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Environmental Sustainability at the University of Illinois

Jonathan Tomkin, School of Earth, Society and Environment, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


The Earth, Society and Environmental Sustainability (ESE) program came into existence in response to student demand: University of Illinois undergraduates did not previously have a liberal arts and sciences degree that focused on the environment.

Programmatic strengths focus on the course set-up: a common core combined with individual flexibility. All students take common coursework that ensures a conversancy with central issues of environmental policy, global change, water, resources, and energy, but no two students take the same set of courses. We allow students to take advanced coursework for the major from all across the campus – from engineering to fine arts – to craft a specialization that fits their goals. We have students going into every sort of graduate program (including medicine, the natural sciences, education, urban planning, journalism, public policy and law) as well as a "fat tail" of environmental careers, ranging from applied (organic farming, wetland restoration), social (teaching, Peace Corp., advocacy) and business (environmental consulting, sustainability consulting, energy, environmental engineering) as well as the traditional liberal arts careers (banking).

Although the degree is not applied – our home is a liberal arts and sciences college, and so we do not emphasize applied skills – students do have the option to learn technical skills. There is a high level of course depth in environmental informatics (over a half-dozen sequenced GIS courses, for example) as well as a large number of applied biology courses (coming from a department we partner with in the agricultural college). More recently, we have begun a program in sustainable business, markets, and entrepreneurship, designed to prepare students for the mainstreaming of sustainable issues in traditional corporations.

The most challenging aspect of running the program is the organizational structure. The School of Earth, Society and Environment is made up of three departments (Atmospheric Sciences, Geology, and Geography & Geographic Information Systems) and all faculty have their primary home in the departments. Students therefore may feel that there is no "heart" to the program, and the program director has difficulty in getting central courses taught (as department heads are under pressure to fulfill their own teaching commitments in a period of faculty retrenchment). This is despite the fact that the ESE degree (with over 150 majors) has more students than the three departmental degrees put together. Existing faculty are also not necessarily expert in needed courses, although by taking advantage of courses across campus, this problem is alleviated. To deal with student cohesion, we have put more focus on a central core of classes (Renewable and Sustainable Energy, Earth Resource Sustainability, Water Planet) and by supporting an ESE fieldtrip course (Field Expedition, which last went to Costa Rica to examine sustainable development).

A unique feature of our program (for our campus, and very nearly for the US as a whole) is that we expanded so much into online coursework that students can complete an Environmental Sustainability certificate, and, starting in the Fall, the degree itself, entirely online. With over 40 hours of advanced core coursework online (as well as over 250 hours of introductory, general education, and elective courses) we've opened up the possibility for non-traditional students (such as full-time working, returning to school, and community college graduates) to get an environmental sustainability degree from the University of Illinois. We keep pressing to make this education open and affordable – in the past year we've published a free, introductory ebook (Sustainability: a comprehensive foundation) that is open to all, and in the next year we will be running our Introduction to Sustainability course as a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that will be free to everyone over the web.



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