Building Strong Departments > Workshops > Strengthening Your Geoscience Program > Participants and their Contributions > University of Pennsylvania

The Earth and Environmental Science (EES) Department at the University of Pennsylvania

by Jane Dmochowski

Ours is a diverse department consisting of an undergraduate program (with degrees in Environmental Studies, Geology, and Paleobiology, and minors in Environmental Studies, Geology and Sustainability and Environmental Management); a professional masters degree program (Masters of Environmental Studies and Masters of Applied Geoscience) and a research Ph.D. program (Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Science). The department has 9 standing faculty and several full-time staff members and lecturers. There are approximately 95 undergraduate majors and minors in the department, 130 professional masters students, and 17 Ph.D. students. This essay will focus on the undergraduate program.

Department's Strengths, Planning, and Related Course Changes

Our undergraduate course and curriculum planning begins at a faculty and staff meeting held each semester and is continued throughout the semester by the Associate Director and chair. The major course related changes we have been implementing in the past few years have been to 1) increase the quantitative skill sets of the students and 2) provide students with thematically linked courses in their concentrations.

The undergraduate program has at its primary strength the interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (ENVS) major, which was updated in the spring of 2008. This curriculum change increased the number of core courses in the ENVS major and provided students with clearer descriptions for approved concentrations (see department's curriculum description). The Junior Research Seminar was incorporated into the new curriculum and was taught in the spring semester of 2009. The goal of the course is to help ENVS majors plan for and gain the skills to complete a senior thesis. Ten Juniors and one Sophomore successfully completed the course this spring.

The EES department also has plans to restructure the Geology major, which currently is composed of two tracks: Geology and Paleobiology, into an Earth Science major with three tracks: Geology, Paleobiology and Environmental Science. The Associate Director is currently putting together a curriculum. This curriculum will be presented to the faculty, and a small committee will finalize the proposed curriculum to be put to the College's curriculum committee for final approval.

In addition to the Junior Seminar, we offered 2 other new courses this year that were very successful: In the fall, "Global Climate Change" was taught for the first time, and in the spring we offered "Ocean Atmosphere Dynamics". In the fall of 2009, we will offer a new course entitled "Geochemistry of the Atmosphere and Oceans". These courses have helped us to achieve a goal of offering more courses within our department of interest to Environmental Studies majors, and attracting Penn students to the Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Our department has a strong Academically Based Curriculum Service (ABCS) learning program, currently made up of four courses. One of these, "Urban Environments: Speaking About Lead in West Philadelphia", has been approved as part of the University of Pennsylvania's College curriculum requirements (in the Natural Science and Mathematics sector). In addition we are in the planning stages of offering a fifth ABCS course, "State of Philadelphian Watersheds", which will involve synthesizing and communicating publicly available environmental information on Philadelphian watersheds for local community groups and existing watershed partnerships.

Advising and Student Involvement

The Associate Director of undergraduate programs stays in touch with all majors via email and meets with them on a drop-in and appointment basis. She is the primary major advisor for all Environmental Studies and Geology students, and she keeps students abreast of opportunities and the curriculum on the undergraduate website and actively works with the EES Undergraduate Advisory Board (UAB) to promote the department and address student concerns.

Every other week the EES UAB meets with the Associate Director. The UAB successfully keeps the EES staff and faculty abreast of student concerns, plans social events, helps with visibility events for the department on campus, and for the first time this spring hosted a faculty panel discussion on Climate Change. The UAB hopes to make the faculty panel discussions a yearly event. Additionally, they will play an advisory role in shaping the new Environmental Science track.


To promote our department and our majors, we typically host booths at several student fairs on campus. In addition, the UAB hosts social events and invites prospective majors (a "prospective EES student" email list is kept), and the Associate Director attends "Majors Dinners" (dinners hosted by house deans in the undergraduate houses) each semester.


Our department is strengthened by the many professionals who teach both full-time and part-time in our department. Because of this, however, it is a constant challenge to make sure our standing faculty members and lecturers are fully integrated into all aspects of the undergraduate curriculum. Additionally, our most popular major is the interdisciplinary ENVS major, which means that the majority of our students do not take all of their major classes within our department. This can make building a cohesive student group in the department a challenge. The very small number of Geology majors (1-5 per year, compared to 20-40/year for ENVS) creates an imbalance in the department, and is not in line with faculty research interests, which are primarily earth science. Another challenge for the department is the lack of female faculty members. Lastly, a challenge and a strength of the department is the addition to our department of 3 assistant professors in the last 5 years, a group that makes up one third of our standing faculty.