Queens College, CUNY
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
History of the School
In the late 1990's, the President of Queens College, CUNY, wondered about the relevance of a Geology Department for students at an urban institution. At the same time, however, he recognized a strong desire among students to study environmental science and related social issues. Instead of trying to convince the administration of the value of a traditional Geology degree, the Department chose to restructure and redefine their programs, taking advantage of student interest in, and administrative support for, environmental science. In 1997, they formed the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
With the new name came several substantive changes:
- The Geology Department forged alliances with 14 other departments on campus, including Biology, Chemistry, Political Science, Economics, Urban Planning, and Journalism. Environmentally-oriented members of those departments were invited to become affiliated faculty for the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
- They developed a new Environmental Science degree program in which each Environmental Science major chooses a concentration: in Geology, Chemistry, or Biology.
- The faculty restructured the Geology curriculum to focus more on surficial processes and human effects on Earth systems.
- They no longer require the intense 3-course, 13-credit mineralogy/petrology sequence (with optical mineralogy), replacing it with a two-semester, 8-credit mineralogy-petrology course and offering optical mineralogy as an elective for students planning to attend graduate school in Geology.
- An 8-credit, field methods-field camp sequence was replaced by a 3-credit field course.
- Paleontology has evolved from a focus on taxonomy to the evolution of ecosystems.
- There are four new or reconstituted required sophomore-junior courses: Earth's oceans and atmosphere, surface processes and products, stratigraphy and sedimentation, and geochemistry.
Results of Restructuring
Growth in Enrollments
Prior to restructuring, the Geology Department had 45 Geology majors. In 2010-2011, there are 57 Geology, 50 Environmental Science, and 17 Environmental Studies majors. SEES has grown from ~8 Masters students to a combined total of 35 Masters and Doctoral students. The School serves 1000-1100 general education students each semester in introductory Geology and Environmental Science courses.
Breadth of New Faculty Hires
New faculty members hired since the formation of the School focus on biosphere/geosphere interactions, with specialties in ecology, microbiology, the carbon system, and climate modeling. These new faculty members include marine biologists, microbiologists, biogeochemists, meteorologists, and soil scientists, most of whom don't teach geology courses. But the synergy inherent in having the breadth of environmentally-oriented researchers and teachers under a single roof has been extremely rewarding and productive, and has led to strong institutional support at the highest level and valuable publicity.
Building Alliances, Becoming Indispensible
With a growing focus on Environmental Science, the School has been able to make itself indispensible to city, state, and federal agencies, as well as to some NGOs. For example:
- The New York City Soil and Water Conservation District funded a faculty position in the School (including start-up money), tapering off over time. They'll fund a laboratory technician position if the School will build the laboratory.
- Students in the Environmental Sciences/Studies capstone course focus on an environmental problem facing New York City. They write a report and present their findings and recommendations at a symposium. The College President, Dean of Science, and NY City Council Environment Committee Chairman attend the symposium regularly.
- Faculty members have served on a task force that revised New York City's K-12 science curriculum.
- Faculty members have contributed to species counts.
New Degree Programs
The Queens College's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences now offers the following Bachelor degree programs:
- BA and BS in Geology: a rigorous program that emphasizes surficial/environmental aspects of the Geosciences more than the previous degree programs did
- BA and BS in Environmental Sciences: the new version is not only Geoscience-heavy but also requires Chemistry, Physics, and Biology, calculus, and statistics
- BA in Environmental Studies: collaborative with the Social Sciences (environmental economics, environmental law, urban studies, sociology, etc.) and Humanities (environmental philosophy, green journalism, etc.)
They now have two Masters degree programs:
- MA in Geological and Environmental Sciences: a research-based degree requiring 30 credits and a thesis.
- MS in Applied Environmental Geosciences: a practitioner's non-thesis degree for those wishing credentials/career in environmental/geologic consulting, law, etc. 36 credits in a combination of conceptual and hands-on courses, including a 6-credit internship. These requirements are based on recommendations from local environmental companies and alumni who were asked what credentials they look for in new hires.
The School also participates in a consortial City University of New York PhD program comprising more than 100 faculty, split roughly equally between Geosciences and Geography, from 20 institutions.
Making the Graduate Programs Work
Because the School is so broad, they look carefully at the background of each applicant to our graduate programs. Many come with a traditional Geology background, some from Environmental Science or Environmental Studies programs, and others from allied sciences. Many in the last category want to apply their biological background to environmental issues and feel thwarted by the cellular/molecular emphases of their baccalaureate departments.
We take a serious Earth Systems approach to all of our programs and recognize that the Earth is the common theme for all of our programs. Therefore, students entering without any Geoscience background take a year-long survey course that covers much of the same material as an introductory undergraduate year, but at a much deeper level and emphasizing connections to the environment. This prepares them to build on their existing strengths and move in new directions.
As a result of these changes, the Geology Department has survived several budget crises (so far). SEES has doubled the number of majors and become prominent in campus publicity and alumni campaigns. But there's more to come. The policy-focused Environmental Studies program currently has about a third the number of majors as Geology or Environmental Sciences. Working with Urban Studies, the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences is revising the Environmental Studies program, and anticipate it will grow enormously in the light of current student interest – with the social sciences doing most of the heavy lifting.