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The Environmental Studies Program at CU Boulder

Jason Neff, Environmental studies, University of Colorado at Boulder


The Environmental Studies (ENVS) program at CU Boulder started as a program in environmental conservation in 1972 under the auspices of the Geography Department at CU. The major grew quickly in the early 1990s and become a 'program' with all the functions of an academic department including the hiring and tenuring of faculty. Enrollment grew from a few dozen students in the 1970s to over 1200 majors today. Graduate degrees were added in 2001 and 50-70 MS and Ph.D. students are currently in the program. There are currently a handful of faculty in the ENVS program (7). Although CU Boulder has great faculty strength in environmental science, these faculty members are also broadly distributed across a number of traditional departments including Geology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Geography, and others. Similarly, on the social science and humanities side of environmental issues, the departments of Political Science, Sociology, Economics, and Philosophy etc. have some faculty engaged in environmental issues but also tend to have very strong disciplinary programs.

The overarching goal of the ENVS program is to provide an interdisciplinary undergraduate education that focuses on the analysis of the science, values, and policy components of contemporary environmental problems. Environmental Studies grew out of undergraduate demand for a more integrated and broad exposure to the study of environmental problems. Initially, the program met that demand through novel combinations of courses offered in other units. Over the last decade, the program has slowly increased the number of true ENVS courses and we continue work on building a curriculum that is fundamentally different than what is offered in other units on campus. One of the central goals of both the undergraduate and graduate curriculum is to teach students how to evaluate environmental issues from the science, values, and policy perspectives. Faculty hiring is balanced across these areas (sciences, social sciences, and humanities) and most ENVS courses emphasis the interdisciplinary aspects of environmental problems.

One of the notable strengths of the program is the lack of a tie to a traditional curriculum structure. Because ENVS was created from scratch, we have not had internal battles about giving up traditional classes in order address new areas. In this regard, we have been able to build the courses and curriculum that we feel best suits our majors. From a student perspective, I think ENVS provides a strong introduction to the suite of human-caused changes to the environment and ENVS students are unusually capable of speaking to multiple aspects of environmental change. I think the other major strength of the program is student enthusiasm for the topic. In an attitudinal assessment of student perspectives toward environmental science I conducted in our introductory environmental science course, pre-class survey results indicate that 70% of incoming students agree that environmental science is important and relevant to daily lives. 92% of students say they enjoy understanding how our planet works. Ironically (and in contrast to many traditional science majors), our challenge is holding these very high positive sentiments through a semester of detailed environmental science instruction!

The most difficult challenges to running our program on a day-to-day basis are a lack of faculty and resources. Historically, the ENVS program was created by re-bundling existing courses into a new major. From an administrative perspective, this was appealing because it was a way to fill seats in existing courses without substantial investments of new resources. From a pedagogical perspective, this is a disaster because there is little coherency across the curriculum and because the courses are designed to meet disciplinary needs rather than interdisciplinary needs. In this regard, there is no way for ENVS to ensure that our learning goals are being addressed throughout the curriculum. A related issue is that the rapid growth in the ENVS major has led to over-enrollment in some non-ENVS courses. If these were ENVS courses, we might be able to move teaching resources around, add new sections etc in order to address demand. Since these courses are offered outside of ENVS we have little control over how departments respond to rising demand. In some cases, that response includes the exclusion of ENVS students from the most high-demand courses via enrollment restrictions.

The preparation of students for future careers in ENVS is a bit of a mixed bag. We have an active internship and honors program that provides a subset of students with a chance to work on areas that may lead to future careers. However, to be completely frank, the career preparation aspects of the program are generally very poor. We have 1200 students, 7 faculty members, 1 instructor, and most (~80%) of our courses are taught without our input in traditional departments. Under these circumstances, it's very difficult for us to be very strategic about building (or tracking) career preparation in our student body. I will be curious to see how other programs handle this aspect of student training particularly with limited resources.



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