Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Brown: The Wave of the Future?


Every morning when I pick up the newspaper, I see front-page headlines screaming of impending environmental doom.  Just last week, I read about water rights crises in California, erosion in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and companies hiding their plastic footprints.  Everyone seems to agree that the next generation – mine – will inherit many thorny, potentially catastrophic problems.  As a rising senior in high school, this worries me, and I can’t help but wonder why my parents’ generation and those before them have allowed the situation to get so out of hand.

But how does one tackle an issue such as beach erosion at a tourist destination, which requires not only scientific knowledge to assess environmental impacts but also understanding of the economic implications of erosion as well as the emotional reactions of property owners?  It’s complicated.  It seems to me that focusing just on one aspect of the problem will lead to continued failure.  Brown University’s Center for Environmental Studies (CES) recognizes the need for a strong interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues and has recently revamped its program to address modern realities.

Through its famous “New Curriculum,” instituted in 1969, Brown University challenges its students to construct their own educational plans, with more choice and flexibility than at most other colleges and universities.   But last year, Brown’s CES decided to implement a more structured curriculum for undergraduates concentrating in Environmental Studies and Environmental Science.  Students must now choose one of four distinct interdisciplinary tracks: Air Climate and Energy, Conservation Science and Policy, Land, Water, and Food Security, or Sustainability in Development.  Concentrators in each of these four areas may earn either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science degree; those who earn a BS have additional requirements.  Previously, no such tracks existed, and students could choose a mixture of what interested them.  Students who focused in the natural sciences obtained BS’s while students who focused in the social sciences obtained BA’s.

Just 15.9 miles from Narragansett Bay, which houses one of Brown’s outdoor environmental leadership labs, the Brown Urban Environmental Lab (UEL) building embodies the Brown interdisciplinary approach to Environmental Studies and its hopes of marrying the old and new to create a better future.  Painted a cheery yellow and green, the one-hundred year old Tudor-style former carriage house is covered with greenery.  The building was retrofitted with superinsulation and passive solar heating, and contains a solar greenhouse. 

Professor Kurt Teichert serves as Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies and as the Associate Director of Brown’s Center for Environmental Studies.  I met with him on a hot New England summer day in a small room at the UEL as his office was, fittingly, under construction.  He said, “We were finding that it [the old Environmental Studies curriculum] just had a little bit too much latitude for interpretation and we wanted to make sure that they [the students] had more foundation.  While there are requirements in the new curriculum – you have to take a certain number of science courses and policy courses no matter what – we wanted to make sure that they had a better foundation, a more consistent foundation, that all students within our program have.”

This makes sense in the context of current environmental issues, which are large and varied.  For example, in order for the next generation (again, mine, and down the line, my children) to solve problems associated with ocean erosion in areas such as the Outer Banks, future leaders must be able to apply science and engineering to the problem, consider the beach residents’ property values, the pressures on politicians, the costs of any remediation, and then implement and sell effective policy.  Otherwise, my children may never have the pleasure of visiting Duck, North Carolina, and learning how to behave themselves as I did when my parents took my family to a hotel that allowed only “well-mannered children.”  My sister and I always managed to have a good time on the beautiful, open beach despite all of the rules.

The Brown Environmental Studies and Environmental Sciences concentrations now require four core classes rather than two, including Introduction to Economics, Introduction to Environmental Social Sciences, Introduction to Environmental Science, and an introduction to either Geology or Biology.  The new core provides students with an interdisciplinary foundation, regardless of which track they travel.  In keeping with the approach of many top Environmental Studies programs such as Dartmouth College and the University of California - Berkeley, Brown’s amended Environmental Studies core curriculum will contain a combination of humanities-based courses and science courses.

Professor Teichert believes that a foundation in a single discipline would be insufficient in solving the world’s environmental problems.  “You have to understand policy and implementation.  You have to understand the research behind it,” Professor Teichert explained.  “You need to be able to speak the language of different disciplines because it’s going to take a lot of collaboration and new ways of thinking.”   

In the past, researchers and policymakers often focused only on one aspect of a problem, but just a scientific approach or policy approach won’t solve anything.  As Professor Teichert said, “The old school paradigm of ‘this is the way I was taught, I’m going to teach you and we’re just going to focus on one thing’ - it’s not going to work.”

If the interdisciplinary approach adopted by Brown and other universities works, our future headlines will trumpet more successes rather than regularly heralding fear.  Then high school seniors can go back to thinking about college applications and school dances.


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