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Jobs, student interest and opportunities drive growth of environmental studies program

Nov 30, 2017

North Central College’s environmental studies program has seen “phenomenal growth” in its first academic term as a major.

“Students are hungry for it … they care. They’re rightfully concerned about our environment and want to make a difference,” said Martha Bohrer, program coordinator and professor of English

Some 20 declared majors and 24 minors are part of the environmental studies program and taking advantage of learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom.

There are many reasons for its growth, in addition to student interest. North Central’s location is key. “Compared to schools that are right in the center of a city or are in very rural areas, our campus is close to both. We have opportunities to build regional relationships and the campus into our program,” said Bohrer (photo).

Nearby Argonne National Laboratory and Bayer are recent examples. North Central has a memorandum of understanding with Argonne that enables both to work together to encourage and promote energy and sustainability technology innovations in the Chicago area. Bayer granted funds to North Central to restore a prairie plot on campus designated to nurture a healthy bee population.

Associate Professor of Biology Gregory Ruthig and his students conduct experiments on the prairie (photo, below). “The work gives students a sense of place and understanding of the local environment,” Ruthig said. It also supports an important College objective: to utilize the campus as a living laboratory, where students and faculty are actively involved in sustainability initiatives.

North Central College has pioneered many campus-wide sustainability initiatives—four solar panel installations, LED lighting, water conservation, recycling, alternative transportation, landscaping, sustainable dining and more. All have been in partnership with faculty, students and staff and been integrated into campus life and the academic curriculum.

Some 12 faculty members from different academic disciplines contribute to the environmental studies major. “It’s the biggest interdisciplinary program, even in our first year, in terms of the variety of faculty teaching from all different disciplines,” said Bohrer. Those disciplines range from the sciences, anthropology and sociology, to business, entrepreneurship and language.

For example, Bohrer provides ecocriticism as literary professor, Professor of Management Jeffrey Anstine teaches the impact of business, Associate Professor of History Will Barnett is the environmental historian, and Associate Professor of Anthropology Matt Krystal offers perspectives of native peoples and their relationship to the environment.

Two of the newest faculty in the program are Erin Berger, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies, and Jelena Sanchez, visiting assistant professor of Spanish. Sanchez and several students will travel to Spain as part of a December Term course to explore that country’s sustainability efforts.

“As Europe’s most visited country, Spain has experienced serious threats to its environment and had to initiate protective measures,” Sanchez (photo) said. “The green revolution in Spain has inspired me to educate our students on the implementation of a proactive environmental and sustainable agenda in my native country.” Her students will visit a solar farm, the largest hydroponic greenhouse in the world, hydroponic urban farms and water resources.

Bohrer believes the business world offers the greatest opportunities for jobs in sustainability. “There’s an emphasis in creating green products and being a green company,” she said. To match that career trend in business, “Our environmental studies major has a business component to it and the sustainability emphasis is entirely unique. Most schools don’t offer these areas until a master’s degree.”

In addition to the business sector, all kinds of institutional campuses need sustainability coordinators to manage green projects, from solar power to transportation to recycling. North Central has employed a sustainability coordinator for more than a decade. In the five years that Brittany Drummond has served as North Central’s coordinator, sustainability initiatives and faculty and student engagement have flourished throughout campus.

During fall term, students energized the student organization Green Scene and surveyed the campus for future solar panel installation sites. Students also are pushing to launch a Ban the [plastic water] Bottle campaign and a Meatless Mondays program to raise awareness on the environmental impact of large-scale meat consumption. 

Click here to learn more about North Central’s environmental studies program, and click here to learn more about the College’s sustainability efforts.