Environmental science program gaining popularity

Students in the new environmental science program are getting hands-on experience solving problems from the real world.

The environmental science program, which started in fall 2008, has grown from five to 15 majors in the last year, said program director Tom Hickson. Hickson said he and other faculty members from the science departments created the program in response to students.

“We felt that there was a cohort of science students that were in biology and in chemistry and in geology that didn’t want to do environmental studies,” Hickson said. “They didn’t want to pursue a more social science, a more policy-orientated track. They wanted a program that was a science track in environmental sciences, that gave an interdisciplinary science perspective.”

Juniors Erynn Jenzen and Sean Hagen said they chose the new major because of its interdisciplinary aspect.

Jenzen said when she realized a biology major wasn’t for her, she took a couple classes in chemistry and geology.

“ESCI was the perfect way to integrate all the sciences, as well as pursue the field I found actually worked best for me,” Jenzen said. “I also think that this is a very important major for the future, especially looking at how one discipline does not necessarily cover the complex problems that we are facing today, but rather a mixture of the disciplines can give us an extraordinarily different outlook on a problem.”

Hagen was also drawn to the ability to focus on all three areas of science.

“I’d say I’m kinda like a green guy and environmental,” Hagen added.

Hickson said he isn’t surprised by students’ growing interest in the major.

“It’s not a big major yet, but we anticipate it to get pretty big because admissions is getting a lot of people showing interest in it,” Hickson said.

Faculty are showing interest, too.

Geology professor Jennifer McGuire joined the department at the start of the environmental science program in fall 2008. She left her tenured position at Texas A&M University because she saw a unique opportunity at St. Thomas.

McGuire said one reason for the potential growth of the program is because people are starting to see it as a viable career option.

“I think people are starting to realize how universally applicable these skills are,” she said. “Before, you were really convincing parents, ‘Oh no, there are really jobs here.’ Now the parents are already on board. ‘We know what you can do, and now we want our kids to be involved.'”

Hagen said his parents were set on him going to pharmacy school and a little skeptical when he decided to major in environmental science. They worried about whether he’d find a job in the field. After working with Hickson, however, Hagen said their worries were settled.

“Now they’re on board, and they’re happy that I found something I actually like and I want to get in to,” Hagen said.

Andrew Lachiewicz, a junior environmental sciences major, said the program’s hands-on experience and career opportunities attracted him to the major.

“I’m hoping to work for the DNR or the corps service, like the park service,” Lachiewicz said. “It’s definitely going to be a government job, for sure, just being in the field doing research, just a lot of field work and being hands-on.”

McGuire said the growing trend and interest in environmental science is a national trend and is benefited by the growing awareness that doing the environmentally right thing is usually also the economically right thing.

“It’s not that people weren’t interested in doing this work before,” McGuire said. “It’s that they’re being reorganized in ways that makes it more accessible to the students … That, I think, is really a big change, and I think it’s an important change for the country. I’m really excited. I think it’s the right way to go.”

Hickson agreed with McGuire, saying students in the program believe the environment is something people are very passionate about.

“Young people are seeing what human impacts are on the environment,” Hickson said. “I think many of them want to provide a better planet than what they’re getting.”

Kelly Trussell can be reached at kmtrussell@stthomas.edu.