35 Professors to Teach in Cornell's New Sustainability Major

Professors from more than 15 departments will teach students in a new major...

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By Caroline Flax via the Cornell Daily Sun, 3/14/13

This fall, 35 professors from more than 15 departments will teach students in a new major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences: environmental science and sustainability.

Prompted by strong enthusiasm among both students and faculty, the major will take an interdisciplinary approach to environmental science, examining both biological and physical sciences as well as the “social dimensions of sustainability,” according to Prof. Max Pfeffer, developmental sociology, senior associate dean of CALS. Since the University announced the creation of the major in May, it has seen students say they will enroll in the major in the fall.

Prof. Eugene Madsen, microbiology, said students in the major will focus on addressing environmental problems through policy, environmental economics and applied ecology.

“The curriculum in the new environmental science and sustainability major seeks to advance students’ ability to solve real-world environmental problems, to manage social-ecological systems in a sustainable manner and to affect decisions involving environmental policy, resource management, biodiversity conservation and human health,” Madsen said.

Pfeffer also said there has been a lot of interest in the major from faculty and students, for whom he said the major “directly address[es] student demand for more knowledge and class of environmental science and sustainability.”

“We’ve had a lot of students applying for the major. … There’s a lot of excitement about it,” he said.

According to Madsen, the major must have an interdisciplinary approach so students could effectively understand environmental issues.

“Such a challenging and idealistic goal must be addressed by an integrated undergraduate experience that provides both breadth and depth about the causes, consequences and remediation of environmental problems ranging from the local to the global,” Madsen said.

Madsen said that the purpose of the new major was to create a “clearer gateway for undergraduate study of environmental science and sustainability” — which would raise the profile of Cornell’s sustainability teaching — through a “bold” curriculum that would attract incoming student.

“It was clear that the students, the faculty and the administration would all benefit from the development of a new vision of environmental sciences and sustainability at Cornell,” he said.

Pfeffer added that the major will aim to “prepare students broadly for careers that relate to environmental sustainability.”

Laura Nielsen ’15, a mechanical engineering student and member of Cornell University Sustainable Design, said she has seen a need for more sustainability-focused coursework at Cornell.

“I think the addition of a major that is centered around sustainability is great, because most majors that are in similar fields only incorporate sustainability into their coursework in small doses,” Nielsen said. “It’s nice to see that such an important subject is being given the attention it deserves and its own major since it is such a broad field.”

Within the major, students will also be allowed to specialize in concentrations such as biogeochemical sciences and environmental policy and governance, Pfeffer said.

He added that the major fits in with Cornell’s tradition of interdisciplinary majors.

“[CALS] is really excited about this [and] hope[s] that there will be other colleges offering something similar,” Pfeffer said.

Heather Hunt ’15 said that the new major will give students have a formal method of learning about sustainability.

“We as students need to be aware of the ideals and requirements of sustainability. With the addition of a major focused on sustainability, students will have the opportunity to learn, construct and innovate new ways to meet our present needs without compromising our future generations,” Hunt said.

The major was initially developed by a task force in 2010, but will be finally be implemented in Fall 2013.

Rudy Yoder contributed reporting to this article.

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