Students who put emphasis on environment discover promising careers.
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Published in the Boston Sunday Globe, page 5, August 5, 2012
After being named president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004, Susan Hockfield embarked on a campus-wide "listening tour," asking students and faculty where the school should concentrate its efforts over the next decade. The nearly unanimous answer: Address the world’s energy challenges.
Today, MIT and many other Bay State colleges offer a rich variety of courses and programs focusing on energy, sustainability, and related environmental issues. Students can study everything from climate change to pollution prevention to conservation biology. And green-learning options have expanded beyond the sciences into other academic disciplines, including business, law, health care, political science, public policy, history, philosophy, and religion.
In fact, many colleges and universities are taking a holistic approach to environmental studies, weaving them throughout their curricula. For example, in response to the sentiments Hockfield heard again and again at MIT, the university launched the MIT Energy Initiative in 2006. MITEI (pronounced "mighty") is a $300-million effort uniting the school’s many energy and environmental classes, programs and research efforts.
"Energy is not a single discipline," says Amanda Graham, director of the MITEI Education Office. "Energy is a multidisciplinary problem area." Through MITEI, students can take courses ranging from Energy Systems and Climate Change Mitigation to Environmental Law, Policy, and Economics: Pollution Prevention and Control to A Philosophical History of Energy. MITEI also participates in MIT’s venerable Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), in which students work with faculty on research projects often for either academic credit or pay.
Since 2009, MIT has also offered a minor in energy studies, available to students in all disciplines. "We’re seeking to serve both the students who are really committed to making a difference in the energy world and also the students who are clear that they’re not going to be in the energy sector – for instance, those studying architecture or finance," Graham says. The goal: ensuring that professionals in a variety of fields understand critical energy and environmental issues that affect all of society.
Wentworth Institute of Technology has also woven sustainability throughout its curriculum, says Jack Duggan, professor of engineering and technology. That reflects demand not just from employers seeking graduates with green skills, but from within the professions themselves. For instance, Duggan points out, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ code of ethics now exhorts engineers to "strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development" in all their work. At Wentworth, students might find themselves learning to design greener buildings, develop new uses for abandoned industrial properties, recycle construction materials, or harness wind and solar energy.
Harvard University offers an undergraduate concentration in environmental science and public policy as well as dozens of other courses and programs on green topics. At Boston University, the Center for Energy & Environmental Studies (CEES) serves as a university-wide resource for environmental instruction and research. BU offers, among other options, a masters degree in energy and environmental studies and another in international relations and environmental policy.
And new green offerings keep popping up. In 2011, Smith College – which already offered degree programs in environmental science and policy – rolled out a new sustainable-food concentration. The interdisciplinary program explores issues such as agriculture economics and global food distribution systems.
Typically, college environmental activities continue well beyond the classroom. In Cambridge, students can join the highly popular MIT Energy Club, which sponsors lectures, forums, tours, mixers and the annual MIT Energy Conference. The University of Massachusetts Boston, which offers both graduate and undergraduate environmental studies programs, sponsors Green Careers Forums where guest experts talk about employment trends, job opportunities and more.
Many colleges with green academic programs clearly practice what they preach. Harvard College and Northeastern University were among just 16 schools nationwide to make The Princeton Review’s 2012 Green College Honor Roll for campus-wide efforts to increase recycling and composting, conserve energy, support local food producers, and encourage ride-sharing, among other initiatives. Eighteen other schools – from Bentley University in Waltham to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester to Williams College in Williamstown – ranked among the Review’s 322 greenest US colleges (see sidebar).
The near-universal emphasis on green learning and living indicates that, as Wentworth professor Duggan puts it, that sustainability isn’t just about hugging trees: "All the things I think about as sustainable also make good economic sense."