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New undergraduate majors build on UW-Madison’s environmental legacy

Pursuing environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is certainly not new, but being able to major in it is.

For the first time, UW-Madison students can now earn undergraduate degrees in environmental studies or environmental sciences. The UW System Board of Regents approved the two new majors Friday.

“This is an historic event, coming at a time when issues of energy, climate, water, food, and health are defining problems of the 21st century,” says Gregg Mitman, interim director of the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “Economic surveys show that environmental fields are where some of the most rapid job growth will occur between now and 2016. Students are energized by the possibilities of a green future and their role in building it.  These new majors help provide them with the tools to get there.”

The environmental studies major will be jointly administered by the Nelson Institute and the College of Letters and Science and is designed to be pursued in conjunction with another major, while the environmental sciences major will be offered through the Colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Letters and Science as a standalone major.

“UW-Madison is surely one of the most environmentally engaged universities in the world,” says environmental historian William Cronon, citing the legacies of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Gaylord Nelson, all of whom had ties to the university, and a long list of influential scholars and scientists including historian Frederick Jackson Turner, geologist Charles R. Van Hise, soil scientist F.H. King, and botanist John Curtis. “Given this great intellectual tradition, it is hardly surprising that virtually every college, school, and department at UW-Madison is significantly engaged with environmental questions.”

But what may be surprising is that the university has never offered an undergraduate major specifically devoted to environmental studies or sciences. Proposals for the two new majors were developed somewhat in parallel, with the recognition that they allow for some overlap of interests yet are designed to appeal to different groups of students.

The new environmental studies major is designed to be taken simultaneously with another undergraduate major, enabling students to couple the disciplinary focus of a primary major with the interdisciplinary breadth of the environmental studies major.

This program builds on the existing environmental studies certificate program administered through the Nelson Institute since 1979, which is among the most popular certificates on campus. More than 1,800 undergraduates have earned environmental studies certificates in tandem with bachelor’s degrees in subjects ranging from biology, geography, and political science to art history, marketing, and mechanical engineering.

“The major in environmental studies complements other undergraduate majors on campus and will help produce a new cadre of graduates who are better prepared to take on the world’s complicated environmental problems,” says Marty Kanarek, a professor of population health sciences and environmental studies, chair of the Nelson Institute’s undergraduate program, and longtime advocate of the major. “Like the certificate, the new major emphasizes the interdisciplinary interaction between the biological, physical and social sciences and the humanities, which are all needed in tackling most environmental issues.”

By contrast, the environmental sciences major will attract students who want to focus on natural sciences in a single degree that will prepare them for entry-level environmental positions or science-based graduate programs, says Stephen Ventura, a professor of soil science and environmental studies who has been a lead proponent for the program.

“There has been demand for this kind of program for a long time. People have found alternatives, including some of the traditional majors with emphasis on environment, or the certificate,” Ventura says. Within soil science, for example, “typically half of our majors are doing what amounts to an environmental sciences curriculum anyway. The department is not going to be doing any less advising or teaching, but students will be able to pursue a degree that is more appropriately labeled for their interests.”

The new majors fill a longstanding gap in the university’s curriculum and continue its tradition of environmental leadership, says Kanarek. “We have one of the great environmental universities in the world in teaching, research and service, and now that is reflected in our undergraduate majors,” he explains.  “I’m happy for the students who will complete the new major and work on improving the environment in Wisconsin and the world.”