The University of Utah Follows the Nationwide Spike in Environmental and Sustainability Programs

By Laura Schmidt, Office of Sustainability

All over the United States we’re seeing a surge – students, by the thousands, are flocking to colleges and universities across the country to study in programs related to environmental studies. That same trend can also be observed at the University of Utah, where the undergraduate program has grown 200 percent in the past 10 years.

Campus Garden

An organic gardening course in Environmental and Sustainability Studies allows students to get hands-on experience in the Edible Campus Gardens.

The Environmental and Sustainability Studies program was established at the University of Utah in 1994. It started as a small program with low enrollment. Dan McCool, director of the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program at the U, says that in the past 10 years, the major has more than tripled in enrollment. Having only about 100 students in the major a decade ago, the number now exceeds 300. McCool speculates that the increase in enrollment at the U is following the national trend with students realizing that human population growth, climate change, air pollution, and issues of water quantity and quality will affect their lives and future generations.

Numerous changes to the program at the University of Utah within the last 10 years, and many within the past two years, are also responsible for the spike in the major, says McCool. In the past two years, Environmental and Sustainability Studies created six new courses, added an option for learning abroad in Costa Rica, and also added an internship requirement.

As the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program continues to expand, McCool is excited to see enrollment continue to increase. This year, Environmental and Sustainability Studies added the opportunity of a minor in the program, which should lead to a “dramatic” increase in enrollment, McCool says. With the option to take classes online or on campus, students have the unique opportunity and flexibility to complete the minor, he says.

Brian Tonetti, a junior at the University of Utah, is double majoring in Environmental and Sustainability Studies and Urban Planning. After experiencing the course “Empathic Sustainability,” taught by Urban Planning Professor Steven Goldsmith, Tonetti switched from majoring in Architecture to Environmental and Sustainability Studies.  “(The class) changed the way I thought and looked at the world and, ultimately, I had no other choice but to major in Environmental and Sustainability Studies,” Tonetti says. He adds, “(The major) offers relevant, cutting edge material…You can go out and try to implement what you learn in class in your personal life or in any form of government and really see a difference. Everything is extremely new and exciting.”

Nationally, the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD) of the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) released a report in September 2012 entitled, “Results from the 2012 Census of U.S. Four Year Colleges and Universities.” This publication disclosed that the 2012 Census of U.S. academic institutions found a “sharp increase in interdisciplinary environmental programs and sustainability programs compared with the 2008 census.” The report notes that higher education schools hosting environmental and sustainability programs increased 29 percent and degree programs increased 57 percent compared to 2008 census numbers. Though the majority of these programs are focused on undergraduate students, there are several graduate degrees being offered in these disciplines as well. A 2012 article released by the U.S. News and World Report noted that programs in environmental and sustainability-related programs were on the rise because students acknowledge that “energy, water, food and climate promise to be defining issues of the century.”

Though we are seeing an increase in Environmental Studies and Sustainability programs, The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) 2012 Higher Education’s Sustainability Review predicts that there will likely be a slowing of the broad-based new programs and a rise of “niche” programs. They suggest that “we may see fewer newly established ‘sustainability studies’ programs, and will see instead new ‘niche’ programs in sustainable business management or equitable food systems.”

In addition to the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program, the U also offers sustainability courses through the undergraduate Integrated Certificate in Sustainability and the new Block U in Sustainability, which allows incoming students to take general education classes that focus on sustainability issues. A number of majors also include courses that focus on or include environmentally-related issues. Visit the Office of Sustainability’s list of courses to learn more.

Laura Schmidt is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Office of Sustainability.

One response to “The University of Utah Follows the Nationwide Spike in Environmental and Sustainability Programs

  1. Pingback: Making Smarter Choices to Green Events | sustainableUTAH·

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