Caroline Erb '18 conducting research on sustainability in 2016. Photo Courtesy of Muhlenberg College Public Relations

Since 2003, Muhlenberg has offered a minor in Sustainability Studies–a six course curriculum that delves into theory and representation, practice, community and solutions in relation to sustainability. With interest in the discipline increasing, leading many students to create their own self-designed majors within this area of study, an unanimous faculty vote on Friday, Feb.15 has now led to the approval of an official Sustainability Studies major, which will be available for the Fall 2019 semester.

The approval of the major comes at a time where sustainability has already been at the forefront of recent Muhlenberg news, following the STARS Gold rating for its commitment to sustainability awarded to the campus from the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) earlier in the year.

Richard Niesenbaum, Professor of Biology and Director of Sustainability Studies, has been  leading the efforts in developing this major.

“I worked with an advisory board of faculty from different departments to develop the major and revise the minor starting in December 2018. It went to the Faculty Curriculum Committee in January 2019,” explains Niesenbaum. “Through constructive dialog with the committee, chairs of departments that offer courses in the major and the Provost, the proposed curriculum went through some revision, but in my opinion this process benefited the program…all of the changes made were positive resulting in a truly innovative major.”

The Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability Studies will require 12 course units; the first three foundational courses will consist of coursework in Environmental Science, Sociology and Economics. Students will then take six more courses. Two courses from across each of the three areas of Human Environment Connections, Social Justice and Social Movements; and Economics, Development and Business. The final three units will come from two courses in Policy and Practice, and then the CUE in Sustainable Solutions.

“The major allows students to more fully develop expertise in the core areas, and integrate these disparate areas at the upper level,” says Niesenbaum, distinguishing between the benefits of the minor compare to the major.

While there is a clear distinction between the already existing Sustainability Studies minor versus the upcoming major, the line between Sustainability Studies and the similar field of Environmental Science may be harder to grapple with.

“Environmental Science is an important field that primarily focuses on the scientific study of the the environment and environmental problems with the majority of the requirements in the sciences,” explains Niesenbaum. “The required courses in Sustainability Studies are more evenly distributed among the disciplinary divisions of the college and requires students to then integrate the difference perspectives and ways of knowing in upper level courses.”

“Focus areas include study of the environment in relation to human needs, wants, and activity; social justice and social movements; economics development, and business; and policy and practice,” adds Niesenbaum. “The program explores and integrates issues broadly related to sustainability, and how they impact and are addressed at local, national and global levels; and specifically addresses the intersectional nature of environmental and social issues in relation to human difference, power relations, and equity.”

The interdisciplinary approach to learning about and engaging with sustainability studies, Niesenbaum explains, paves the way for countless career opportunities in business, policy and law, visual and performing arts, urban design, development, agriculture and even the Peace Corps, among others.

“The field of sustainability studies is rapidly expanding, and some have argued that this is an indicator of society’s progress towards the goal of sustainable development,” notes Niesenbaum. “A recent analysis has found that the rate of research publication in sustainability studies is growing almost twice as fast as the average across all research disciplines, around 7.6 percent annually. Increasingly all key areas of sustainability are being addressed across the globe. Given the magnitude, complexity, and global nature of problems that we face, the education of students that are capable of working in interdisciplinary, internationally collaborative fields that employ a systems approach to sustainability is vital. The aim of this program is to accomplish exactly that.”

Students interested in learning more about the Sustainability Studies Major are encouraged to meet with Dr. Niesenbaum this semester.


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