College majors get greener

Environmentalism on college campuses across the nation may now be spreading from student groups to primary majors and minors. The Oregon Institute of Technology was the first college to create an undergraduate major in renewable-energy systems in 2004. The decision was inspired by the growing need for students to become more aware of environmental issues in their lives and careers, in light of the strain placed on the nation’s resources, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Since OIT, many other universities have established similar programs.

In 2006, the State University of New York in Canton started a four-year degree program in alternative and renewable energy.

Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., already offers an undergraduate degree in appropriate technology, an environmentally and socially responsible approach to engineering. In September, Illinois State University in Normal will establish a major in renewable energy.

OIT has reaped nothing but success since instituting its major in renewable-energy systems. The professors all attest that their students are offered a plethora of jobs and that companies call them constantly trying to recruit, according to Inside Higher Ed. Renewable-energy systems has become the most popular major at Oregon.

“We can go into energy auditing, solar design, energy modeling,” said Mac Lewis, an OIT graduate with the renewable-energy systems major, in The New York Times. “There are engineering firms looking for people like me. Photovoltaic manufacturers are coming here. Wind energy companies. There are nonprofit groups that are interested. And that’s just what’s going on around Portland.”

Peter Madsen, a professor of ethics and social responsibility at Carnegie Mellon, explained the reasoning behind the creation of such an area of study.

“We are in the midst of an environmental crisis with such challenges as global warming, ozone depletion, species decimation, and various forms of pollution all standing in need of our immediate attention,” Madsen said. “Programs at colleges and universities that will assist students to become adept as environmental problem solvers will likely be in demand for some time to come.”

Cliff Davidson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, commented on the high level of need for undergraduates who are educated in environmentalism.

“We aren’t doing a very good job now [of dealing with increasing demand] — the U.S. continues to have one of the highest levels of energy and materials consumption per capita,” Davidson said. “Furthermore, China, India, and several other countries have rapidly increasing energy and materials consumption per capita. Continual increasing of [carbon dioxide] levels and resulting climate change is another factor adding to the importance of such majors.”

Carnegie Mellon has not been without its changes in academic affairs toward student environmentalism.

The engineering and public policy department, for example, was created in 1976 and has greatly expanded since then to focus on the problems of the environment, technology, and public policy as they particularly pertain to students studying math or science. The department offers an additional major for students in the Carnegie Institute of Technology.

However, students of all majors have the chance to expand their environmental knowledge.

Carnegie Mellon’s Green Design Institute is a multidisciplinary research initiative, particularly for graduate students, aimed at forming partnerships with outside organizations to develop design and manufacturing policies that can improve environmental quality.

The university is also home to a number of environmental organizations that, although not academic majors, provide students with a broad knowledge base in environmentalism.

Sustainable Earth, for example, has partnered with the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, a pledge aimed at addressing global warming by encouraging institutional change.

Additionally, the Eco-rep program allows students in each residential area to represent their college and spread environmental awareness through such actions as recycling.
These organizations are just a few of the many open to students on campus who are looking to learn more about the environment in which they live.

Madsen suggested that the organizations are a reflection of increasing concern for the environment, as well as a means of addressing environmental change.

“The demand for graduates who have expertise in environmental issues has grown exponentially in the last few years,” Madsen said. “It seems as if every major organization has jumped upon the ‘green’ bandwagon.”

Carnegie Mellon has its own ways of paying for its environmental programs and initiatives.

“There are many who would argue, myself included, that the university has a duty to do research and educate students about the various aspects of the environmental crisis,” Madsen said. “Thus, we are fortunate to have the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research [SEER] which has been instrumental in stimulating much work on the environment here at CMU along with many other significant environmental programs spread throughout the campus.”

SEER provides a considerable amount of funding to the university.

However, while Davidson praised Carnegie Mellon’s green awareness, he mentioned that even more could be done.

“We are leaders in both research and education, but we need to do more,” Davidson said. “As the importance of the environmental field continues to grow, the size of the CMU community devoted to environmental issues needs to grow as well.”