Environmental Studies Expands to Major
A minor since 2011, environmental studies is now a Bi-Co major with two new professors and expanded course offerings.
Environmental studies courses have existed in the Tri-College Consortium for over a decade, and the Tri-Co environmental studies minor program was founded in 2011. Following years of interest since 2012 that saw more than 70 Haverford students complete the minor program, which combines insights from disciplines that include anthropology, biology, and literature, and more, Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges have taken the steps to establish an innovative new Bi-College environmental studies major.
With two new tenure-track positions established at Bryn Mawr, the department now includes seven core faculty members across the two colleges, each of whom brings a different disciplinary background to the program. While the ongoing minor requires six courses, the major requires 11, including a 100-level introductory course, four 200-level courses, five elective courses available in a variety of different departments, and one senior capstone course.
“One of the core principles of this major and departmental program is that the humanities and arts and social sciences and natural sciences are co-equal partners in this,” said Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Jon Wilson, who has been supporting the Tri-Co ES minor since 2011. “It’s not just interdisciplinary, where it would be like biology and chemistry or political science and sociology, it’s interdivisional… We expect students who graduate from the program to be as comfortable reading a science paper as they are reading a poem.”
Haverford partnered with Bryn Mawr College’s well-established environmental studies program thanks to funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which helped bring on Associate Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Helen White in 2009, Wilson in 2011, and Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies Joshua Moses in 2015. Interest in the minor grew quickly, and thanks to additional philanthropic support and strategic decisions by Bryn Mawr colleagues, two new positions were dedicated to the program at Bryn Mawr. A search committee consisting of faculty and students hired Bryn Mawr Assistant Professors of Environmental Studies Carla May Dhillon and Sara Grossman, paving the way for a faculty working group to finalize plans for the major in spring 2018.
Building on an already diverse set of academic disciplines inherent to the minor, the faculty team for the major program now includes an anthropologist, a biologist, a chemist, a geologist, an English scholar, a political scientist, and a social scientist. These and other affiliated professors make possible a wide breadth of course electives that make the major broad in its foundations—required 200-level classes include lab work components as well as critical reading and writing components—and deep in its specializations.
“The student gets the chance to be broad and deep, and for us, that was the way to extend the minor into a new major,” said Wilson. “I think it offers the maximum amount of freedom for students to think about what they want to learn for the world they’re going to inherit, but it also asks of the students to take on… a deep responsibility for their own education.”
Kaitlin Reese ’20, who was part of the first cohort of Haverford students to declare an environmental studies major last spring, was drawn to the new major after developing her interests in applied math. In the Bryn Mawr math course “Math Modeling and Sustainability,” Reese and classmates worked with the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability to determine which city-owned building rooftops were most suitable for solar panels. Her “Plants and People” course taught by Jon Wilson afforded her the opportunity to travel to Trinidad and Tobago to study plant diversity with funding support from the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, the Koshland Integrated Natural Science Center, and the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for Arts and Humanities.
“Both of these courses allowed me to pursue an education in environmental studies inside and outside of the classroom, which I think is what predominantly drew me to the major,” said Reese, who was originally planning on a math major and ES minor before the ES major was developed. “I think the minor provides a strong foundation for someone who knows they are interested in a certain subset of environmental [studies], such as political science or biology as they relate to the environment. However, the major allows students passionate about the environment to pursue a broader range of intersections between different disciplines.”
The trend set by the environmental studies program, explains Associate Professor of Chemistry and Provost Fran Blase, could be a sign of what’s to come in liberal arts education.
“We are tackling, in a lot of fields, really complex and difficult problems that can’t always be solved through one particular lens. Environmental studies certainly crystallizes a multi-faceted inquiry,” said Blase. “I’m a chemist, and environmental chemistry has been around a long time… It’s not like this is brand new, but the challenges we face right now with the environment are quite daunting. Bringing together researchers in scholarly fields like the humanities, the social sciences, and natural sciences for a multi-pronged approach is relevant and absolutely necessary.”
Interest in the new major is already robust, with 18 majors between Bryn Mawr and Haverford across the Classes of 2019–2021. In line with the department’s goals, the students interested in the programs bring their own differing interests in the field to common coursework, and the result, says Wilson, is a unique academic environment.
“Teaching a group of interdisciplinary students who are equally engaged from multiple perspectives is a real joy,” he said. “It enlightens and enlivens the classroom environment, and watching the students interact with each other, watching them collaborate and argue and discuss, it’s inspiring.”