A proposal to create an Environmental Studies major at Carleton has been accepted by the Education and Curriculum Committee and may be approved by a vote of the entire faculty as soon as May. If approved, the major will be available beginning next fall to students graduating in 2011 and beyond.
While students have had the option of concentrating in Environmental Studies for a few decades, the college has never offered an official major in that field. Students in recent years have generally been discouraged from constructing a special major around environmental issues.
“The field of environmental studies is seeking answers to some of the most profound problems of our day,” said Professor George Vrtis, who holds a joint appointment in History and Environmental Studies. “It’s a tall order,” one which can be addressed in greater depth and complexity in a major than in a concentration, he said.
According to Mark Kanazawa, director of the Environmental and Technology Studies program, “the ENTS faculty have been having a conversation forever” about the possibility of an environmental studies major, but efforts to create a major have intensified over the past three or four years.
“The time probably had come to discuss it more seriously,” according to Kimberly Smith, a professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies. The growth of the ENTS program at Carleton, and of the Environmental Studies discipline nationwide, has coincided with a greater demand in the job market for college graduates capable of understanding and solving complex environmental problems, she added.
The ENTS faculty, composed of 31 professors from 13 departments, submitted a proposal to the Education and Curriculum Committee, a group of professors, administrators, and students that discuss the college’s academic policy. The ECC unanimously approved the proposal in the second week of this term, and it was presented to the entire Carleton faculty for a first reading at their April meeting. The faculty is expected to vote on the final approval of the proposal in May.
According to Kanazawa, the proposed Environmental Studies major was designed to cultivate “genuine, meaningful conversations across the bounds of disciplines,” as well as a depth of understanding within each discipline.
All students who major in Environmental Studies (the “ENTS” acronym will likely be dropped) will be required to take one introductory natural science course, chosen from specific offerings in the Biology, Geology, and Chemistry departments. In addition, all majors will take the same set of three core classes, in ecosystems ecology, American environmental history, and environmental economics and policy.
Each major will select one of four focus areas: conservation development, water resources, food and agriculture, or landscape and perception. While a certain focus may rely more heavily on the sciences or the humanities, all majors will be required to take two natural science courses and two humanities, social science, or arts and literature courses within their focus area.
In order to strengthen their information literacy, which Kanazawa said is a key skill in many areas of environmental work, majors will take a single quantitative methods course in either statistics or geospatial analysis.
The senior comprehensive exercise will be structured around small-group work. In the fall, seniors will take a seminar that introduces an overarching theme for the year — biodiversity, for example — that can be addressed from a variety of disciplinary angles. Students will divide into groups focused on a specific topic, such as the pharmacology of the rainforest, and begin their research. Even within their small groups, students will be expected to approach their topic through multiple disciplines, according to Kanazawa.
During winter term of their senior year, each groups will complete its research under the supervision of a faculty member. Kanazawa envisions a symposium at the end of winter term where each group would present the results of its research to an audience of their peers, as well as professionals from non-profit organizations and governmental agencies who work on environmental issues.
Kanazawa said that the comps process will continue to be modified and refined in the coming months, before the first class of ENTS majors reach senior year.
The small-group comps model is “the best, most engaged experience we could think of,” said Vrtis. He said that the comps process will reflect the fact that environmental work in the real world is often highly collaborative.
Kanazawa and Vrtis both said that they believe there is a lot of interest among the student body for an ENTS major. Kanazawa said that though interest in Environmental Studies has “waxed and waned” over time, the ENTS concentration has been among the most popular concentrations for the past three years, drawing between 16 and 24 students per year.
Amelia Harris, a first-year student, intends to major in Environmental Studies if it is offered. Her second choice would be Biology with an ENTS concentration, but she said she would prefer to major in Environmental Studies because of its interdisciplinary nature.
“In general, topics in the real world are not one-dimensional,” she said, and an Environmental Studies major would help develop the kind of holistic problem-solving skills that many jobs require.
Kanazawa, Vrtis, and Smith are optimistic that the faculty will approve the proposed major, but Kanazawa was careful to emphasize that “it’s not a done deal.”
Should the major be approved, it is unclear what will happen to the ENTS concentration. Carleton does not generally permit a department to offer both a major and a concentration, although a few interdisciplinary programs such as Latin American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies do have both.
According to Elizabeth Ciner, an Associate Dean of the College and a member of the ECC, the Environmental Studies department may lack the faculty resources to support a concentration alongside a major, should the major prove to be as popular as anticipated. She added that rising seniors who have declared the ENTS concentration would be allowed to complete it, but the fate of rising juniors was still undecided.
Smith said that she hopes the ENTS concentration will continue to be offered, but that students need not feel limited by the decision that the college makes. Even today, she added, there are a number of students who take Environmental Studies courses and consider themselves part of the department even though they have not formally declared a concentration.
“We’re happy to advise students all the time,” she said, regardless of their official relationship with the department.