Undergraduate major bolsters UW-Madison's environmental leadership

April 8, 2011

Following an effort lasting more than 30 years, a new undergraduate major in environmental studies will be launched this fall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The UW System Board of Regents approved the major today.

"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 Nelson Institute, which will offer the major jointly with the College of Letters and Science.

"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. This new major helps provide them with the tools to get there."

Efforts to create an environmental studies major began in the 1970s, soon after the Nelson Institute was established. The institute has offered an undergraduate certificate since 1979, but the path to a full major ran into a number of obstacles over the years.

Mitman says today's approval of the major grew out of the institute's strengthened collaborations with other schools, colleges and programs on campus as well as UW-Madison's increasing emphasis on sustainability in education, research and operations.

The new environmental studies major, which will become available in the fall semester, will offer undergraduates more opportunities to broaden their studies through interdisciplinary course work related to the environment. Because the major is designed to be taken simultaneously with another undergraduate major, students will not only learn about current environmental issues, they will also learn how to link environmental science, policy, literature, history, art, and philosophy to another chosen field of study.

"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 and chair of the Nelson Institute's undergraduate program.

"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."

More than 1,800 undergraduates have earned Nelson Institute certificates in tandem with their bachelor's degrees. The certificate program " among the most popular of roughly three dozen on campus " attracts not only students earning degrees in subjects like biology, geography, and political science but also those in scores of other majors ranging from art history and Japanese to marketing and mechanical engineering. Many of the 350 students currently pursuing certificates are expected to switch to the major when it becomes available.

"Having an environmental studies major appeals to me because it allows employers to see clearly that I have mastered topics relating to different disciplines in environmental studies, whereas a certificate might not resonate in the same way," says George Reistad, an undergraduate from Milwaukee who is earning a degree in economics.

"I think the environmental studies major will be very popular. I have found that the material in my environmental studies classes ties closely into certain parts of my economics major as well as into my daily life. This is the beauty of environmental studies; it truly is all-encompassing."

Cynthia Novak of Marshall, a first-generation college student who returned to school after a 29-year break to raise a family, is eager to add environmental studies to her principal major, community and environmental sociology.

"A second major should enhance the first and this will do the job well. This major is an added benefit to my education, and it comes without financial or academic burden," says Novak, who hopes to attend law school after graduating in 2012.

Environmental historian William Cronon, one of the leaders of the effort to establish the major, says it will fill a "longstanding gap" in the university's curriculum and continue its long tradition of environmental leadership.

"UW-Madison is surely one of the most environmentally engaged universities in the world," says 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.

Kanarek, who has advocated an environmental studies major for much of his career, agrees.

"We have one of the great environmental universities in the world in teaching, research and service, and now that is reflected in having an undergraduate major," 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."

More information about the major curriculum will be available on the Nelson Institute's Web site starting Monday, April 11. Declaration and advising for the new major will be available in the fall.

The regents also approved a new stand-alone major in environmental sciences for undergraduates, offered by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the College of Letters and Science.