March 12, 2009

New environmental major preparing to graduate its first group of students

This May, the first group of students majoring in the science of natural and environmental systems (SNES) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will graduate.

At the heart of the major is a focus on the human dimensions of the environment -- how we interact with and affect it and how the sciences can be applied to observe environmental phenomena and resolve injustices. What sets it apart from the college's other five environmental science majors is its scope and applicability, said Johannes Lehmann, chair of the SNES steering committee.

"The students really have preparation to go in almost any direction that they want to -- environmental consulting, science journalism, environmental policy or into academia," said Lehmann, associate professor of crop and soil sciences. "The large amount of coursework flexibility lends itself to a diverse array of possibilities for their futures."

SNES is not a department major, he noted, and its courses range from economics and sociology to crop and soil sciences and plant pathology. The SNES major is grounded in hard science. It brings elements of biology and chemistry together to understand the ecosystem. Students may opt for one of five concentrations: environmental agriculture, environmental biology, environmental economics, environmental information science and sustainable development.

"The environment isn't something over there," said Kimberley Schroder '09, a SNES major concentrating in sustainable development and the head of the SNES Student Organization. "People are a part of it in more ways than just managing resources. I want to be the person who sees the environment holistically, looking at community development and on the effect that our actions have."

SNES students tend to be "socially engaged individuals who want to make a difference in the world with their lives," said Lehmann. Most are involved in such environmental activist groups on campus as Sustainability Hub, Roots and Shoots, and KyotoNow! and in related off-campus movements. They "are hugely engaged students," he added.

Maria Oldiges '09 started out as a comparative literature major but later decided she wanted to be able to understand the origins of environmental problems and to convey that information effectively. She switched to double major in development sociology and SNES, with a concentration in sustainable development.

"Appreciation for the environment comes out of knowledge," Oldiges said. "It's simple ecology to look at the world as a system. There are so many clashes and conflicts, so many different ways of knowing, and so many negative effects of power struggles that lead to increased inequalities on a global level. It can only be productive to see these problems from multiple facets."

Ben Scott-Killian '09, who graduated in January, has been working at Cascade, a land conservancy in Seattle for several weeks. At Cornell, he was student sustainability coordinator for Cornell Dining and manager of Dilmun Hill Student Farm over the summer.

"I really love what I'm doing now," said Scott-Killian, who does marketing and outreach for Cascade. "I can take different aspects within the classes I've taken and apply them to communication, outreach, actual planning, management and monitoring, all components touched on by SNES."

Jennifer Wholey '10 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.