Schools Expand Green Courses and Majors

When university presidents tout a commitment to "going green," they usually talk about sprucing up the physical campus—think energy-efficient dorms, locally grown fare in cafeterias and pledges to reduce carbon emissions. Now, academics want to devote attention to what's taught inside all those LEED-certified classrooms. Driven partially by market forces (the stimulus package alone devotes $30 billion to green energy) and partially by growing student concern over the environment, green majors have become a hot commodity on campus. Universities launched at least 27 sustainability-themed programs, degrees, or certificates in 2007, up from just three in 2005. And that's in addition to the scores of environment-related degrees, like environmental science or biology, that already existed. "Students are really interested in campus sustainability and thinking about the environment in terms of a future career," says Stephanie Pfirman, president of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors. "It used to be jobs versus environment. Now it's jobs and environment." Green degrees are available in a wide range of academic disciplines—from architecture to agriculture, from engineering to interior design—and in every sort of school, from small private colleges in the Midwest to large state universities in the South and Southwest. And in all this variety, there is one common thread: students signing up for these courses aren't just looking for a major. They're looking to join a movement.

For some schools, focusing on the environment is nothing new—it's integral to their mission. The College of the Atlantic has had exactly one major since its started offering classes in 1972: human ecology. Located on a 108-square-mile island off the coast of Maine, the school had students take on projects last year that varied from building an on-campus arboretum to working on an organic garden in Chile. In 2008 the college also added a program in Green and Socially Responsible Business. Students can still take courses in the ecology of the winter coastline (one offering from 2009), but now they can also take Business and Non-Profit Basics. "Students are really gravitating toward this," says Jay Friedlander, who directs the school's new business program. "They're seeing that if you want to effect change in the world, you can do so with a powerful business model that improves society." Green Mountain College in Vermont, an environmental liberal arts college founded in 1834, recently updated its curriculum to adapt to the mainstreaming of green principles. This fall they'll start offering a concentration in renewable energy and ecological design where students will have the opportunity to graduate as LEED-certified contractors.

As these new programs emerge, students are also changing their approach to disciplines that have long dealt with the environment. Environmental studies has been a mainstay on campuses since the early 1980s, but today's students are more interested in practice than theory. Pfirman, for example, has taught a climate-change class at Barnard for 15 years. She says more students than ever are coming to her department and they arrive more informed, having heard about global warming throughout their childhood. "It's a basic science class but more and more, students are asking for the policy applications," she says. "They see the problems and they want to figure out the answers." At the University of Virginia, Timothy Beatley has been talking about sustainability for more than a decade in his introductory urban-design course. But now his department sponsors events and activities that encourage students to put sustainability into practice. Among the most popular is the 100-Mile Thanksgiving Dinner, where members of the urban-design department try to make a Thanksgiving dinner from ingredients within a 100-mile radius of campus. "We used it as an opportunity to learn about our region," says Beatley. "We were teaching these things about food systems in our class, but here we were living it."

Many schools are trying to meet another challenge: incorporating sustainability into their nonenvironmental curriculum. That's what Montana State University did last January, when they launched their Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems interdisciplinary degree. It's a collaboration between the colleges of Agriculture, Education, and Health and Human Development that aims to give students an understanding of the entire food cycle, from farm to fork. Aspiring nutritionists and farmers alike take courses on the basics of growing food, but also tend to the two-acre campus farm, which supplies produce to nearby residents and a local food bank. Antonette Lininger, a sophomore in the program, has taken classes in plant biology, genetics, and Native American food systems. She spent the summer of 2009 interning on the farm, putting down irrigation and helping out in the greenhouses. The experience of growing food, she says, changed how she sees a grocery store. "It opens your eyes, makes you appreciate the whole cycle," she says. The distance people have put between themselves and their food hurts the economy, and maybe their soul." When Lininger graduates, she hopes to move to a small town or a developing country to help start a local food program.

Engineering and business programs have adopted similarly green curricula. Nearly 30 percent of business departments and 22 percent of engineering schools offer undergraduate courses in environmental issues, according to a 2008 study by the National Wildlife Federation. The sustainable business major at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., is one third conventional business education, a third natural sciences, and a third core sustainable business courses. Every student participates in the Sustainable Business Innovations Lab, where they help local businesses solve their problems with sustainability. When the university began offering the major in 2005, it was the first of its kind. Now it's the largest undergrad business major at Aquinas. "Nobody knows what the answers are, so we explore those things together," says Deborah Steketee, who directs the university's Center for Sustainability. "That leads to a whole different way of thinking and a different way of seeking information." She recently took a group of students on a weeklong trip to Costa Rica. They toured a coffee farm, a clothing factory, and a mango plantation, getting a firsthand look at sustainable businesses in action.

For their part, engineering departments want to prepare their students for a world that increasingly values renewable energy and sustainable building construction. The Oregon Institute of Technology, which offered the first undergraduate major in renewable-energy engineering in 2005, sends its graduates off to a wide range of power and engineering companies, from the traditional, like Stantec, to the renewable, like the wind-power company Vestas. "It's amazing to see how many groups are interested in green energy right now," says Dan Abelson, a 2009 OIT grad who just took a job with Spanish wind-power company Enerfin, for which he'll develop programs in the Pacific Northwest. "You have the tree-hugging hippies, the venture capitalists, the Silicon Valley innovators, all working together to try and figure out the next new technology."

Arizona State University's School of Sustainability is often cited as a model for the future of sustainability education. Founded in 2007, it's the first in the nation to offer B.A.s and B.S.s in sustainability. The curriculum is a unique patchwork of academic disciplines. "You need people who are experts in chemistry, political science, law, geography, in order to really grasp sustainability," says the school's executive dean, Robert Melnick. Students have embraced the curriculum, with 300 undergrads enrolling in the first class (the university thinks that'll grow to 1,500 within the next five years or so). "It's over the top," says Melnick. "To be candid, we were not prepared for this." While the school is still two years away from graduating its first class, Melnick sees sustainability grads faring particularly well in local government offices, which currently struggle with putting the principles of sustainability into their day-to-day operations.

Green-degree grads leave campus with serious job prospects but, perhaps just as important, the sense they're ready to start saving the planet. "There's an understanding that we're being handed a pretty sizable plate of problems," says Ben Chrisinger, a senior majoring in urban design and environmental science at the University of Virginia, "but at the same time, everyone is really motivated or inspired to get things done." He'll pursue a master's in public policy after graduation and, he hopes, find some way to localize food policy. He's off to a pretty good start: Chrisinger is the undergraduate representative to the university's Presidential Committee for Sustainability and helped create a student-run garden on campus. "Working with people to develop real-world solutions, right now, really appeals to me," he says of his UVA coursework. Lininger, the nutrition major in Montana, agrees: "I know something really needs to be done. And I think what we're doing is really constructive." For the planet's sake, her commitment—and her major—couldn't have come at a better time.