Unleashing Innovation in Environmental Education

Holly Welles ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute
Lars Hedin teaching Advanced Analysis of Environmental Systems.
Lars Hedin teaching “Advanced Analysis of Environmental Systems.” (Photo: Frank Wojciechowski)

Many of the most urgent challenges facing this generation of undergraduate students are closely linked to environmental issues: climate change, the energy system, the food system, and losses of biodiversity. “This is a particularly important time in history. The environment is becoming a part of everyone’s world. No matter where the future takes today’s students—to careers in business, government, not-for-profit organizations, or academia—they will need knowledge and understanding of the environment,” says Lars Hedin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Program in Environmental Studies (ENV Program) at Princeton.

Princeton students understand this, and as a result, there is a surge in interest in the environment across all segments of the University—from undergraduates to faculty. And, there is a growing hunger to explore environmental issues from a variety of perspectives—from the sciences and technical fields to social sciences and the humanities. Hedin also believes there are significant cultural changes driving his colleagues to unleash a wave of innovation in environmental education at Princeton. This group of faculty is responding by increasing both research and teaching with connections to the environment. And not surprisingly, Princeton has witnessed a dramatic increase in student enrollment and participation in the ENV Program.

The ENV Program is administered by the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), the University’s center for interdisciplinary environmental research, education, and outreach. Since 1993, the Program has offered a certificate in environmental studies, and today, offers a broad range of opportunities for students, from all academic disciplines, who wish to explore environmental themes through coursework, independent field study, and research fellowships. By fulfilling program requirements, students supplement academic study in their home departments or majors with an environmental perspective. To earn an ENV certificate, students complete a combination of core and upper level courses and labs as well as prepare a senior thesis that includes an environmental dimension.

Figure 1.

With program enrollments tripling over the past four years (Figure 1), the ENV Program is now the second largest certificate program on campus and currently supports 192 registered students representing 19 academic disciplines. Many from among the Program’s 400 alumni have gone on to pursue careers or graduate level education with an environmental focus.

“The challenge”, says Hedin, “is that this growth of interest in the environment places exceptional demands on traditional educational programs. Instead of falling squarely within a single discipline, environmental problems cut across many disciplines. This means that tomorrow’s leaders must know how to forge new connections between the natural sciences and policy studies, engineering, and the humanities.” Hedin, who became director of the ENV Program in July 2010 says, “These trends are challenging us to rethink how we best offer an environmental curriculum in the modern-day university.”

Many educational institutions have responded by developing departments and/or schools that specialize in environmental studies. Such a model offers students a centralized program, but suffers the risk of weakening links to traditional academic disciplines when such links are vital for providing the depth of knowledge and informed creativity needed to solve complex environmental problems.

“With the ENV Program, we are proposing a different solution that preserves the timehonored Princeton formula of a disciplinary major capped by rigorous independent work while still delivering an advanced education that explores the interdisciplinary dimensions of environmental problems,” says Hedin. In the fall, the ENV Program will introduce several new dimensions.

Lars Hedin in Panama
Lars Hedin in Panama. (Photo: Sara Batterman)

The first dimension will build upon the success of the existing ENV certificate by providing expanded courses, internships, and research opportunities, and by increasing alliances with professionals in the public and private sectors. The second dimension involves creating closer connections with allied academic departments and schools in order to establish a rigorous curriculum that is appropriate and complimentary to the course of study pursued by students in select disciplines. Initially, this effort will focus on creating a shared curriculum with the Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Civil and Environmental Engineering; Geosciences; and the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.

The third dimension of the Program will address an issue that Hedin and his colleagues in the sciences have grappled with for some time: the frequent disconnect between how science is taught, versus the real-world questions and socio-political dimensions that make it relevant in today’s world. To tackle this challenge, the ENV Program will introduce a “Real World” teaching model that integrates both aspects. The new model builds upon the ENV Program’s already successful “Living Laboratory Model”—an approach introduced in 2005 to provide students with hands-on research and problem-solving skills in a variety of environments and ecosystems.

Finally, the ENV Program will expand connections to the humanities. “It is often hard to find a natural bridge between science and the humanities, but it is critical because the humanities deal with the human condition and the social dimensions of environmental challenges, probing themes of ethics, values, and culture. Science, without being informed by these, has less value and vice versa,” says Hedin. “If we want to train broad-thinking leaders in the service of the nation and the world, we need to offer both scientific and humanistic points of views.”

In combination, the new initiatives will increase opportunities for undergraduates to study the environment while also establishing a new model for environmental education at Princeton. “Our new educational model will allow students to experience not only the specific hands-on science, but also the broader interdisciplinary context of real-world problems. Both dimensions are important for equipping the next generation of leaders to navigate the complexity of today’s environmental challenges.”

“It’s a challenging puzzle; balancing both depth and breadth, while also incorporating both field and classroom experiences. This is the time and the place to involve such a novel approach. Issues of the environment are only going to grow in the future,” says Hedin. “I want Princeton to be viewed as the leading institution of environmental teaching—a model within higher education.”

“More news is forthcoming,” he says. “Stay tuned.”