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New environmental science and sustainability major launches

With more than 400 courses covering topics related to the environment and a dedicated Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future with 280 research fellows, Cornell has demonstrated its commitment to advancing environmental research and education.

Now, a new undergraduate major will help solidify Cornell's pre-eminence in the field.

The environmental science and sustainability (ESS) major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) will draw upon faculty from across the university in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach meant to integrate the physical-chemical, biological and social sciences, as well as the humanities.

The science of natural and environmental systems (SNES) and the natural resources majors will be folded into the new major. The Department of Natural Resources will serve as its administrative and advising home.

"The curriculum will seek to advance students' ability to solve real-world environmental problems, manage social-ecological systems in a sustainable manner and affect decisions involving environmental policy, resource management and biodiversity conservation," said Max Pfeffer, senior associate dean of CALS and professor of development sociology.

Students will be able to enroll in ESS as of the 2013-14 academic year.

Eighteen courses will be required in the core curriculum, of which nine also meet CALS distribution requirements. These include introductory biology, mathematics, statistics, chemistry, physics, ethics, economics and sociology.

Students select a concentration of five additional courses. Initial concentrations include: environmental biology and applied ecology; environmental policy and governance; biogeochemical sciences; and environmental economics. Students will also have the option of tailoring their own concentration based on individual interests.

The new major was recommended in May 2010 by an Environmental Sciences Planning Committee Report and further developed by the Environmental Science and Sustainability Committee comprising faculty members representing 10 departments. Their report received the support of the faculties of SNES and natural resources.

"We have endeavored to create a preliminary roadmap for a new major that is more than the sum of the two current majors," said committee member and lead report author Barbara Bedford, senior research associate in natural resources.

She said the new major has the potential to significantly raise Cornell's profile as a leader among "green" campuses. It would also help CALS achieve sustainability as a learning outcome, an objective formally supported by the CALS Faculty Senate.

The program is designed to be flexible enough to incorporate new concentrations as environmental problems, faculty interests or student needs evolve, said Bedford.

Such flexibility is key, according to Darrick Evensen, a graduate student in the field of natural resources and student representative on the Cornell Board of Trustees.

"I think it's important to have courses that reflect the historical nature and strengths of the Department of Natural Resources, such as those that prepare students for careers in agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Evensen said. "But I'm also cognizant of the fact that there may be a shift into less traditional, emerging fields that require more interdisciplinary training."

Kathryn Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said she hopes the new offering will encourage additional inclusion and engagement from undergraduate instructors and advisers from across the university.

"This is a fantastic first step toward long-term strengthening of environmental education at Cornell University, and will specifically incorporate sustainability science into the curriculum in a way that will attract undergraduate students and prepare them well for the careers of the future," Boor said.

Stacey Shackford is a staff writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.


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