The Science of Saving the World: College Majors Go Green!


If you're looking for a college major that will train you to look at the world's problems from scientific, social, and economic perspectives, you have a wide—and growing—range of educational options in sustainability.

As a boy, Will McCabe spent summer vacations at his grandparents’ house on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. For more than a decade, he watched the bay change from a pleasant retreat into a place no longer fit for swimming.

The water was too hot, and the bay was full of jellyfish and algae. “All the fish were gone,” he says. “There was just nothing really left except the jellyfish.”

McCabe learned that agricultural runoff containing excessive nitrogen and phosphorus, like manure from Maryland chicken farms, ended up in the Chesapeake, creating so-called “dead zones” where fish can’t survive. He was disheartened by how human activity damaged the environment.

A passion for protecting the environment led McCabe to run his high school’s environmental committee, work at an electric car company, and volunteer at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. As a freshman at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, McCabe plans to major in sustainability science. He’s not exactly sure what he’ll do with his degree, but he’s interested in renewable energy and protecting the Chesapeake.

Like Furman, many colleges now offer majors focused on the environment. Paul Rowland, Executive Director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, says colleges in the United States and Canada launched more than 100 sustainability-centered academic programs in 2009 alone. Why are these majors so popular? Two main reasons: students are asking for them, and businesses are telling colleges they need workers with backgrounds in environmental issues.

So if you’re looking for a college major that will train you to look at the world’s problems from scientific, social, and economic perspectives, you have a wide—and growing—range of educational options.

One major, many careers

Though the “green” movement has picked up speed in recent years, Earth-friendly college studies aren’t as new as you might think. Environmental science majors first became popular in the 1970s, as the conservationism, environmentalism, and anti-nuclear movements became more mainstream. Rowland says this trend continued, leading colleges to start offering majors in sustainability in the 1990s.

“Sustainability” is still a buzzword today, but it’s not always easy to understand or define the term. According to Rowland, sustainability in the academic sense generally refers to the study of how the environment, economy, and society interact, and how to use this knowledge to create a healthy world for future generations.

Different colleges approach sustainability studies in different ways, making it important to research program offerings and degree requirements for deciding on a school. Fortunately it’s also a very flexible field, so students have a lot of freedom shaping their studies and subsequent careers. Among the majors you can choose from are environmental engineering, agroecology, renewable energy, green interior design, and environmental education—to name a few. For even more options, just add a minor or concentration to your sustainability-related major. Pairing a niche field like sustainability with something as foundational as business means even more academic and career opportunities.

In 2007, Arizona State University became a pioneer in the field by opening a School of Sustainability at its Tempe campus. Students can earn bachelor’s degrees in sustainability while focusing on a variety of topics, like ecology or international development.

Two years ago the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, launched a major in building science and sustainable design. Meant for students who want to work in architecture or the building trades, this major provides plenty of hands-on experience. Some students start working right after they graduate, while others go to graduate school, says Naim Jabbour, who teaches architecture at Penn College. No matter their future plans, the building science and sustainable design major provides adequate experience and preparation.

At Penn College, students learn to test how airtight a building is and how to weatherize it so it’s more energy efficient. While studying alternative power sources, like wind turbines and solar panels, students have to analyze all their projects to determine how much energy they use. “It kind of takes the best of all worlds, all in one place,” Jabbour says. “Employers are looking for workers who can apply themselves in all sorts of different ways.”

Confronting real problems

Although Furman University just launched its sustainability science major in the fall of 2010, the idea of environmental responsibility isn’t new to students there. All Furman students, no matter what they study, have to take at least one class that examines the relationship between people and the planet.

Many Furman professors build “green” topics into their courses, says Dr. Angela Halfacre, Director of the school’s David E. Shi Center for Sustainability. For example, a political science professor had students examine how public support for sustainable practices had impacted government policies, and students in Spanish class translated material about the environment.

Furman’s sustainability science major is meant to prepare students to work in an emerging field. Students will take classes like Environmental Policy, Natural Resource Management, and Religion and the Environment. Seniors will work on projects and research what causes environmental disasters, such as last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and come up with solutions.

A unique approach to sustainability can be found at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, where every student majors in human ecology. College spokeswoman Donna Gold says this area of study examines the relationship between people and the world around them. “You cannot do something without having an impact somewhere else,” Gold says. “You sort of look at the three-dimensional picture of all aspects of life.”

Yet, the required human ecology major doesn’t confine students to a career in environmental science. Because the College of the Atlantic doesn’t have many required classes, students have more time to transform that major into a launching pad for almost any area of experiential learning or research. Some students have studied how changes in the environment affect whales in the Atlantic Ocean. Others have studied biofuels and designed lesson plans to teach children about the Earth. “We have students who end up being poets,” Gold says. “We'll graduate dancers and writers and people who go on to medical careers."

Getting—or creating—a job

So what can you do with a sustainability-focused degree? Nearly anything you can imagine. Rowland says a lot of people who pursue these majors are independent by nature, and many of them start their own businesses. “The answer is, partly, ‘What kind of job do you want to invent?’” he says.

Gold says some graduates from the College of the Atlantic started a unique organic vegetable-growing business before they even got their degrees last spring. Now they are expanding their company, which operates indoor farms in city buildings.

If you’d rather not be your own boss immediately after you graduate, don’t worry. Gold says she’s seen graduates go on to become park rangers, city planners, politicians, and more. Since most sustainability-related majors are fairly new, they are designed to fit careers that are currently in demand.

Jabbour says students who major in building science and sustainable design at Penn College can become architects, construction managers, building analysts, or housing specialists. Students who earn a sustainability science degree from Furman can work for governments, nonprofit organizations, or companies with their own goals of reducing their impact on the environment, Halfacre says.

Rowland says an increasing number of colleges, businesses, and cities are hiring sustainability coordinators who are in charge of finding ways to use less energy and reduce their employers’ impact on the environment.

As more and more people become conscious of how humans are affecting the planet, and as green technology continues to grow, there will be countless opportunities for college graduates to make a living protecting the Earth. If you want to turn your passion for the environment into a job, a sustainability major might be the right choice for you.

“These degrees are actually going to be some of the most marketable because the problems we're dealing with are not going away,” Rowland says. “We’re always going to need air, we’re always going to need water, and we’re always going to need food resources.”

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