CMU Offers New Additional Major in Environmental and Sustainability Studies
By Heidi OpdykeMedia Inquiries
A new additional major in environmental and sustainability studies is now available for all undergraduate students at Carnegie Mellon University regardless of their primary major.
The joint program is offered by the Mellon College of Science and the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. The Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research advises students in the new additional major and a complementary minor, which was introduced in 2018.
The institute was founded in 2004 with a lead gift from CMU alumnus and Board of Trustee Member W. Lowell Steinbrenner and his wife, Jan. They also are supporting the creation of the additional major.
"The Steinbrenner Institute was founded on the idea of helping all CMU students understand environmental problems and practical solutions that can lead to a more sustainable world," said W. Lowell Steinbrenner. "By establishing an additional major, the institute is building on its work of creating a holistic, interdisciplinary environment for students in all disciplines interested in environmental-related issues."
“Our original charge was to represent environmental education and research, so everything we do is in that space,” Donahue said. “Sustainability means environmental concerns like pollution, and equally important, the study of social and economic conditions for diverse groups of people. Our program emphasizes these connections among technical, humanistic and policy scholarship.”
Among its offerings, the institute provides fellowships for second-year doctoral students from all seven of CMU’s colleges and schools for environmentally focused, interdisciplinary research projects related to energy transition strategies, urban infrastructure and sustainable cities. The institute also acts as a central hub for facilitating connections and coordinating new research initiatives as well as promoting and building the strength of CMU’s environmental research centers.
It also is a driving force to help all CMU graduates be climate literate, which the university pledged to do as part of the 2013 White House Climate Challenge.
“I like to say we want students to be climate fluent,” Donahue said. “I want people to be engaged in the topics and that’s guided our thinking so that while climate is always part of the thinking, by no means is it the only aspect.”
"You can't unlink the science of how Earth works with the sociology of how humanity works." — Neil Donahue
So far, 19 students have graduated with the minor, and more than 40 are in the process of completing it. Both the minor and additional major options are designed to be accessible to every undergraduate student at CMU, regardless of their colleges or majors. The options are for any students looking to complement the depth of their chosen primary major with issues related to climate, the environment or sustainability.
“I call them the three ‘j’s: climate justice, environmental justice, and social justice. Students with an interest in the social implications of environmental and sustainability issues would be drawn to the major,” Donahue said. “You can’t unlink the science of how Earth works with the sociology of how humanity works. It’s that interaction that really defines it. Broadly speaking, we are looking for — and appealing to — students who are keen to understand both aspects of that interaction.”
Upon completion of either option, students will be able to: apply social and scientific perspectives to environmental problems; distinguish among scientific methods for evaluating environmental problems; identify and assess sources of environmental data; identify environmental justice issues within the context of proposed policy solutions; and distinguish among impacts on different communities, and different groups of stakeholders, when considering environmental problems and proposed solutions
Required courses for all students in the additional major are “Environmental Systems on a Changing Planet,” “Introduction to Environmental Ideas” and “Reasoning with Data.” Student electives must come from outside the student’s home college or department, and they will complete an interdisciplinary capstone course their senior year.
Abigail Owen, an assistant professor of history, is program director for the additional major and minor options and advises students along with Joe Moore, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering who earned his Ph.D. from CMU in 2017.
Owen said that as advisers, their goal is to help the students explore the interdisciplinary benefit of environmental and sustainable studies in ways they might not have previously considered.
For example, if a student’s primary degree is in social and decision sciences but they have an interest in issues related to animals, they could take a biology course, learn about the history of agriculture, or dig into food systems.
“We designed the program so that the minor and the additional major mesh together,” Owen said. “If you make progress on one, you’ll make progress on the other.”
Owen also manages the capstone experiences, and it was her history course on the politics of water that kick-started Maegan Bogetti’s academic path.
“It made me think about environmental issues in a very different perspective than I ever had before,” said Bogetti, a junior whose primary major is global studies. “It played really well into the themes that I was getting out of classes for my global studies major.” She is the first student to declare the new additional major.
For Bogetti, because of similarities in the additional major and minor, she was able to start working on coursework prior to the additional major’s approval.
“It’s really great knowing that younger students coming in with similar interests can follow a more defined path,” she said.
Bogetti said that her primary major of global studies has given her a lens to consider that while everyone experiences environmental issues, they affect populations differently, depending on privilege and how social systems are organized.
“Something really exciting about this new additional major is its interdisciplinary nature. It really encourages students not to just take an environmental science/biology perspective to looking at problems,” Bogetti said. “It also focuses on topics of environmental justice and trying to shape solutions while integrating different worldviews.
“Environmental justice is my biggest passion related to my studies, and I would love to continue to work in that capacity around community-focused issues and making sure that we shape solutions that are sustainable from not only an environmental standpoint but also for the communities facing the issues.”