Science and Sustainability in Practice: The EVS Program at UT Austin

The Environmental Science Institute

Jay Banner, PhD
Director
banner@mail.utexas.edu

Deborah Salzberg
Education Coordinator
deborah@esi.utexas.edu

Introduction

In October 2010, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board officially approved three Bachelor of Science degrees in Environmental Science proposed by The University of Texas at Austin. These degrees—collectively referred to as the “EVS Program”—are offered collaboratively by the College of Natural Sciences, the College of Liberal Arts, and the Jackson School of Geosciences, and operated centrally by the Environmental Science Institute. The interdisciplinary, scientific curriculum reflected in the EVS Program develops the perspective and tools to appreciate, promote, and develop sustainable practices.

EVS students gain an understanding of sustainability theory in their first semester, an understanding that is then complemented with a deeper appreciation of the local landscape and training in the tools and techniques necessary for sustainability research. After additional coursework and training in the underlying physical, life, and social sciences (including a course in environmental and sustainable policy, ethics, and history in a subsequent semester) EVS students can bring sustainability into practice through a senior research project.

Appreciating the Big Picture: Sustaining a Planet

photo of Boggy Creek Farms
Boggy Creek Farms, located just a few miles from campus, is a frequent destination for EVS students, and offers a living example of sustainability.

EVS students begin studying sustainability with Sustaining a Planet during their first semester at the University. Sustaining a Planet provides EVS students with a broad and engaging overview of what environmental science actually means. Economic, social equity, and environmental considerations are all brought to bear as students examine how the Earth and its environment work. Using multiple perspectives, students learn about natural and man-made causes of local and global environmental change while simultaneously exploring the human dimensions of its impacts on water resources, food, energy, waste and biodiversity. Students also discuss the interrelated nature of science and social policy (including technology, economics, and the media) and the effects of that interrelation on individuals, communities, and nations.

Students in Sustaining a Planet also learn how the sustainability theory of the classroom translates into the non-academic world. As part of a final portfolio requirement, students are required to engage in a form of environmental action, which can include everything from self-guided field exercises to local organic farm visits to working with campus operations staff to study ways to make operations such as housing and food services more sustainable. At the end of the term, students leave Sustaining a Planet with a multi- faceted understanding of sustainability—of how the natural world works, how natural systems interact with and are modified by engineered systems and the built environment, and how their lives fit into these systems.

Learning the Landscape: Field Seminar in Environmental Science and Sustainability

Taken in the second semester of the EVS program, the Field Seminar inspires and motivates EVS students through field experiences, introducing interdisciplinary research approaches into sustainability and environmental processes. Students quickly realize that the Field Seminar will be unlike any course they’ve taken before when, upon examining the syllabus, they learn that every outing to local field sites will be made by bicycle or foot to keep the course’s carbon footprint at a minimum, even as they study the environmental footprints of others. The Field Seminar makes extensive use of the local landscape as a natural laboratory, with several weeks in which students explore the environmental challenges of the UT-Austin campus. Early in the semester, students investigate the landscape just outside their door by exploring Waller Creek, studying its water quality, urbanization impacts and biodiversity. Students build on this experience with a tour of sustainability initiatives on campus, including Jester’s food service, the campus power plant, and the latest green building achievements, such as those in the new Student Activities Center. Moving beyond the Forty Acres, EVS students also explore sustainable practices in the greater Austin community at Boggy Creek Farms and the Mueller Development, a sustainable development built on the grounds of the former city airport.

photo of students measuring riparian vegetation along Waller Creek
EVS students measure riparian vegetation transects along Waller Creek on the UT-Austin campus in an exercise to investigate the impacts of urbanization on biodiversity and invasive species. Waller Creek serves as a natural laboratory for the Field Seminar and Research Methods courses.

This year, EVS students were also introduced to the grant funding process through the UT-Austin Green Fee Committee’s call for proposals. EVS students formed small groups, and each group then identified a sustainability-related problem on the campus of UT-Austin and drafted a formal proposal to create an initiative addressing the problem. Students were then strongly encouraged to submit their proposals to the committee. The committee is working with the following groups to finalize plans for enacting their green fee proposal ideas:

  • Improvements to Waller Creek by removing invasive plant species and replacing them with native grasses to slow or trap pollutants and storm runoff (submitted by Nathan Hoppe, Dan LeVine, and Jennifer Loeffler).
  • A sustainable landscape makeover, beginning with a pilot area surrounding the Harry Ransom Center, where current landscaping is replaced by native plant species (submitted by Hank Star and Timothy Eischen).
  • Incentives for Sustainable Transportation on Campus in the form of (a) new bike racks and incentives for those who register their bikes with UT, and (b) air compressors and tire gauges in every UT garage and discounts for those who use them (submitted by Andrew Lee, Sloan Richey, and Anna Schneider).

EVS students will build on their experience with their Green Fee Proposals and the resulting projects throughout their time at UT-Austin, and we expect many to use their Green Fee ideas as the foundation of their senior research.

Acquiring the Skills: Research Methods for Environmental Scientists

Challenges to sustainability require an interdisciplinary perspective. In Research Methods—taken in the spring of the second year of the program—EVS students begin learning the interdisciplinary research and collaboration skills essential to addressing those challenges. EVS students are introduced to the fundamentals of the scientific process through student-designed research projects addressing complex sustainability issues associated with urban watersheds, including the Waller Creek watershed. Students form teams of researchers and, through readings of primary literature and group discussion, select a research topic. Each student is responsible for a particular aspect of the research, and every two weeks the students participate in biweekly round-table discussions of their findings, helping them share and build upon each other’s work. General project development, design, analysis and presentation are addressed in a weekly lecture, but the collaborative aspect of the laboratory portion of the course—from problem identification, todata collection and interpretation, to final research findings and presentation—teaches EVS students the tools they will need to lead successful problem-solving teams in the future.

Solving the Problems: Senior Research Immersion

photo of students exploring sustainability on the UT Austin campus
EVS students join Larry Maginnis, Urban Forrester, on their tour of the UT-Austin campus. This tour introduces students to the prospects of exploring sustainability in their own back yard.

The hands-on field and research experience gained by EVS students throughout their first three years in the program is brought to bear when, in their final year in the program, they design, execute, and communicate the results of their own environmental science research project. EVS students are mentored by the faculty member of their choosing as they complete this research. Then, in a later senior seminar, the students receive additional training in communication (using their research results).

This year, the first EVS students will be completing their senior research. The variety of projects demonstrates just how far science must reach for sustainable answers to today’s environmental challenges. From sediment transport process responses to climate change with Dr. Wonsuk Kim of the Jackson School of Geosciences, to Dr. Jim McClelland of the UT Marine Science Institute.

Making a Living While Saving the World: Opportunities in Sustainability

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Growth Projections, employment for environmental scientists is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations, and are expected to increase by 28% from 2008-2018.1 The Projections note that “[m]uch job growth will result from a continued need to monitor the quality of the environment, to interpret the impact of human actions on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and to develop strategies for restoring ecosystems.” Students will begin graduating with EVS degrees in December 2011. And as a result of their collaborative training, hands-on experience, and interdisciplinary perspective, these and future EVS students be well- suited to meet that growing need.

References

  1. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Environmental Scientists and Specialists. Available at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos311.htm (Accessed August 15, 2011).