More students choosing to go 'green' when picking a major

BY JOSEPH LICHTERMAN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 30, 2010

Green is the new blue at the University as more students are pursuing undergraduate majors and graduate degrees in sustainability.

Since 2005, the Program in the Environment has increased from 128 students to 291 students and the School of Natural Resources and the Environment has seen an 83-percent increase in enrollment — from 123 to 225 students — during the same time period, according to a University press release. University officials attribute the drastic rise in interest in both programs in large part to the increased media attention surrounding the issue of global warming.

Bill Currie, an associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said in an interview yesterday that he thought more students became aware of and interested in environmental issues from films like former Vice President Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Currie added that college students grew up in homes that were more environmentally conscious and attentive to the changes that society needs to make to combat climate change than their parents’ or grandparents’ childhood homes.

“Young people are a ripe audience for that impact,” Currie said. “Their parents grew up interested in the environment. If you’re in your early or mid-20s today, you grew up with parents who were more likely to have environmental understanding and sensibility than generations ago. “

The interest in environmental programs and degrees isn’t limited to the University of Michigan, as enrollment in these programs has spiked nationwide. Ronald Hendrick, director of the School of Environment & Natural Resources at Ohio State University, wrote in an e-mail interview that nearly 500 students are enrolled in OSU’s program.

“(There has been) some increase in freshman/first-year students,” he wrote. “But even more so in transfers from other institutions, both two and four year and from both in-state and out-of-state institutions.”

PitE Director Paul Webb said the interest in the environment and the University’s programs is the result of activism surrounding the issue.

“This seems to be a much stronger grassroots concern, especially amongst young people, for what the future holds for them and the globe they live in,” Webb said. “It’s very good to see. We’re not entirely sure of the causes, but it seems to be that it’s something that's bubbling up from the bottom.”

He added that undergraduates are attracted to the cross-disciplinary nature of the PitE program — explaining that courses range from environmental literature to marine ecology — and that PitE faculty come from a wide array of backgrounds.

“We’re beginning to spread to an even larger area — Southeast Michigan and hopefully Ontario — to bring in a diverse group of people to really prepare the students for the kinds of things they’re going to be dealing with for the rest of their lives,” Webb said.

While Webb said most students who graduate from the University with a degree from PitE tend to go to some form of graduate school, Currie said students who earn master’s degrees from the SNR&E usually start their careers right away.

Currie added that joint programs between SNR&E and the Ross School of Business and Law School, among others, have helped prepare students for the emerging “green economy,” which Currie said is going to grow rapidly in the next decade.

“I think corporations that are more traditional are seeing the value in things like carbon offsets or saving energy or reducing their environmental footprints,” Currie said. “They want to hire people, who not only have the business training but also who can sort of tell them from the inside how to be better citizens.”

Several PitE students said they liked the interdisciplinary nature of the program because it allowed them to pursue a variety of subjects that are of interest to them and relate to the environment.

LSA sophomore and PitE major Stephanie Chen said she chose PitE because it allowed her to pursue her different passions. She said she’s debating between concentrating in conservation biology or environmental law.

“It’s very interdisciplinary,” Chen said. “It combines the hardcore sciences with more interdisciplinary applications to the world.”

LSA junior Gillian Wener, another PitE major who is taking the LSAT on Oct. 9, said PitE is helping her prepare for law school and her eventual career as an environmental attorney.

“It’s an area of the economy that’s growing because there’s a lot of increase in awareness about environmental issues and a lot more litigation,” Wener said. “So, I think my degree has given me a really solid foundation for the kind of things I want to go into and has prepared me for law school.”

Though PitE helps prepare students for their futures, it’s also helping the University community become more “environmentally friendly,” PitE sophomore Maggie Oliver said. Last semester, Oliver took Environment 391: Sustainable Campus — a PitE class that allows students to create and implement various sustainability programs across campus.

“We created the ‘How to be a Green Wolverine’ guide, which was given to all freshmen this year,” Oliver said. “It’s just different ways of how to be environmentally friendly in Ann Arbor.”

The University’s Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute and Planet Blue sponsored the implementation of the project idea.

“We did all this work for it, and it was actually a tangible object that we added to the University,” Oliver said. “I’m really big into not just talking about something but actually doing something.”