15 Environmental Degree Programs That Just Might Save the World

A lot us are familiar with stories of environmental activism: Greenpeace chasing after whaling vessels and protesters camping out in front of an oil company executive’s mansion are just a few extreme examples. Even TV shows, like “Portlandia,” poke fun at environmental activists on a regular basis. The passion for the environment, and the reasons to get involved, are no joke, though.

Activists care about the environment, and you probably do as well, though you’re most likely not prepared to chain yourself to a tree slated to be cut down by a logging company. It’s easy to view environmentalism purely through the lens of social and political activism, but take a closer look. People are working in a whole spectrum of professions, devoting their expertise to the environment. Engineering, forestry and environmental science are just a few of the higher education programs preparing students to make their positive impact on the environment now and in the future.

The drivers behind environmental programs

Global warming is at the forefront of the major environmental issues happening today. Sea levels have risen at roughly six-tenths of an inch per decade, according to a 2014 report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The same report cites shrinking glaciers and snowpack as well as an overall increase in U.S. and global temperatures as a few of the numerous indicators that climate change is happening.

The consequences of this phenomenon — some on the horizon, some of which are already in the process of happening — are far reaching and have the potential to affect people in ways that can be highly difficult to predict. A 2013 study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cites increased poverty and food shortages as two potential effects on human societies.

In addition to global warming there are several other major ecological factors facing the planet. Hydraulic fracturing, the process of using pressurized fluids to extract natural gas and shale oil from underground, has been associated with numerous ecological issues like water contamination and spilling of hazardous chemicals into the surface and air. An EPA study, slated for peer review and release in 2014, is examining the overall impact of fracturing on water contamination.

Loss of biodiversity, driven by several other environmental issues like pollution, deforestation and contamination of ecosystems, is another pressing issue. The potential impacts of biodiversity loss include hazards to human health by way of increased transmission of infectious diseases like malaria and Lyme disease.

Practical solutions: steps toward implementing meaningful environmental change

One of the ways of attempting to avert the consequences is to pressure political on legislators who can implement regulations on the industrial and other processes contributing to some of the major environmental issues around the world.

Alongside the public policy route, there are also fields of study like ecology, environmental science, forestry and ocean engineering. These fields of study focus on developing ways of conserving natural resources, preparing people to adapt to emergent environmental disruptions and repairing some of the impact climate change has already had.

This article highlights 15 schools offering degree programs aimed toward taking an active part in maintaining the environment and remedying some of the global-level problems around the world.

The Programs

1. Auburn University – Wildlife Ecology and Management (WLDE)

Auburn University’s Wildlife Ecology and Management program aims to provide a set of interdisciplinary skills geared towards students seeking potential roles in wildlife ecology and conservation. The program is designed as a starting point for a graduate program on account of many jobs in the field requiring a master’s degree.

Students typically spend their freshman and sophomore years focused on courses in biology and chemistry, with junior and senior years expanding into a blend of wildlife sciences and forestry classes.

2. Ball State University – Natural Resources and Environmental Management

Ball State’s 26-credit program offers two concentrations for potential students:

  1. Natural resources
  2. Environmental management

Coursework in the Natural Resources and Environmental Management program concentrates on topics such as chemistry as well as water, soil, air and energy resources. Prospective students may also take several courses in sustainable technology and water and soil quality management, while environmental management focuses on hazardous materials and chemistry.

3. Florida Atlantic University – Ocean Engineering

Ocean engineering is a multidisciplinary field that bridges the gap between several areas, including oceanography, geophysics and marine biology. FAU offers programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level, including master’s and Ph.D. degrees. FAU’s ocean engineering program exposes students to underwater acoustics and handling of marine vehicles as well as broader technical disciplines like fluid mechanics and environmental engineering. The sample four-year program listed on FAU’s website outlines coursework in chemistry, math, oceanography and several upper division physics-centric classes.

4. Florida University – Sustainability and the Built Environment

Florida University’s 120-credit sustainability program aims to teach students how to plan and execute building projects in a world with heightened restrictions in supplies like energy, water and land. Students considering this specialized degree path typically take classes in biology, economics, built environments and sociocultural sustainability.

5. Indiana University – Environmental Science

Environmental science is a field that connects traditional scientific studies to developing solutions for contemporary environmental problems. Indiana University offers its environmental science program as a joint effort of its College of Arts and Sciences and School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Students in the program can potentially take any number of classes from either department. Coursework in the BSES program centers exposes students to a suite of classes including math, chemistry, biology, physics and geology in addition to practical experience as part of a biological field station.

