UW News

May 31, 2007

Program on the Environment

Mining the expertise at the UW has allowed the Program on the Environment (PoE) to generate as many bachelor’s degrees, about 50 each year, as some departments do, all without having any faculty of its own. And this year it has won a Brotman Award for Instructional Excellence.

The Program on the Environment is the UW’s largest universitywide, interdisciplinary program both in terms of the number of students served and the number of departments it spans, according to David Secord, the director of the program in recent years.

“The intellectual breadth is much more inclusive than most other academic units,” he says, “Some 35 or 40 departments in 10 schools and colleges.” Secord just left the UW to work for the conservation-oriented Wilburforce Foundation in Seattle.

In nominating the program for the award, senior Laura Knudsen wrote, “I intend to enter the environmental policy arena upon graduation and I feel that learning the different approaches that multiple disciplines possess about environmental policy has proved invaluable to my career goals. As a result I have taken classes with students in the UW Business School as well as the forestry, women studies, biology, mechanical engineering and chemical engineering departments.

“One of my favorite interdisciplinary experiences with PoE is occurring this quarter in ENVIR 442, which is an engineering class on renewable energy technologies. I am able to understand from an engineering perspective the benefits and disadvantages to renewable technologies and also how those systems actually function. Furthermore I am able to network with engineers who are familiar with renewable energy.”

At the undergraduate level, the Program on the Environment offers a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, a minor in environmental studies and a certificate in restoration ecology. It also offers two graduate certificates. Students conduct field work in such places as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Australia, India and Seattle urban ecosystems.

“PoE recognizes that a narrowly regional or even national approach to environmental education is no longer acceptable in the modern era,” says David Fenner, assistant vice provost and director of international programs and exchanges. “No other unit is so demonstrably global in its range and scope, and the PoE program has acknowledged and harnessed that reality from the beginning.

“Concrete examples of the impact on students abound: The capstone presentations of PoE students are a marvel of synthesis, exploration and youthful discovery. These students tackle complicated issues and wrestle them into effective and educational presentations. In all of these cases through the application of what they are learning, PoE faculty and students make their textbooks literally come alive.”

Shari Davis, a UW graduate, says her capstone project with the Program on the Environment and the Restoration Ecology Network was the highlight of her undergraduate experience.

“I learned so much as the project manager for my restoration team. As part of the capstone experience, I completed an analysis paper and an integrative essay to describe and evaluate my experiences. In addition, my team and I drafted a 70-page summary report documenting all of the work we accomplished with our Restoration Ecology Network project. The REN program provides the practical, team-oriented, field work experience that has proven to be very useful in my recent job search,” says Davis, who accepted a job as an environmental scientist at Sound Environmental Strategies in Seattle.

Created in 1997, the Program on the Environment last fall launched a new curriculum, shepherded by its undergraduate program coordinator Michelle Hall, and based on new learning goals developed with universitywide input from faculty.

“Sustaining this level of transdisciplinary innovation is a central challenge of excellent — but still largely balkanized — places like the UW,” Secord says. “Yet it is key to graduates’ success at tackling gnarly problems we’ll face in the coming decades.”

The program is contributing to environmental education nationally through the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors, presentations at national meetings and publications such as the Education Forum piece in Science magazine last June focusing on collaborative ecological restoration as taught and practiced by the UW.