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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Environmental studies degree phasing out to new environmental science degree

by Amanda Noel

This 2009-2010 academic year, Columbia College added a new bachelor’s degree in environmental science and removed the environmental studies degree from the course catalog. For those not involved in either of these environmental programs, the degree change may seem insignificant, but in fact the two degrees are entirely different.
Dr. Julie Estabrooks, chair and assistant professor of biology, said the change in degrees is being made because the college felt the environmental studies degree “wasn’t filling the needs of the students in terms of employability and being prepared to go to grad school.”  
“We felt that it was important for students to have a stronger science background,” said Estabrooks. “We found that students weren’t getting jobs because they didn’t have enough science courses.”
    Columbia College junior Jennifer Mantler (pictured right) agrees with the college’s reasoning for changing the degree. Mantler said because the degree is now “science-based and not art-based, it makes students more applicable in various fields of research.” Mantler, who is now double majoring in political science and environmental science rather than environmental studies, said, “I switched because I wanted to be more applicable and capable of doing field work. There is a high possibility that the switch will change my graduation date, but that is something I have to accept. I switched as a junior, and the new degree requires quite a few more courses. Nonetheless, it’s a decision I made, and I think, for me, it’s the right one.”
Other students are not so happy about the change in degree. Columbia College senior Shanna Seyer will graduate with a degree in environmental studies. She said she is disappointed that the college is completely doing away with her degree.  “Though there are many who would argue that they have a better shot of getting a job if they are an environmental science major, I would tend to disagree,” she said. “There are many opportunities out there within the environmental field that do not require extensive knowledge in the sciences, unless of course, you want to do field work.” 
Seyer said she would have chosen to be an environmental studies major even if the science degree would have been offered to her earlier because it is a more holistic approach to the field. “Science is important; I will not deny that; however, it is only one piece of an utterly dynamic and complex puzzle. Other disciplines such as history, philosophy and ethics have just as much merit.  These disciplines in particular help us understand how and why we currently face some of the environmental perils that we do,” Seyer said. “How can one successfully address environmental problems without first understanding the process of how they came to be?  This doesn't just involve science and one's understanding of ecosystems and how they function, it involves people, how they think, what they feel, and the social, political, and economic circumstances that influence their actions--especially in regards to the environment.  Why have we become so inured to the way we treat the planet?  Why do we view ourselves as a separate entity from nature?  These questions cannot be answered by science alone.” 
Contrary to Seyer’s beliefs, the college felt that the initial design of the environmental studies degree as multidisciplinary posed several problems. “Although it kind of lived in the science department, there was nobody who was really making it happen, and so the courses weren’t offered very frequently,” said Estabrooks. “We decided if we were going to responsible for [the degree], we wanted it to be a real science degree and not something that nobody really had control over.”
The formation of the environmental science degree has been in the works for about three years, according to Estabrooks.  She said the approval process for a new degree program takes about one and a half years of faculty review. “We have a lot of faculty who are pretty well grounded in environmental ecology types of things,” said Estabrooks. Together, these faculty members discussed what courses they felt students needed. They also reviewed environmental science programs at other schools to help form Columbia College’s degree. “We really tried to keep all the coursework in the environmental studies degree available for the environmental science degree so that, depending on a student’s interests, they’d have the science background, but then they could still get the multidisciplinary courses like literature, politics, economics, history, those things,” said Estabrooks.
"Science is important; I will not deny that; however, it is only one piece of an utterly dynamic and complex puzzle."

 “I love the [environmental] studies aspect that includes politics and literature, but at the same point, I wanted to be able to participate in research collection and actually understand the scientific implications in the environment,” said Mantler. “I want to understand the chemicals, the reasons for nature's intricate balance and the damage done versus just knowing there is a problem.”
The environmental science degree also offers several new courses for students, including Botany, Zoology, an Ecology Laboratory, Conservation Biology and Toxicology. The Botany and Zoology courses include labs and are worth a total of five credit hours, something that the college has avoided in the past. Estabrooks said the college originally paired all lab courses but had cases where students transferring to Columbia College from other institutions had already taken the lecture and just needed the lab. “We didn’t feel like we wanted to make [students] take the whole five-hour course over, so we split them apart,” said Estabrooks. “It gives the students a little more flexibility.”
Ecology is fairly new course, and the ecology lab has not been offered until this year because the college has been lacking in lab facilities according to Estabrooks. “We have such a crunch on lab space that it’s really hard to teach another lab,” she said. “In fact, this may be taught down in the annex, which is not an ideal location. But we finally decided that we had to have a lab with ecology because it’s really a field oriented course.” Dr. James McAllister, associate professor of biology developed the ecology lab and will be teaching it this spring.
Estabrooks said the replacement of Biodiversity with Conservation Biology is “to a great extent, a change in name only. A lot of people don’t really understand what biodiversity is, and so I think the enrollment in the course was actually hurt by that. I also shifted the focus of the course from just studying biodiversity to how do we need to manage and conserve it. I think it’s a better title, a better focus, and it better supports the environmental science degree.”

Dr. Peggy Wright, assistant professor of biology, is teaching the Toxicology course next semester, which is an elective for the environmental science degree.  Estabrooks said this is the first time Columbia College has offered this course and is contemplating on adding more courses for the environmental science degree in the future. “MU offers sustainability, and I think maybe that’s something we should look into,” said Estabrooks. Other courses Estabrooks mentioned adding were Demography (population biology), Ornithology (study of birds), Ichthyology (study of fish) and other more specific biology courses, but she said the college needs more lab space if those courses are to be added.
 Estabrooks said the addition of the new science building will be a huge asset to the expansion of all science degrees offered at Columbia College. “The new science building will provide more labs and better facilities for teaching those labs. Right now, we’re kind of just getting by with a lot of classes.”
Estabrooks said, “The nice thing about the environmental science degree is that it’s such a broad field that if students have course work from other schools, things that we don’t have, frequently we can kind of fit [the course] in and make [the credits] count for the degree.“
Seyer said, “Given the size of the school, I have been impressed by the types of classes that are offered.” She is aware that if a course is not offered by the Day Campus, it may be available online or at Stephens College or the University of Missouri for cross-enrollment. 
As for environmental awareness, Seyer and Mantler both think this aspect of the college could use some improvement.  Mantler feels that “students do not always understand what their decisions mean to the world around them. I know that may sounds harsh, but sometimes I think the dorms and Dulany can be a very clear example of how little students, at least on-campus students, realize, or perhaps even care, about the environmental issues throughout the U.S. and the world.” Seyer suggests that the lack of environmental awareness by students could be due to the majority of students attending Columbia College not being interested in programs that deal with the environment. She said “Nevertheless, I do hope that the environmental science program is more successful in its awareness efforts!”

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