PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Change in an ecosystem is typically slow and without a shred of intent. But this fall newly arrived students and faculty members will be affected by a very different kind of change in the unique academic ecosystem provided by the Center for Environmental Studies. With a new undergraduate curriculum and new leadership, the change afoot is the sweeping product of considerable forethought.
The new CES curriculum features a more structured core curriculum. Students can choose one of four new tracks designed to engage students and faculty members more deeply by more closely matching their interests.
“Environmental science and environmental studies is really broad,” said Dov Sax, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who will take the reins as director of the 35-year-old center July 1. “You could have someone working on electronic waste or another person working on climate change or sustainable food systems or social justice. It might be very hard for all those people to talk to each other in productive ways.”
So one goal of the new curriculum is to give each student the same fundamental start.
“Previously there were fewer core requirements,” said Sax. “The core now is really to make sure that the whole cohort of students going through the program has a similar shared language and basic body of knowledge.”
For example, a student who wants to study how climate change could drive extinctions would now take the four core courses in social science, life science, economics, and earth science as well as a research methods course with her peers. She could then select the new Conservation Science and Policy track (the others are Air, Climate and Energy; Land Water and Food Security; and Sustainability in Development). Along the way, the student would likely engage in topical summer field research experiences and then, as before, take on a capstone thesis project.
The new tracks map well not only to student interests but also to the expertise among the University’s environmental faculty, said Janet Blume, interim CES director last year.
Blume, Sax, and a committee of 10 other faculty members, students, and staff worked for months as the curriculum review committee that recommended the changes. The committee elicited campuswide feedback on its report, Blume said, and then modified the recommendations in response to create the final product approved by the College Curriculum Counsel.
“It’s structured but flexible,” said Blume, associate dean of the faculty and associate professor of engineering. “This helps students by giving them clear paths that align with bodies of faculty that can helpfully advise them and give them opportunities to do research.”
New tracks can be added as new faculty become affiliated or are hired.
The new curriculum and the center’s other programs also strive to encourage community involvement — “engaged scholarship” — in which students take an active role in the issues they are studying. Kurt Teichert, new associate director and a senior lecturer in CES, will spearhead that, Sax said. Teichert recently won the William G. McLoughlin award for Excellence in Teaching in the Social Sciences.
Sax said one way he hopes to expand engaged scholarship opportunities is to build more bridges between students and faculty members, who have networks of professional contacts. That could extend summer opportunities to more rising juniors, not just rising seniors.
“Everyone’s got two or three buddies at an NGO or an agency that they know,” Sax said. “Those are all people that could be hiring our Brown students for the summer. This could help students to have really meaningful internships and meaningful research experiences.”
CES has 11 core faculty members, Sax said, but he’d like to see the community of affiliated faculty members grow. While CES’s sister organization, the Environmental Change Initiative, connects faculty members via research, CES offers a complementary dimension of interaction.
“I see the center as playing a role of bringing faculty together through the students,” Sax said.
As the new curriculum taking shape, so is a new range of possible interactions between faculty members and students at CES.