The Untapped Opportunity in Environmental Education

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(I wrote the following note in preparation for a roundtable I'm participating in at the Breakthrough Institute's annual Dialogue meeting.)

The purpose of this note is to share an alternate perspective on the opportunity and role of environmental studies in undergraduate and graduate eduction. It is based on my work in industry, as well as various environmental science and policy activities.

I have focused my notes on general environmental studies programs, separate of environmental science programs. I believe that these are distinctly different types of programs, for reasons I'm happy to discuss, so am treating them separately.

About Me

My formal training was in electrical and computer engineering, and I spent the early part of my career in engineering roles. Later I moved to high-tech management, and in 2006 was named SVP and Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) of Sun Microsystems, a position that I held for 5 years. Sun was a Fortune 200 computer company that was bought by Oracle Systems in 2010.

During my time as CSO I co-wrote Citizen Engineer: A Handbook for Socially Responsible Engineering with Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's Chief Technology Officer. The goal was to provide engineers and engineering students with basic understanding of areas that we felt were missing from the standard engineering curriculum, primarily in sustainability and intellectual property. Following the release of the book in 2010, Greg and I participated in presentations and discussions with universities across the country.

Today I work for a small innovation and engineering company, with an emphasis on sustainability problems. I have also maintained formal and informal ties to a number of environmental science and policy efforts.

My Experience at Sun

During my time as Sun's CSO I interviewed over 100 interdisciplinary environmental studies graduates for several dozen different positions. I did not end up hiring any of these candidates. In general, they lost the position to someone who had a degree in a field related to the core responsibilities of the job, and who had some mix of formal and informal understanding of sustainability

For example, in looking for someone to lead our policy and implementation efforts related to hazardous substance regulations, such as RoHS in Europe, we interviewed a range of candidates, including a number environmental studies majors. In the end we hired a chemist who had also done some political science coursework. He had no formal sustainability training, but was able to get up to speed in relevant areas, and was very effective in working with both our policy teams and technical teams.

Despite this history, I came to appreciate the training that the environmental majors had received, and could relate to the potential value that their training could bring to our efforts. This was a major motivation to write Citizen Engineer, where
we tried to distill some of that training into a form that could be easily digested by our target audience.

The Need I Saw Then, and Still See Today

Ultimately, what I came to believe was that what we needed at Sun were professionals with degrees in traditional areas of study, but who had also had received some formal training in environmental studies:

  • MBA + sustainability
  • electrical engineer + sustainability
  • physicist + sustainability
  • policy expert + sustainability
  • marketing professional + sustainability
  • lawyer + sustainability
  • etc

In other words, I saw the primary need for environmental studies as a serious minor, as opposed to being a stand-alone major. Our business required that we have trained chemists, certified engineers, accredited accountants and lawyers in good standing, but our sustainability efforts were adding requirements for new skills and knowledge in each of these areas.

I believe that the situation in my company extends to innovation efforts everywhere. There is a growing movement, with the Breakthrough Institute as a leader, that recognizes innovation as a vital and hopeful path forward in our quest to create a sustainable society. In order to maximize our chances of success, it is critical that the core of our innovation engine, our scientists and engineers, are equipped with a basic understanding of environmental and human issues and systems.

My Perspective

By focusing on environmental studies as a stand-alone discipline, today's Environmental Program Movement (EPM) is only serving a tiny fraction of students, and, as a result, is not fulfilling its potential value to society. There is certainly a need for dedicated professionals whose training is centered on environmental management, policy, etc. I would argue, however, that the need and opportunity is even greater to augment our existing fields of study.

I would like to see "EPM 2", a movement that builds on the learnings of today's EPM. The goal of EPM 2 would be to provide a solid foundation in environmental and human issues, and interdisciplinary tools to every student engaged in higher education. At UCLA, for example, the focus would be on the 42,000 students who are not in environmental studies programs, not just the 221 who are.

EPM 2 would be designed to complement the learning frameworks, methodologies, etc of the of the programs in which students are majoring. While this builds on the methodologies of today's EPM, they would have to be blended with the appropriately on a case-by-case basis. For example, science, engineering, business and law all have their unique approaches to problem solving. The interdisciplinary approaches of EPM would need to be meshed with each of these in a complementary way.

Summary

The growth of EPM will increase the number of professionals who are equipped with the skills and knowledge to help lead us to a sustainable future. However, EPM majors will only constitute a tiny fraction of workforce, and cannot replace professionals whose role requires field-specific training and degrees.

Because of this, I am advocating for EPM (or an offshoot of EPM) to expand its efforts to the goal of providing every graduate of higher education with the tools and knowledge required to work on our most challenging environmental and human issues.