This team of environmentally minded students worked with UCLA staff to change the way UCLA recycles.
This team of environmentally minded students worked with UCLA staff to change the way UCLA recycles.

Student interest in green degree surges

Originally published in UCLA Today
By Alison Hewitt

When UCLA professor Glen MacDonald helped design the environmental science major in 2006, he knew students’ growing involvement in sustainability would make the degree appealing, but resigned himself to the assumption that the rigorous requirements would dissuade many undergrads from signing up.


Boy, was he wrong — and delighted to be so. The Environmental Science B.S. degree, offered by the Institute of the Environment (IoE), has become one of UCLA’s fastest growing majors.

“I think the growth caught everyone by surprise,” said MacDonald, the IoE director and a geography professor.

The major surged from its inaugural 10 students in 2006 to 74 the next year. Now in its fourth year, roughly 230 students major in environmental science. Maybe it’s something in the water — sipped from reusable bottles made of recycled content, of course — that has inspired this rapid growth. But MacDonald thinks it’s about awareness and job opportunity.

“Students are more environmentally aware. They’re hearing about the environment in high school, in the news and from the Sierra Club,” he said. “They’re seeing that many companies and the government are focused on it. There are career and entrepreneurship opportunities, and the students want to get in on the ground floor.”

Formed in 2000, IoE began offering a minor in 2003 to three students. Now, the institute serves hundreds with its popular major, summer courses and a certificate series for grads, which law students and M.B.A.s are fond of piling onto their towering workloads. The new Corporate Partners Program is giving students opportunities to work with companies like Disney and Boeing for their senior projects. A student-led, for-credit class connects undergrads to faculty and staff committees seeking environmental expertise. A new GE class gives wary north campus students an enticing peek into the science-heavy major. In another sign of its success, this will be the first year that IoE is big enough to host its own graduation ceremony.

Frankly, said Cully Nordby, IoE’s academic director, the growth is so fast it’s overwhelming, especially since university resources are getting scarcer. “But we’re overwhelmed in a good way,” she added. “There’s a hunger among the students to understand our planet and find ways to live sustainably.”

Growth through collaboration

IoE’s growth would have been impossible without its partner departments all over campus. The institute has six staff and a half dozen faculty to call its own, but 30 professors from 17 different departments have stepped up to offer IoE classes. Collaboration with faculty in six key departments—Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Earth and Space Sciences, Geography, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Environmental Health Sciences—and others including public policy, chemistry, economics, urban planning and biology is what gives the degree its scope, Nordby said. Students are also required to select one of IoE’s eight minors or concentrations, such as conservation biology, environmental engineering or geology.

“This is where science and policy meet,” Nordby said. “It’s not just one scientific perspective. We frame it with classes in other sciences, in policy, the regulatory world, the social world – it’s the whole package. You end up with well-rounded, well-informed students ready for a career.”

Real-world problems

The major is capped by a yearlong practicum, a senior project that gives students a chance to work on a real-life research project. Magali Delmas, an associate professor of management at IoE, advises teams of students exploring issues such as how California vintners can attract buyers to organically made wine through labeling. Ideally, the students will find a way to help vintners make organic profitable, said senior Kalina Ward.

“It’s incredible to know that our data will help and affect the entire California wine industry,” Ward said. “This could make the wine industry more sustainable.”

The new Corporate Partners program will help IoE connect students with still more real-world projects, Delmas said, to the benefit of both the companies and students.

“We can learn from the companies’ sustainability initiatives, and they can learn from us,” Delmas said. “And the students really enjoy the access to professionals.” At the launch of the Corporate Partners program, one student actually got a job offer.

Working with industry is absolutely critical, said MacDonald. He sees the private sector as the next frontier in sustainability.

“Environmentalism isn’t just by nonprofits,” he said. “It’s important that students get to know the corporate side of the equation and the government side, because that’s whom they’re going to have to work with. The private sector is just starting to see the benefits of partnering with NGOs and the government on environmentalism and sustainability, and we’re trying to insert our students into that nexus.”

Call to action


On campus, students who join Action Research Teams (ART) are applying their expertise to help departments address sustainability, said ART Director Isis Krause, a third-year senior. The student-led teams are part of the Education for Sustainable Living Program and run through IoE, which gives students credit for their participation in these projects. One team’s recycling survey convinced Facilities Management to double their orders of new recycling bins for an initiative being unveiled this Earth Day. Another team is awaiting approval to plant drought-tolerant landscaping somewhere on campus. Composting on the Hill is gaining traction among housing administrators after an ART feasibility project last year.

Like IoE, participation has grown dramatically, Krause said. From 12 students in 2007, the program now boasts 70 undergrads eager to make a difference.

“A lot of students feel like they don’t have access to the stakeholders on campus, and that all they can do is attend a protest,” Krause said. “But with these teams, it’s not talking, it’s doing. We’re using our brains and our hands to make a difference.”

Solving problems together

As IoE has grown, so has its reach. More and more faculty are called upon for their counsel. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently sought out MacDonald, Nordby and others for advice before his visit to the December 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Ultimately, it’s the collaboration across campus between IoE and academic departments, students, staff, faculty, industry and government agencies that make the institute the success it has become, Nordby said.

“We’re all here to work together and collaborate,” she said. “We know it will take a multidisciplinary effort to solve the problems this whole planet faces.”