in Wisconsin’s environmental studies major continues to grow. More than 200 students are pursuing the major only one year into its existence and 89 students have already earned the designation. The environmental sciences major, offered through L&S and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, has also grown rapidly.

This enthusiasm mirrors an increased focus on sustainability in education, research and operations at UW-Madison and a larger workplace demand for graduates familiar with critical environmental issues such as energy, climate and water quality.

A greater emphasis on the environment in high school education, along with recent activities at UW-Madison such as First-Year Interest Groups, the GreenHouse residential learning community and the Nelson Institute Community Environmental Scholars Program, have contributed to increased awareness and interest in environmental majors, says Steve Ventura, a UW-Madison professor of environmental studies and soil science.

Ventura also attributes the popularity to pent-up student demand. “We knew from a survey a few years ago that many environmental studies certificate students would have preferred a major in the environment,” he says. “We also knew from orientation and other input that students came to campus expecting we would have environmental majors.”

The Nelson Institute has offered an undergraduate environmental studies certificate since 1979, and it is among the most popular of roughly three dozen undergraduate certificates on campus, with 2,133 certificates awarded to date. The 15-credit program can be added to any undergraduate major, enhancing the value of a bachelor's degree. More than 230 students are currently enrolled in the certificate option.

Because the environmental studies major is also pursued simultaneously with another undergraduate major at UW-Madison, students learn about current environmental issues and how to link environmental science, policy, literature, history, art and philosophy to another chosen field. Students have paired environmental studies with majors ranging from political science to Spanish, and from poultry science to nursing.

“Add environmental studies to any field of study and you have a winning combination,” says Cathy Middlecamp, a UW-Madison associate professor of environmental studies and Howe Bascom Professor of Integrated Liberal Studies. “Students benefit from the skills they acquire, future employers benefit from the wider perspective the new hire brings, and the planet benefits by having another voice to speak for it. It's a field rooted in the present that draws from wisdom of the past and looks to creating sustainable paths for the future.” 

For UW-Madison senior Amanda Lucas, the environmental studies major has complemented her undergraduate experience and her second major, journalism, even beyond her initial expectations.

“I now have a broad understanding of the way the environment works – from the science behind it to the ways in which it affects human life,” she says. “I know a little about a lot, and I'm always finding ways to connect these concepts to other courses.”

“My environmental studies courses are constantly redefining the way I look at the world as a whole, which I think is an important factor of a college education,” she continues.

Robbins emphasizes that such interdisciplinary connections in the classroom are critical due to the complex layering of 21st century concerns.

“Those who think about energy these days are more likely to think about food at the same time, and being concerned with water forces you to become a student of the climate,” he explains. “By allowing, and encouraging, students to think about the environment as a linking theme and set of skills, perspectives and concerns rather than a singular area of refined expertise, environmental studies has become more popular.”

And that no one department or college “owns” the environment at UW-Madison is a key asset for students pursuing the environmental majors and certificate, Ventura says.

“They are not sequestered in domains or ideologies. They have the opportunity to pursue many different disciplines and specialties contributing to the environment,” he explains. “If it is to continue to be relevant and useful, the curricula will need to evolve, responding to new issues and incorporating new offerings.”

Those interested in pursuing the environmental studies major should sign up for an informational advising session. Any undergraduate student enrolled at UW-Madison pending approval from his or her home school or college is eligible to apply for the environmental studies major or to participate in the certificate program.