Enviro Studies Is Official

Increasingly popular program gains department status. by Melanie Breault ’11

A biodiesel production facility, natural landscaping, energy audits, and sustainable food service to reduce waste — every one of those initiatives,” says Michael Smith, assistant professor of history and of environmental studies, “has been stimulated by an environmental studies student.”

The increasing popularity of the 11-year-old environmental studies program has led the College to make it official. There’s now a Department of Environmental Studies and Science within the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S). The department offers two interdisciplinary programs, leading to an environmental studies major or minor, and an environmental science major.

With its growing reputation and multidisciplinary faculty across fields such as biology, history, ecology, and economics, the program has seen increased enrollment every year. In 2008 it had more than 60 majors and 20 minors, and the incoming freshman class this year brought in about 25 new students.

Last year, a self-study and an external review by three independent environmental studies professors resulted in the recommendation to create the department. Former H&S dean Howard Ehrlich handed the proposal over to new dean Leslie Lewis, and from there a task force was assembled by provost Kathleen Rountree to evaluate the needs of the program, including accommodation for the growing number of students.

“Department status will better solidify the resources and support that go to students,” Lewis says. “Our students make a difference in real-world problems, and we expect them to continue to do so.”

For example, Michelle Uberbacher ’12 wants to be a “green” architect, creating what she calls “healthy living alternatives” for the overpopulated New York–New Jersey–Connecticut tri-state area. When Uberbacher came to the College last year, there was no department, only a program. This year, she says, she didn’t notice any changes until she looked at the newly registered faces in her environmental science classes. “Now I see politics majors, history majors, all different types of students taking [these] courses,” she says.

Smith, who specializes in environmental history and public history and is a member of the Environmental Studies Program Steering Committee, says the new department adds to the College’s prestige. “There aren’t that many schools of our size and profile that have environmental studies departments,” he says. “They’re usually found at bigger universities.”

Growing from a program to a department brings many advantages. More full-time faculty members will be hired, which, in turn, will enable them to “increase the environmental literacy of Ithaca College students,” says Susan Allen-Gil, department chair.

Allen-Gil wants to bring greater awareness of environmental and sustainability concepts not only to the College’s backyard, but also to the rest of the world. Encouraging student involvement in activities and events such as a demonstration of the International Day of Climate Action on campus and attendance at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in Denmark this December, the new department bolsters the College’s commitment to sustainability and sustainability literacy.

The importance of real-world involvement in this field is why associate professor of environmental studies and science Jason Hamilton does almost as much instruction outside as he does inside the classroom. “It’s very easy to teach and learn environmental studies here,” he says. “Ithaca and Tompkins County are very strong, with experts in areas such as organic farming and permaculture, and can provide opportunities for students to have internships, get jobs, or gain practical experience just minutes away.”

Faculty, students, and staff agree that the move to a new department was the right one. Hamilton says the department’s growing strengths and the greater opportunities it can offer students will increase the academic stature of the College and the professional impact alumni will make to the field. “The whole focus of the program is learning by doing, so we went back to the beginning and designed the perfect curriculum.”