Environmental studies and human impact on nature were highlighted as one of seven key “integrative themes” for the University’s next decade in President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan, released last week. But changes are already underway at the Center for Environmental Studies: With a new leadership team, the center is working to expand its faculty, adjust to recent curriculum changes and improve advising and cohesiveness under new leadership.
In May, Dov Sax, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Kurt Teichert, senior lecturer in CES, were named the center’s director and associate director, respectively.
Their primary goal this year is to begin implementation of the University’s new environmental curriculum, Sax said.
The Committee to Review the Environmental Studies Concentration recommended changes last semester to the environmental studies and environmental science concentrations. These originally included increasing the required core from two courses to four and constructing four tracks, instead of letting students choose their own focus areas.
“For the current curriculum, it has just been too wide open for interpretation, and it has been difficult to guide students through that process,” Teichert said.
The tracks were created to make sure students “get enough depth in a particular area to complement the breadth,” Sax said. “There’s a danger in the existing curriculum that someone can get too much of a hodgepodge of courses and not enough of a focus. The problem there is that without enough disciplinary depth, you are in danger of not actually having the expertise to go solve a problem.”
But in March students at a public forum voiced opposition to several of the proposed changes. Students particularly objected to the lack of a track relating to food and health topics, The Herald reported at the time.
In response to student and faculty feedback, the proposed tracks were revised this spring to include Air, Climate and Energy; Conservation Science and Policy; Land, Water and Food Security and Sustainability in Development.
Some students said they appreciate the revisions but called the changes to the track options insufficient.
“I would still like to see more focus on environmental health and food from not really a food security perspective but more of a food justice perspective,” said Katie Parker ’14, an environmental studies concentrator.
Parker said she also believes an environmental health track should have been created. “It was a little frustrating to me that it wasn’t added despite a lot of student support and a lot of Brown professors who have focused on that in the past,” she said.
Sax said he wants to focus on getting the four tracks in place before creating any additional ones.
“The hope would be that we’re going to continue to hire faculty and continue to grow, and as we do that … we can add tracks,” he said.
Having concentrators take the core classes will help build a shared language within environmental studies and sciences at Brown, Sax said. “It will create a shared understanding of the different disciplines that we view as essential in solving environmental problems,” he said.
The required classes for the new curriculum include ENVS 1509: “Introduction to Environmental Social Sciences,” GEOL 0240: “Earth: Evolution of a Habitable Planet,” ENVS 1350: “Introduction to Environmental Economics” and Introduction to Environmental Life Sciences. Some of the courses are still in development, Teichert said.
“I think it’s great in theory, and if it works, it would be awesome,” said Eliza Drury ’16, who is planning to concentrate in environmental science. “I think one of the key parts of environmental studies is that you can approach it at many angles so it would be hard to facilitate all of the concentrators to take a lot of the same classes.”
A class that used to be one of the two core classes, ENVS 0110: “Humans, Nature and the Environment: Addressing Environmental Change in the 21st Century,” is no longer required.
“That was one of my favorite classes at Brown, and it was kind of unclear why it is not being required when it has so far been a lot of people’s introduction to the concentration,” Parker said.
Deciding whether ENVS 0110 should remain a required course was a complicated issue, Sax said. The course will be encouraged but not required, he added.
Requiring environmental studies concentrators to take an economics class was another point of disagreement in the public forum last semester.
Drury has already taken the economics requirement. “I think economics is applicable to almost everything, and it’s just a good life class,” she said.
A rudimentary understanding of economics is important to studying the environment, Sax said.
“Finances and decisions over the use of scarce resources drive most of the environmental problems that we have on the planet,” he added.
Another change in the curriculum relates to the distinction between Bachelors of Arts and Bachelors of Science degrees. Currently, students obtain ScBs if their focuses are in the natural sciences and ABs if their focuses are in the social sciences or humanities, Sax said.
“The way the new curriculum is set up, whether you get an AB or ScB is actually based not around your interests but how extensive your coursework is,” Sax said.
The AB degree will require a total of 14 courses, while the ScB will require 19 courses.
Currently, CES is in the process of hiring one new faculty member as a joint appointment with the sociology department, Teichert said.
As an academic center, CES cannot grant tenure and consequently must partner with a department to hire certain faculty members, Sax said.
“CES was set up to allow students to do an interdisciplinary concentration that was focused on the environment, so it involves faculty from all over the campus, from geology to sociology and economics,” Lynch said.
The partnerships get more people involved with the center and bring in “higher-caliber” applicants, Sax said.
But the restriction means the center cannot hire someone who has a specialty in a field that is not present at Brown, Sax said.
“There are whole fields that we can’t hire into,” he said.
The possibility of turning CES into a department is “worth considering,” Sax said.
“I think it would really help the program to have that source of funding as a department and ability to hire people as environmental studies professors, not as sociology professors teaching a class in environmental studies,” Parker said. “I think it’s a shame that it doesn’t exist yet.”
On the other hand, since environmental studies are interdisciplinary, Parker said she appreciates “that as a center, it can draw from a lot of different departments.”
There are no pressing problems that would require the center to become a department, Lynch said.
“The cool thing about Brown is that you can do concentrations that aren’t tied to departments. You can have those independent concentrations but also have interdisciplinary concentrations that span departments,” she said.
At a public forum held Tuesday about the University’s strategic plan, Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 responded to a question about the center’s status by saying that the area’s interdisciplinary nature would make it difficult to consolidate into a department. But as one of the University’s “integrative themes,” environmental studies would receive more attention, including hiring opportunities and expanded funding, he added.
Since the concentration is so broad and interdisciplinary, the creation of four core classes in the curriculum will help students meet each other and share their experiences, Lynch said.
“The manifestations of an environmental studies concentration are really different from one student to another … so people didn’t tend to systematically intersect with each other” in the past, Lynch said. With the new curriculum, “we know that nobody is going to fall through the cracks, which is really important.”
The CES is also working to improve its advising services.
“All of the faculty members are on the same page about the advice we are giving students,” Lynch said. “By having the tracks, we can now talk with students about what interests them, and we can point them to a particular track, and everyone knows what that track looks like.”
The center has stopped its long-standing Thursday seminar series and now holds regular meetings Wednesdays at noon, with less focus on seminars, Teichert said. “We are trying to make more community time and open up lines of communication,” he said.
Communication and organization will be key for the next few years, as the center will administer both the existing and the new curriculums based on concentrators’ class years.
The classes of 2014 and 2015 will continue with the existing curriculum, while the class of 2016 has the option of declaring either. The class of 2017 will be the first class required to declare under the new curriculum.
“How we balance all of that will be a bit of a logistical challenge. The good thing is we have faculty that are really interested in putting their time into this,” Sax said. “The faculty are passionate about these topics and want to work with the students, and that’s a really good situation to be in.”