A way to ‘step out of your academic boundaries’

Environmental studies celebrated its tenth anniversary last year; fourth-year program offers chance to apply lessons from the classroom

Brian Cumming of the School of Environmental Studies.
Brian Cumming of the School of Environmental Studies.
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Last year, the School of Environmental Studies celebrated its tenth anniversary.

Since opening in 1995, the school has grown in both size and breadth, said Brian Cumming, acting director. He said the school has evolved from offering a subject of specialization program, integrated with core science subjects, to become an interdisciplinary field of study that incorporates sciences and humanities.

“Initially there was more of a science focus,” he said. “I think our strength is still maintaining a strong
science core, but we’re still working on a strong social sciences core.” Professors teaching in the School of Environmental Studies also teach in their respective departments, taking on a half-load in each department. Professors come from departments such as biology, chemistry, geology and geography, as well as philosophy, economics and women’s studies. “We build on each other’s
expertise,” Cumming said. “We have people who [work with] similar issues, but very different perspectives.” There are two paths within the School of Environmental Studies: environmental studies and environmental sciences. Stephen Brown, undergraduate chair, said students can get either a minor or a medial in environmental studies, which counts as an arts degree.

“There’s a little bit of required science at the first-year level, just background courses that everyone in [the program] needs,” he said. “The rest of the program is integrated science and social science courses.” Environmental sciences is a major program, which has a lot of the integrated courses as well,
but includes more extensive science course requirements, Brown said. Students working towards a degree in biology, geography, chemistry, geology or life sciences can also get subject of specialization (SSP) in environmental studies. The students end up essentially taking a major in that topic, and then doing extra courses for the SSP that come from the integrated environmental courses,” he said. Brown said the program’s main emphasis is for students to get an appreciation for its interdisciplinary scope. “They need to look at issues from multiple perspectives to really understand them,” he said.
He said Queen’s environmental studies program stands out among similar programs throughout Canada. “It’s stronger than other environmental programs at other universities which don’t have a science focus,” he said. “That’s one niche we tried to fill and maintain.’ “There’s definitely a growing
interest in students coming to Queen’s in … adding environment to the things they’re studying,” Brown said. Most environmental studies courses are open to students outside of the discipline.

“We like to have the mix,” Brown said. Students who graduate with a degree in environmental studies or sciences follow a variety of different paths from masters programs to other professional schools, research to assessment work with companies, and field work, Brown said. Jessica Wright, ArtSci ’07 and a DSC representative for the environmental studies program, said the interdisciplinary approach
of the program is important. “Environmental issues are so intense and diverse,” she said. “You have to take courses from different disciplines … everything interconnects.” Laura Duncanson, also ArtSci ’07 and a DSC representative, agreed. “You are forced to step out of your academic boundaries … it
prepares you in a much broader way,” she said. But, Duncanson said the mixture of classes was also a bit of a drawback because it is difficult to make room for electives such as physics, which is required by many environmental sciences graduate programs. “Right now I’m having difficulty finding a masters program I can get into,” she said. In fourth year, environmental studies students can take ENSC 410—Honours Projects in Environmental Sustainability—in which they apply the information and skills they have learned to a specific project. “Last year that class worked on a paper describing the state of the environment in Kingston, and that paper was prepared for and with the Green party,” Brown said. “It has since evolved into a publication that the local Green party is managing.”

This year the class is working with the AMS Sustainability Office, putting together a proposal to turn Macgillivray-Brown Hall into a sustainable building, but that program is still in the works. Duncanson said the hands-on experience is a valuable part of the program. “We’re actually doing something, instead of taking a theoretical standpoint,” she said.

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