Board of Trustees approves environmental and sustainability studies major for fall 2019

courtesy /

Amanda Pitts

courtesy /

Nick Moran

During Grand Valley State University’s Feb. 8 Board of Trustees meeting, board members approved the creation of an Environmental and Sustainability Studies (ENS) major. The new major builds on the structure of the preexisting minor, offered by the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies and will go into effect fall 2019. 

The ENS major will be available both as a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science and spans 35-37 credits, according to the program proposal. The coursework will be diverse, drawing largely from the ENS minor. 

“Environmental and Sustainability Studies draws upon a variety of disciplines—arts and humanities, physical and life sciences, and economic and policy studies—to develop a holistic, place-based and solutions-oriented understanding of environmental and sustainability challenges,” the proposal read. “Students will gain an understanding of the way interconnected physical, institutional and cultural systems shape humans’ attitudes and behavior toward the environment.”

ENS Director Kelly Parker said that the major follows a triple-bottom-line (3BL) structure, which provides students with exposure to three perspectives: social and cultural, physical and life science, and political and economic. Additionally, students will be able to choose an area of focus, which allows them to apply ENS to areas such as sustainable food resources or water management. 

“This program offers a way to go deeper into the emerging field of sustainability science and implementation,” Parker said. “Industry, non-profits and government are increasingly hiring sustainability practitioners whose job is to promote and document sustainable practices across an organization. GVSU’s Office of Sustainability Practices, housed in Brooks College, is a great example of this on our own campus. This kind of work is as much about communications, design and cultural change within an organization as it is about understanding the environmental science and technology.”

While there are aspects of the major that apply scientific lessons to the field, Parker said that compared to other majors that focus on the natural side of environmental protection, ENS also includes a rich collection of other applications. 

“This program is more broadly interdisciplinary than either environmental sciences or natural resource management, which are both more closely focused on the hard sciences and, with NRM, on environmental law and policy,” Parker said. “ENS includes (scientific) perspectives, but puts equal weight on the social and cultural dimension. This especially shows up with the inclusion of environmental arts and humanities such as environmental history, philosophy, literature and arts. The interdisciplinary dimension is there to encourage new ways of thinking about humans’ relations to their environments.”

Dean of the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies Anne Hiskes said that the new major will make students marketable to businesses, many of which are looking to work with government bodies and organizations to preserve the environment. 

“I’m enthusiastic because I believe that this major will prepare students to address what I think are some of the most challenging, complicated and crucial issues of our day around quality of life and equity,” Hiskes said. “Addressing the predicted impacts of climate change, for example, requires creative problem-solving skills that integrate economic and political, social and culture and scientific perspectives. Similarly, addressing quality of life issues in an equitable way, say around safe drinking water, requires integrating these perspectives.”

Parker said that she has already experienced excitement from students, boding well for the inaugural semester of the major in the fall. 

“I’ve talked with a number of students who are very excited to have the ENS major as an option,” Parker said. “Honestly, ENS faculty are privileged to work with some of the smartest and most passionate students anywhere on this campus. I really look forward to seeing them connect with each other through the major.”