6. Lander University – Environmental Science

As part of Lander’s physical sciences program, the environmental science program aims to connect prospective students to the scientific processes underlying the natural world. Environmental science coursework at Lander includes biology, geology, chemistry and physics among other subjects.

Daniel Pardieck, Director of Environmental Science and Associate Professor of Environmental Geology at Lander University

1. How would you summarize your program’s (Bachelor’s of Environmental Science) core objective?

[DP] The core objective for the program is for students to develop an understanding of how environmental systems work and interact with humans, with emphasis on existing and emerging environmental challenges.

2. What can a prospective student expect to learn in your program?

[DP] In the program, students learn basic science content required to understand environmental challenges, including physics, chemistry, biology and earth science. Students become well-versed in doing science, as many courses are lab and field based. Approaches to the identification, characterization and solution of particular current and emerging environmental challenges (e.g. problem solving) are emphasized.

Root causes to environmental problems are learned, and the roles of technology as causes and solutions are explored. Key skills essential for environmental science professionals that are emphasized in the program include written and verbal communications appropriate to the field and quantitative thinking. The program familiarizes students with professional practice in the environmental field through its requirements for a either major research project or an internship.

3. In what ways is your program relevant to contemporary, 21st-century environmental issues?

[DP] Several courses focus on current and emerging environmental challenges. These include, but are not limited to global climate change, threats to biodiversity, water scarcity, feeding the world (e.g. agriculture, meat production, fisheries), economic development and the sustainability of the environment for human life and well-being, and energy and resource sustainability.

The skills enumerated in response to #2 above, especially problem-solving skills, are broadly applicable and essential to effectively address current and emerging environmental challenges. Courses within the program are continuously updated to reflect most recent trends and advances in the science and changes in the state of the environment and those factors that influence it and human well-being.

7. Northland College – Sustainable Community Development

Northland’s program takes a multidisciplinary approach to addressing environmental issues, integrating faculty from different departments to create a curriculum that emphasizes the ties between emergent environmental issues and socioeconomic trends. Coursework for the sustainable community development program combines upper division core community development classes with courses in biology, economics, sociology and more.

8. Oklahoma State University – Natural Resource Ecology & Management

OSU’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology & Management (NREM) offers a variety of degree options in several specialization areas, including Fire Ecology & Management, Natural History & Conservation and Wildlife Biology & Preveterinary Science. During the first two years of study, students typically concentrate in core areas such as math and chemistry before moving to NREM coursework during their junior and senior years. Two three-week summer field study programs are also on the list of requirements.

9. Oregon Institute of Technology – Renewable Energy Engineering

Orgeon Tech takes renewable energy seriously, with its Klamath Falls campus being the only college campus in America to use geothermal heating. The renewable energy engineering program teaches students to apply traditional engineering skills in quantitative problem solving to specialized technologies like photovoltaics, wind power, biofuels and more. Typical coursework spans numerous areas of study, from mechanical engineering to chemistry, physics to mathematics.

10. Suffolk University – Environmental Studies

As a field of academic study, environmental studies explore the relationship between human-created and natural environments and how their individual processes affect each other. The environmental studies program at Suffolk focuses in three areas:

  • Environmental advocacy
  • Sustainability
  • Sustainability food systems

The core courses for environmental studies at Suffolk touch on both social scientific and lab-oriented scientific approaches to the subject.

John C. Berg, Professor of Government and Director of Environmental Studies at Suffolk University

1. How would you summarize your program’s (Environmental Studies) core objective?

[JB] The core objective of the Environmental Studies major is to prepare students to change the world. This involves learning to think in terms of systems, understanding the ethical roots of environmentalism, and knowing enough about domestic and international political systems to be able to act effectively.

2. What can a prospective student expect to learn in your program?

[JB] Students learn the basics of environmental science, environmental policy, and environmental values. Through a practicum and a capstone research project, they learn how to integrate these different areas of knowledge to solve real-world problems.

3. In what ways is your program relevant to contemporary, 21st-century environmental issues?

[JB] We teach contemporary skills, such as Geographic Information Systems, and focus them on solutions to today’s problems. Our combination of natural science, social science, and humanities helps students understand that it is not enough to figure out a scientific solution unless you can also mobilize the political support needed to implement that solution.

