In January, the full faculty of Kenyon College formally approved the elevation of environmental studies from a concentration to a major.
The cross-disciplinary major will expand the academic focus of the College’s ongoing efforts at sustainability. It builds on the popular environmental studies concentration, which has been offered since 1990 and now has about 15 concentrators per graduating class.
Professor of Biology Siobhan Fennessy, the Philip and Sheila Jordan Professor in Environmental Studies, said, “We have an abundance of resources that will enrich and diversify our curriculum in ways that are unique to Kenyon, experiences students really can’t get anywhere else. Creating a major is the natural step for the College’s successful and long-established ENVS concentration.”
Fennessy worked with Visiting Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Robert Alexander and a faculty task force in 2016 to design the major. Alexander said students are leading the charge: “We are signatories to the carbon neutrality pledge because of our students. They are really, really serious about this.”
Laura Gumpert ’17, from Brookline, Massachusetts, is completing a Spanish major with an environmental studies concentration. She got academic credit last fall for working once a week on a nearby farm dedicated to sustainable agriculture.
“Coming here and really interacting with the farmers and seeing what they do on a daily basis, I realize that this really does matter and people are really doing good things,” she said.
The new major in environmental studies will have three foundations: a curricular focus, an experiential community exercise and a Senior Capstone. Students can choose from eight initial curricular areas of focus: arts and humanities; biology; chemistry; economics and policy; environmental science; food and agriculture; global environmental issues; and cultures, societies and environments.
Faculty members for the interdisciplinary major come from departments across the College, including the anthropology, biology, economics, philosophy, physics, political science, religious studies and sociology departments.
Dave Heithaus ’99, director of green initiatives at Kenyon, commented on the interdisciplinary appeal of the major: “Environmental studies students are also concerned with social justice, politics and community issues. They intend to help shift our culture toward environmental resilience.”
Provost Joseph L. Klesner said, “Kenyon has terrific resources to support an environmental studies major — dynamic faculty with research programs and fieldwork that will excite students, wonderful green centers staffed by staff members eager to engage students and a new Office for Community Partnerships that will help us build our relationships with local organizations and individuals who can provide opportunities for experiential learning.”
To fulfill the major, students must complete a project within a community setting that demonstrates a practical application of the knowledge and skills developed in the program. This requirement reinforces a goal of the Kenyon 2020 strategic plan to facilitate more high-impact experiences for students, such as undergraduate research, community-based learning and internships.
Kenyon has received a pledge of a major gift toward funding such research projects for students with financial need. This endowed fund would pay for about six Summer Science Scholars who use that program to fulfill the environmental studies requirement for a project.
The College’s environmental centers — the Brown Family Environmental Center, Office of Green Initiatives, Philander Chase Conservancy, Kenyon Farm and Kokosing Nature Preserve — are creating long-term plans with specific projects that students can complete to meet this requirement.
Majors also will complete an independent research project that demonstrates the development of depth in their environmental education and their ability to approach environmental issues from a systems-based, interdisciplinary perspective.
Interest in environmental studies has been increasing nationwide. More high school students are taking the Advanced Placement environmental science exam; in 1993, about 5,000 students took the exam, and in 2015 almost 140,000 students took it.