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Sunday, August 25, 2019

Educating Today’s Environmental Experts

  • Instructors Emily Thompson and Sue Albach helped create WCC’s environmental science program.

Building a sustainable world is the challenge for this and future generations. And constructing a degree program to meet that challenge is exactly what the faculty at WCC did in a unique and collaborative way.

Instructors from the College’s geology, biology, and chemistry departments worked together to create WCC’s environmental science associate in science degree. The two-year transfer program merges life and physical science studies. It also takes full advantage of two new classrooms designed exclusively for the College’s environmental science students.

The More Involved, the Better the Outcome

“It was great to work on the curriculum and the classrooms collaboratively,” said biology instructor Emily Thompson. Along with instructors Tracy Schwab (chemistry) and Sue Albach (geology), she also designed the master syllabi for the Environmental Science I and II classes. “Dean (Marty) Showalter, with her broad perspective on degree programs, provided us with important help and guidance.”

Since environmental science is a transfer program, the faculty focused on giving students a solid background in science and math. “We also felt it was important to include courses in sociology and economics,” said Thompson. “That way, students learn how environmental science fits into society as a whole, in addition to its impact on it.

“And we wanted them to be able to speak and write well, so speech and English courses are required for the degree. However, this is an evolving program. It must adapt to the changing needs of our students and the careers within the field. We started teaching the environmental science courses in fall 2011. Now that we’ve had some time to work with the curriculum, we are likely to adjust some of the degree requirements for fall 2012.”

What is Environmental Science?

The field of environmental science can be defined as solving the problems of the world while maintaining practices that allow the environment to survive in a sustainable way.

“The environment consists of the whole space in which we live, and everything living and non-living with which we interact,” said Thompson. “People working in environmental science come from many different backgrounds.

“Any industry could hire a sustainability officer to assist with implementing sustainable practices. WCC has, for example, a recycling czar,” said Thompson. “It is an evolving career field. You could study the environment. You could be attached to a company to make it more sustainable. Or you could be in education and take people on tours of the environment. The greening up of America is going to be a career direction for a lot of people in the years to come.”

What Kinds of Jobs Are Available?

There are two career paths for the WCC environmental science program. First, it is a comprehensive transfer program for professional-level careers that require a four-year degree. However, a two-year degree in environmental science is useful for someone interested in a technical position.

These two options provide a broad range of job opportunities. They include:

  • Environmental education
  • Biologist
  • Geologist
  • Meteorologist
  • Conservationist
  • Air pollution control
  • Environmental services
  • Regulation and compliance
  • Green construction
  • Alternative energy
  • HVAC—including geothermal technology
  • Ground water professional
  • Mass transit
  • Wildlife biologist
  • Electrical/electronics engineer
  • Energy design
  • City planner
  • Landscape architect
  • Mapping technician
  • Forestry/park ranger
  • Chemistry
  • Toxicologist
  • Hazardous waste/solid waste management

According to the Brookings Institution, the green economy grew 8.3 percent in 2008-2009, which far outpaced growth for the general economy, Thompson said. She added that median wages are 13 percent higher in green professions on average when compared to other careers.

Class Assignment Puts Environmental Creativity to the Test

One way for students to envision themselves in a green career is to solve an environmental problem using what they have learned. So last semester Thompson assigned her students what she called The Million Dollar Project.

She asked her students, “If you had a million dollars, what environmental problem in Michigan would you identify and how would you spend a million dollars to solve it?” They chose problems from all over the state, and came up with some novel solutions for them.

“We had a group look at the Asian carp problem in Lake Michigan,” Thompson said. “Their solution was to pay people to fish for them. They even developed a little campaign to educate people about them.

“One group took a look at an abandoned transportation building in Detroit and found another use for it. They wanted to turn it into a social center with piezoelectric floors that would generate electricity when you danced on them. Another group looked at ways to clean up the Kalamazoo River.

“All of them realized that a million dollars is not very much to solve an environmental problem. But these kind of ideas are all very important and could lead to some truly remarkable things some day.”

For more on green jobs, Thompson suggests visiting the Green Collar Association website.

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