Schools meet demand by offering an increasing number of majors and degrees focused on the environment.

By JENNA ROSS, Star Tribune

Last update: September 25, 2009 – 11:43 PM

Students at the University of Minnesota-Morris could ride buses fueled by corn, sleep in dorms heated by a biomass furnace and eat food grown on nearby farms. But for years, they couldn’t major in the environment.

“It was getting to be embarrassing,” said Peter Wyckoff, a biology professor. “We had amazing green facilities out here but didn’t have a fully developed green curriculum.”

That has changed. At Morris and at campuses around the nation, green degrees are sprouting, growing and firmly rooting in response to student demand.

In the past year, Morris has added two new majors — environmental studies and environmental science. This fall, Carleton College in Northfield began a degree in environmental studies, just its second new major in a decade. The number of students majoring in environmental studies at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University rose to 90 in six years, placing it among the most popular majors. The number of St. Olaf College students graduating with a major or concentration in environmental studies increased by 40 percent in the past four years.

Nationwide, most of the more than 1,100 institutions with environmental programs have seen their enrollment expand since 2003.

“This has been a growth year in all respects,” said Lamont Hempel, president of the newly formed Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences. “Students are expecting that campuses will walk the talk.”

The change is seen at two- and four-year colleges, public and private schools. Community colleges are quickly revamping their curriculum to prep students for green-collar jobs. The degrees have made their way into the more entrenched programs of private colleges and universities for different reasons.

A recent survey by the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors found that “faculty initiatives” and “student demand” — rather than employer demand or job opportunities — prompted the creation of undergraduate and graduate programs. About two-thirds of students recently surveyed by the Princeton Review said that they’d consider a college’s environmental “commitment” before applying — up 3 percent from last year.

“There’s a lot of interest in this generation,” Wyckoff said.

‘Connections to real world’

Kelsea Dombrovski’s record at Carleton shows her switching majors just once, but she’s changed her mind more times than that. Then she saw that the college would offer environmental studies as a major starting this year.

Unlike some of the other majors she considered, “with environmental studies, I could make connections to the real world,” the junior said. “It’s about real issues that people are actually dealing with.”

The labels change by the college. Most programs are called either environmental science, for future scientists, or environmental studies, for future policymakers. More than a dozen colleges now offer bachelor’s degrees in sustainability, according to the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus recently added a minor in sustainability studies.

Some programs have existed for decades, since the first wave of concern over the environment in the 1960s and early 1970s or the second, in the 1990s. In many cases, “concentrations” or minors in these subjects are now turning into full-fledged majors and even departments unto themselves.

The number of students choosing these programs is unprecedented, several professors and experts said.

The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University have offered a minor in environmental studies for years but in 2003 turned it into a major and a department. Now, about 15 to 20 entering freshmen identify it as their major, “something we never would have seen even five years ago,” said Derek Larson, associate professor and chairman of the environmental studies program.

Prospective students call the schools in St. Joseph and Collegeville, Minn., asking about the sustainability of the campus and the prevalence of degrees in the environment. At a recent academic fair at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., freshmen filled sign-up sheets for more information about the new environmental studies degree.

“They just come in interested, then find their way to us,” said Mark Kanazawa, the program’s director. “Global warming and climate change have gotten a lot of attention in recent years. These issues are big, they’re scary, and they make a young, conscientious person want to do something about them.”

Dombrovski, a Minnesota native, hopes to work with people in urban settings to get them interested in healthier foods and improve their access. But she feels the interdisciplinary nature of the degree she’s getting at Carleton will prepare her for several possible jobs.

Carleton had offered a concentration in environmental studies for years, and, recently, it had become the most popular concentration on campus. The University of Minnesota-Morris had a concentration, too, but it wasn’t as popular. It began the environmental studies major last fall, and so far 50 students have signed on.

To Katie Laughlin, the first student to declare, the switch was significant: “To me, having an environmental major sounds a lot better than having a concentration in environment.”

It’s a multidisciplinary degree, so she’s taken everything from microeconomics to a course this semester titled Evolution of the Minnesota Prairie.

The major makes use of the green facilities that came before it. On Wednesday, students in a course on environmental biology visited the campus’ biomass heating and cooling plant to discuss biomass gasification. Then they worked with small-scale gasifiers that, when they got going, shot flames out their tops.

“Colleges have been good about putting up green buildings, but these buildings should be teaching,” Hempel said. “There’s a building like that at my university; we think of it as an adjunct faculty member. Just being in it, seeing how it works, is an education.”

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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