11. University of Idaho – Ecohydrological Engineering

The Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) at University of Idaho describes its ecohydrological engineering program as one that teaches students how to address the technological problems associated with hydrological issues like water conservation, water quality and irrigation and drainage.

12. University of Maine – Forestry

University of Maine’s forestry program exposes undergraduates to the various complexities underlying the relationship between forests and human society. Students experience a curriculum that integrates communications skills, management abilities and ecosystem sciences as part of its core offering. The suggested curriculum listed for this program starts out with a first year comprised primarily of core forestry courses, English, communications and chemistry. Second-year students switch gears to more quantitative courses in economics and physics. Later semesters focus on upper-division forestry classes.

13. University of Missouri-Columbia – Bioengineering

As the name might suggest, this program is a fusion of biological science with engineering which seeks to make a connection between engineering and environmentalism. Bioengineering students can learn how to design and develop new technology intended to improve the environment as well as human and animal health.

Steven C. Borgelt, Ph.D., P.E., Undergraduate Director and Associate Professor, University of Missouri

1. How would you summarize your program’s (Bioprocess Engineering) core objective?

[SB] Bioprocess engineering involves the design and development of efficient and environmentally responsible systems to economically manufacture food, chemical and pharmaceutical products from renewable biological materials. The Bioprocess Engineering specialty encompasses food engineering, which covers processing, packaging and distribution of food, and is expanding into the manufacture of industrial products from renewable bio-resources.

Bioenvironmental Engineering is the application of engineering principles with natural systems to sustain and manage environmental quality through proper system design, construction and management. The Bioenvironmental Engineering specialty integrates physical, biological and environmental sciences with engineering skills to develop economical methods for improving water and air quality, wastewater treatment, water management and soil remediation. Using their combined skills of engineering, environmental sciences and biotechnology, bioenvironmental engineers are well-qualified to address the issues that contribute to improved quality of life while preserving our environment.

2. What can a prospective student expect to learn in your program?

[SB] Bioengineering (BE) is a science-based engineering discipline that integrates engineering and biological sciences in one curriculum. For specific courses review the undergraduate degree information at our website.

3. In what ways is your program relevant to contemporary, 21st-century environmental issues?

[SB] Bioprocess engineers play a key role in use of knowledge from the new biotechnology revolution to provide products that improve the quality of life, while preserving the environment through bioremediation and the abatement and proper use of wastes. Using their combined skills of engineering, environmental sciences and biotechnology, bioenvironmental engineers are well-qualified to address the issues that contribute to improved quality of life while preserving our environment.

14. University of Nebraska-Lincoln – Biological Systems Engineering

Another crossover program that integrates engineering and biology, biological systems engineering aims to provide students with an education in engineering technology in order to benefit Nebraska’s biological systems. There are several environmentally oriented fields this curriculum can tie into, like the developing synthetic fuel for cars or methods for mitigating the damage inflicted by natural disasters in certain parts of the world.

15. University of Rhode Island – Ocean Engineering

The University of Rhode Island offers its ocean engineering program to students with an interest in ocean-borne processes including offshore structures and offshore power generation. Being a coastal university, URI provides students in this program with ample opportunity for hands-on experience with a 42-foot research vessel.

Undergrad coursework in the ocean engineering program skews toward the technical, with freshman and sophomore semesters comprised primarily of chemistry, physics, engineering and math. Junior and senior years introduce more specialized courses including fundamentals of ocean mechanics and marine structure design.

“Environmental Engineers,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 June 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/environmental-engineers#tab-6
“Environmental Scientists and Specialists,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 June 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-scientists-and-specialists#tab-6
“Widespread Impacts,” U.S. Global Change Research Program, 9 June 2014, http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/highlights/report-findings/widespread-impacts
“Our Changing Planet: The U.S. Global Change Research Program for Fiscal Year 2013,” U.S. Global Change Research Program, 9 June 2014, http://www.globalchange.gov/browse/reports/our-changing-planet-us-global-change-research-program-fiscal-year-2013
“Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 9 June 2014, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/ “EPA’s Study of Hydraulic Fracturing and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 11 June 2014, http://www2.epa.gov/hfstudy
“Examining the Links between Biodiversity and Human Health: An Interdisciplinary Research Intiative at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” Roman, Joe; Pongsiri, Montira; http://joeroman.com/ecohealth07.pdf

school listing icon
Our Partner Listings