For environmental sciences students, Earth Month is every month
by Jennifer Truesdale
Buzz words like "green jobs" and "environmental stewardship" are becoming a regular part of the American lexicon. With concerns about pollution, climate change and conservation, scientists and politicians alike seek answers that will ensure a healthy planet for future generations. Higher education plays a big part, too, as it prepares students to embark on careers that tackle these issues. Columbia College is no exception.
As early as 1999, Columbia College Day students had the option of pursuing a minor in environmental studies, which introduced students to social sciences topics such as environmental law, ethics, policy and education. For the next 10 years, the college modified and expanded its offerings to include associate and bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies. While the associate degree is available today, the bachelor’s degree is now a Bachelor of Science in environmental sciences, which focuses more on natural sciences, such as biology, chemistry, ecology and conservation, rather than social sciences. Students in the program leave prepared for jobs in fishery and wildlife management, conservation, soil science and waste management, or for graduate school.
Faculty makes the difference
Changes to degree offerings are just one way faculty helps graduates remain competitive in the job market.
Dr. Peggy Wright, who holds a Ph.D. in fisheries and wildlife from the University of Missouri, began offering topics courses in limnology (freshwater ecology) and ichthyology (fish sciences) when student feedback demonstrated an interest. She noticed that job applications for the Missouri Department of Conservation asked candidates to mark off specific classes they had completed, and water and fish ecology classes were among those listed.
"I knew the more of those classes you can check off when applying for jobs, the better off you are," says Wright about her drive to offer these specialized classes.
Similarly, students discovered many U.S. Department of Agriculture jobs require coursework in soil science. Enter Dr. Nathan Means, who has a Ph.D. in soil, environmental and atmospheric sciences from the University of Missouri, and who jumped at the chance to help. He formed a topics course on soil science to help meet student need, and the class now is offered regularly. In addition, in August, he will begin soil quality research in Uruguay as Columbia College’s first Fulbright Scholar.
"As a faculty, we’re nimble and able to craft the courses students need, and in the future we will continue to grow and adapt quickly to student interest," Means says.
Student success stories
Carrie Hargrove, who completed her bachelor’s in environmental studies in 2009, is one such student who benefited from the addition of the soil class.
"Whenever I see large grassy lawns in Columbia, I think, ‘What a wonderful garden that would make!’" says Hargrove. The soil class prepared her for her senior capstone project in which she researched the destructive nature of common turf grasses on ecosystems. This, along with a botany class, gave her the practical skills necessary to work for Columbia’s Center for Urban Agriculture, where she has been the farm manager since 2010. The center is a nonprofit organization with a mission to connect with and educate area citizens about local, sustainable farming and gardening.
"The broad spectrum of classes I took introduced me to a lot of new ideas and exposed me to different ways of thinking about things, which I’ve been able to apply to other areas of my life."
In addition to up-to-date, applicable coursework, environmental sciences students benefit from the program’s requirement to complete an internship. Internships help students gain hands-on experience and network with professionals in their field. Internships may lead to full-time positions or, in the case of Amanda Noel, help create a competitive application for graduate school. Noel graduated in 2011 with her bachelor’s in environmental studies after completing an internship as a recreation technician with the Bureau of Land Management at Butte Falls Resource Area in Medford, Ore. In her position Noel worked daily in the 800-foot, flat-topped buttes of Table Rocks, constructing and maintaining trails, guiding hikes, and hosting educational workshops about protected plant and animal species of the region.
"My experience working at the Bureau of Land Management has been a rich and rewarding endeavor," says Noel. "I have gained a wealth of knowledge about the natural and cultural history of this area, and I get to share that knowledge with the thousands of visitors who explore the parks where I lead hikes and maintain trails. The education I gained from Columbia College laid the foundation for my internships and graduate coursework, which will help me pursue a successful career as an environmental educator."
Noel is currently pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science from Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore.
Students like Noel and Hargrove aren’t the only students who will be well prepared for a world in need of environmental scientists. Current and future Columbia College students will continue to benefit from the nimble faculty Means describes. In addition, future science students also will benefit from the 53,000-square-foot Gerald T. and Bonnie M. Brouder Science Center, set to open Fall 2013.
"The space in the new science building is going to make a huge difference," says Wright about the new science building. "Long-term studies for two to three months are something we just can’t do right now. We will have dedicated student research space that we don’t have now, which I’m hoping will mean more projects of individualized research from our students."