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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Sustained Student Interest
Means New Major

Undergraduates interested in global environmental issues will soon be able to embark upon a new Arts and Sciences major: Global Environmental Change and Sustainability. Launch of the new major, scheduled for this fall, comes as a direct response to student interest.

“Students want to know about global environmental science issues, and not just so they can do pure science, but also so they can address policy and sustainability issues,” says Darryn W. Waugh, chairman of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS).

The new major is part of EPS’ Global Change Science Initiative, launched with the help of a generous gift from trustee Lee Meyerhoff Hendler. Instituted in late 2007, this initiative fosters research and teaching in areas of earth science that underlie global environmental change. EPS has hired three new assistant professors as part of the initiative and added a new graduate focus in global change science, as well as a postdoctoral fellowship (the Cormack Fellowship).

Though the major is housed in EPS, it will draw on courses from many other fields, including chemistry, mathematics, engineering, anthropology, political science, economics, psychology, sociology, biology, physics, and history. Waugh worked with Cindy Parker, co-director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Health in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, to develop an interdisciplinary curriculum.

“There were a lot of courses already in existence that had relevant content, but nobody had pulled them together,” says Parker, who directs the new major. “We believed that the traditional mode of education is good for some things, but not for this. These students need a much more interdisciplinary education if they are going to make an impact on our future.”

After completing 12 core courses from several departments, students will choose a natural science or a social science track. In their final year, they’ll take a capstone course with a project to give them hands-on experience. The capstone project could involve an internship or working in a community or on campus—anything related to environmental issues or sustainability. “Currently there are students doing things on campus to reduce carbon emissions,” says Waugh. “We are hoping things like that could be donefor credit.”

Naomi Levin, a geologist and one of the new faculty members who began this year as part of the Global Change Science Initiative, uses stable isotopic records to learn how landscapes and terrestrial organisms responded to past climate change and thus to gain insight into future climate change. She has research projects in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Mexico, and says she’s looking for both undergraduate and graduate students eager to do hands-on work in the laboratory and the field. “Field work is essential because students learn the big picture of geochemistry—what the samples they collect say and how they relate to each other,” she says. “And it’s fun getting dirty and figuring out puzzles that the surface of Earth has left us.”

Ben Zaitchik, a geologist working in the climate change office at the U.S. Department of State, agrees. Zaitchik, who will join EPS in January 2010, uses remote sensing devices to study climate, then compares this data to that found in the field. He says his work is well suited to undergraduate research. “Take the Chesapeake Bay. There might be an image from space that can tell us what the water quality of the Bay is like, and then students could go out in a boat and take samples and compare them,” he says. “There is no reason that undergrads cannot make a significant contribution to research.”

The third new faculty member, Benjamin H. Passey, will come to Hopkins from Caltech, where he is completing a postdoctoral fellowship. His research looks at the history of and interrelationships among Earth’s climate, ecology, and geochemistry.

So far, students seem eager to get into the new major. “We haven’t really done any advertising,” says Parker. “But I have gotten a lot of response from students. In January, I started teaching a new course—Intro to Sustainability—that is part of the new major, and I thought I’d be lucky to get 25 students. The class was automatically capped at 110 because that’s how many chairs are in Olin Auditorium, and I was getting e-mails saying, ‘Get me in that class,’” she says. “That shows how much students are looking for this kind of information.”


Illustration © Joyce Hesselberth