June 10, 2012

Cornell Launches New Sustainability Major

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In the latest effort to bolster an environmentally friendly image, the University announced last month that it will launch a new major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences — a move administrators hope will “significantly raise [Cornell’s] profile as a leader among ‘green’ campuses,” according to Prof. Max Pfeffer, developmental sociology, senior associate dean of CALS.

The new major — called environmental science and sustainability — is intended to “make environmental sciences more visible to Cornell students and give students more direct access to the breadth of environmental sciences at Cornell,” Pfeffer said in an email.

He added that the University “anticipate[s] that the new major will be very attractive to prospective students.” The Class of 2017 will be the first students eligible to enroll in the program beginning in fall 2013.

The move comes after a recommendation made by the Environmental Sciences Planning Committee — a faculty body formed as a part of Reimagining Cornell, a University-wide strategic planning initiative — to administrators in May 2010, and follows other recent steps Cornell has taken toward becoming a frontrunner in environmental education.

For instance, in October 2010, an $80 million donation — the largest individual gift ever given to a university to fund sustainability research — led to the establishment of the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

In January, the University was awarded a gold rating by the Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, an Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education initiative which recognizes eco-friendly efforts on college campuses. Although Cornell scored high in relation to its peer institutions, one its weakest STARS ratings fell into the category of education and research, according to Darrick “Nighthawk” Evensen grad, graduate student trustee.

“Cornell needed an interdisciplinary environmental program like other top environmental programs in the country,” Evensen said of the new major. “Professors have an interest in shaping an evolving field.”

The ESS major will replace and incorporate the curriculums of two existing CALS programs — natural resources and science of natural and environmental systems — between which there is “a great deal of overlap,” Pfeffer said.

“The new [major] is not very different from either of the other two, which were similar to each other from the start,” Prof. Lars Rudstam, natural sources, said. “It’s not a big change, it just kind of streamlines the environmental science majors on campus.”

Current natural resources and SNES majors will be permitted to graduate with degrees in those programs, but the two majors will no longer be offered to incoming students. The new major will fall under the Department of Natural Resources, according to a University press release.

Pfeffer emphasized that the consolidation of the two majors will not result in cuts to faculty positions. Professors from both the natural resources and the SNES majors — as well as faculty members spanning 15 other departments — backed the move and will become the faculty of the new program, he said.

“The new curriculum will not result in faculty changes in departments,” Pfeffer said. “We anticipate that additional Cornell faculty members will want to affiliate with the major in the future.”

Dean of CALS Kathryn Boor ’80 said she hopes that the new program will spark excitement among “current and prospective students, current and prospective faculty and our staff” as environmental issues gain increasing attention on an international scale.

“This new major is emerging as a faculty-driven effort to evolve our curriculum to provide our students with the best possible education to address some of our globe’s most pressing environmental problems,” she said in an email.

According to Pfeffer, the ESS curriculum will integrate physical, chemical, biological and social sciences with humanities to give students a broad education in sustainability issues from various perspectives.

“Overall, the curriculum seeks to advance students’ ability to solve real-world environmental policy, resources management, biodiversity conservation and human health,” he said.

The core curriculum will include 18 required courses, including introductory biology, mathematics, statistics, chemistry, physics, ethics, economics and sociology, according to a University press release. Nine of these classes will meet CALS distribution requirements.

Additionally, ESS students will choose one of four concentrations, in which they will be required to take five courses. Students will also be permitted to design a concentration to cater to their own academic interests. Initial proposed concentration areas include environmental biology and applied ecology; environmental policy and governance; biogeochemical sciences; and environmental economics, according to a University press release.

Prof. Joseph Yavitt, natural resources, and director of the interdisciplinary program within science of natural and environmental systems, said a consolidated curriculum may make it easier for incoming students to settle on an environmental major after exploring different options within the discipline.

“There were redundancies among some of the environmental majors,” Yavitt said in an email, “and redundancies can cause confusion. We hope to eliminate confusion with one combined approach.”

Still, Evensen cautioned against designing the new curriculum to be overbroad.

“Even though [the two majors] were both environmentally-based majors, there were differences. SNES was more physical sciences and natural resources had more applied ecology with some social sciences and a bit of a humanities focus,” he said. “You can’t focus on everything or you end up being skilled at nothing.”

Original Author: Rebecca Harris