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Environmental studies emphasized

By Netta S. Eisler

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 17 - January 26, 1995

The University Committee on Environmental Studies (UCES) was established in the summer of 1992 to explore the future direction and organization of environmental studies at Virginia Tech. The committee's draft report was published in Spectrum in late spring 1993, and a final report was submitted to Provost Fred Carlisle in the fall.

In a cover letter accompanying that report, committee members say they "believe that there is a compelling case for giving environmental studies a high priority (above many other competing priorities) at Virginia Tech."

The report stated that, "because of its extraordinary importance for the future of the earth's ecosystem, and because of the university's existing and potential strengths in the area, we believe that Virginia Tech should step forward as an exemplary force in environmental teaching, research, and outreach/extension."

In response to the report, last fall Carlisle appointed David Conn, professor of urban affairs and planning, to a half-time position as special assistant. His charge is to coordinate and provide leadership for environmental efforts across the campus.

With funding at a premium and Phase II initiatives being implemented, Conn said, "We have to make some choices." He views his appointment to head the environmental studies committee as "symbolic of the university's commitment to this effort."

With the concurrence of the UCES, which is continuing in a steering capacity, Conn is making undergraduate environmental education his first priority. "This doesn't mean that I am neglecting environmental education at the graduate level," he said, noting that there will be a new entry in the graduate bulletin called "Environmental Studies."

Conn is updating information previously collected about programs and courses already in place in the university curriculum that deal with environmental issues. "We are going to start looking substantively at what's being offered, and at the gaps and duplications," he said. In addition, titles of many courses dealing with the environment do not accurately reflect course content, he said. "We need to take steps to ensure that students considering enrolling at Virginia Tech will be able to find out what is available in environmental studies.

"After my appointment, I immediately got in touch with the people responsible for undergraduate and graduate recruitment to discuss ways of moving rapidly to improve the information we get out to students about our environmental studies," he said.

Conn has recommended that the university look at the needs of undergraduates interested in the environment who wish to emphasize the social science and humanities. The current environmental-science major draws almost entirely on the physical and life sciences, he explained, which may not meet the needs of those who want a different kind of approach. "It appears that those students can use a liberal arts and sciences major to design a program of studies, or there may be other options, but the students may not be aware of this," he said.

A working group, chaired by Bruce Hull, professor of forestry, has been charged with examining how the university will address those kinds of needs. "Their charge is not necessarily to develop a new major," Conn said. "They may want to modify or clarify existing programs."

A second working group, chaired by Bonham Richardson of geology, is looking at ways of increasing environmental literacy among all undergraduate students. "You can get through Tech without ever being exposed to environmental issues," Conn said. "We would like to see every Tech student get some education about the environment."

Conn stressed that he is "trying to catalyze thinking and make recommendations to faculty members, who are the ones to initiate changes."

A third working group is being assembled to look at the campus environment. One person with whom Conn has already consulted is on-campus Recycling Coordinator Larry Bechtel. "Larry's done a great job with recycling, under difficult circumstances, but we can do more," he said.

Conn also plans to invite the leaders of environmentally oriented student groups to an informal gathering to discuss mutual interests and possible coordination of efforts.

The instructional working groups, building on the work of the UCES committee, are meeting and gathering materials. Conn is asking for preliminary reports by spring break or soon afterwards.

"We're far behind some of our peer institutions in terms of substantively addressing environmental issues," Conn said. "There's a lot of good instruction about the environment going on, but we're doing it in a very fragmented way."

As one means of drawing together those interested in environmental studies, Conn has set up an environmental list server through which people can share ideas and information. To subscribe, send a message to: listserv@.vt.edu. The message should read: subscribe envst-1 <your name>.

The UCES Report is now on reserve in the Newman Library. Patrons should look under "University Information" in the folders of reserve materials.