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CENHS gathers opinions on environmental studies

By Rafael Butiong     10/21/14 4:13pm

The Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences (CENHS) is gathering student and faculty opinion on the possibility of a new environmental studies major, according to Dominic Boyer, director of CENHS and professor of anthropology.

“We haven’t drafted a proposal or submitted anything, but the working group is meeting and doing events like [town hall meetings],” Boyer said. “We’re also reaching out to faculty and key members of the administration to try to get as many viewpoints as possible before drafting a proposal. We expect to have a proposal ready within just a few weeks.”

According to Boyer, growing student interest motivated the proposal for a new environmental studies major.

“The greatest motivation is that we’ve heard a lot from students who wished that there was an environmental studies degree program at Rice that worked for them in terms of their interests,” Boyer said.

Although there are some programs already currently offered at Rice related to environmental studies, such as the environmental science secondary major and the energy and water sustainability minor, Boyer said the proposed environmental studies major will be more interdisciplinary in nature.

“What we’re talking about is the need for a broad, cross-campus approach to environmental studies, one that’s not so much a specialized topic within one discipline, but more of an interdisciplinary field of scholarship that requires students to have some knowledge of science, engineering, humanities and social sciences, and to bring it all together,” Boyer said. “We’re thinking about giving students the opportunity to have a broader, more comprehensive introduction to environmental studies.”

Boyer said there is no specific structure for the major at the moment and options are still being considered. According to Boyer, student opinion is also part of the planning for the proposal. 

“We don’t have a specific model that we’re trying to push, and we are looking closely at what our peer institutions are doing,” Boyer said. “We are exploring a range of options, from doing a minor to a major degree, or from a major degree with a single track to multiple tracks. This whole initiative is to try to provide a better approach to environmental studies from the point of view of the students.”

Student Association Environmental Committee Co-Chair Ryan Saathoff said he would like Rice to have an environmental studies major, because it would provide more options for those who come from a social science and humanities background. 

“Coming here, if you’re interested in the social sciences and want to be involved in environmentalism, there’s not really a true track for you,” Saathoff, a Jones College junior, said. If you look at the current environmental science secondary major, it’s extremely engineering and natural science focused. That’s just not my cup of tea.”

According to Boyer, students have voiced similar concerns about the current offerings in environmental studies.

“From what I heard, especially at the end of the [town hall meeting], what we have in terms of our degree program is too specialized,” Boyer said. “We have such an abundance of courses but students feel like they’re having to put things together themselves. I think there’s a middle ground there where we can put a structured, well-rounded environmental studies learning experience.”

Boyer also said there may be a need for more faculty once the new major is created, and the current offerings in environmental studies have not been maximized. 

“I think there is going to be a need for some increase in teaching power, but we have amazing resources that haven’t been fully tapped in some good way,” Boyer said. “We have 170 courses on the books right now that can contribute to this major or minor, and yet we don’t have them organized in a way that we’re really making full use them.”

“I would say that, first thing, we should make better use of what we have, figure out where the gaps are and try to work with departments and the administration to see if we can fill in those gaps,” Boyer said.

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