Planting New Seeds: Environmental Studies Program Branches Out

By Megan McCurdy
Outgoing News Editor

Courtesy of Katherine Wares
Senior Katherine Wares will graduate this year as the first Environmental Science Major from Washington College.

For years, Washington College’s location near the Chesapeake Bay has provided students and scholars the unique opportunity to study its rich historic and diverse environment through the environmental studies program. This semester, WC has dramatically expanded the program into the Department of Environmental Science and Studies.

This new department offers students two choices in majors: environmental studies is an interdisciplinary course of study encompassing theories of global environment change, as well as the relationship to the world around us. Environmental science, which was just recently approved, provides students with a greater focus on the science of the environment.

With resources and programs including the Center of Environment and Society and the Chesapeake Semester, WC has already built a strong academic program in environmental studies.

“We’ve had the environmental studies program for 15 years,” said Dr. Leslie Sherman, chair of the environmental science and studies department and associate professor of chemistry. “And with that we’ve had a very successful environmental studies major…[with] about 50 or so majors these days.”

Many students, however, wanted more.

“It really came from the students,” Sherman said in regard to the expansion. “In open houses over the years we’ve had more and more students ask if we have environmental science in addition to environmental studies.”

For many prospective students, that would be a deciding factor in committing to the College.

“I even had parents at open houses say ‘Call me if it’s approved because that will determine if my kid comes here,’” she said.

There were also strong levels of interest among current students already enrolled as environmental studies majors.

“There was a lot of support [for expansion] from the students…from faculty and administration as well,” said Dr. Karl Kehm, associate professor of physics and environmental studies.

“But we weren’t able to [expand] until this year,” he said. “The previous program chair…played a prominent role in bringing so much energy early on and even recently to the [environmental studies] program. He built this ground-swell of interest and we sort of took that momentum and expanded our offerings.”

The proposal and approval process has been in the works since the fall of 2012, according to Kehm.

“Dr. Sherman was really the guiding force in putting the new proposal on the table and shepherding it through the process,” he said.

After looking into similar colleges and programs, the five professors of the environmental studies program began to develop the environmental science major.

“We needed to go through the natural science and math division,” said Sherman. “And it went to the faculty, to the board, and then…it needed to go to the state for approval.”

The creation of the department, however, did not need state approval, just that of the natural science division and faculty.

“And there was unanimous support for that,” said Sherman. “As a new department, we’re able to bring in a new hire who will be completely dedicated to environmental science and studies.” The department has already hired Dr. Rebecca Fox, who will join the department and begin teaching this fall.

Although the new major is “officially on the books for next year,” there are already several students who have switched over to the environmental science track. These students will have to take 11 science-based classes for their major as opposed to the five science-based classes required for the environmental studies major.

“We’ve already had 10 people switch over,” said Sherman. “We even have a senior who was able to switch over.”

Senior Katherine Wares, whose senior capstone involved scientific fieldwork, will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science rather than the usual Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies.

“When I came here I was more interested in studying environmental science, but [WC] only offered environmental studies,” she said. “When they actually expanded…it turned out that I had already taken all of the required classes, so it just worked out.”

Wares, who worked with Assistant Professor of Environmental Science/Studies and Biology Dr. Robin Van Meter, is one of just a handful of environmental students to conduct fieldwork for her thesis.

“I got pretty lucky. She does research with frogs, and my research was with salamanders. So she had some insight into collecting specimens and was really helpful,” Wares said.

Like many, freshman Nicole Blanco is excited about the new courses to be offered under the new major.

“I hope [to] have much more hands-on experiences available,” Blanco said. “In my Intro to Environmental Studies class last semester, we had several opportunities to study the Chester River on the College’s boat,” something unique to the College because of its location.

Kelly Dobroski, who participated in the Chesapeake Semester program during the fall of 2013, has also switched over the environmental science track. Although it can be difficult to fit in all requirements for the environmental science major with one semester dedicated to the integrated Chesapeake Semester program, it is very possible, according to Dr. Sherman.

“I’m really looking forward to the doors that will open for me. I look forward to being one of the pioneers of the major, and to help it develop as a program as I move through my final two years at Washington College,” said Dobroski. “I hope that students in this program will be able to make some substantial changes to our surrounding environment.”

The new department will soon have a new home in the academic building to be built where the Kent County Board of Education stands, but in the meantime, Dr. Sherman said, “We are very grateful for people sharing their space with us.”

In offering both a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science, the department holds tremendous appeal for students.

“I think it’s really good for the College,” said Wares. “A lot of the environmental studies majors wished there was an environmental science degree. Now that we have it, I think it will attract a lot more students looking for a B.S. rather than a B.A.”

“I think it’s an exciting time,” said Dr. Sherman. With widespread support from students and the administration alike, it seems there is a bright future ahead for the department.

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