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December 13, 2004

New courses will offer hands-on training to environmental studies majors

By Jennifer McNulty

Despite the growth of professional opportunities in environmental science, many students can find it tricky to land that first job after college.

Many settle for internships as a way to beef up their skills base. Others opt for graduate school.

That wasn't good enough for environmental studies professor Daniel Press, who was convinced that the Environmental Studies Department could do a better job of preparing majors for the workforce. “No one should have to get a master's degree or do a bunch of internships to get a job,” said Press, now chair of the department.

Press sketched out a lean proposal for a new concentration in environmental management designed to give students the hands-on tools they will need in the workplace. He appealed to the Henry Luce Foundation for funds, and beginning in fall 2005, the first of six new courses will offer environmental studies majors fieldwork opportunities in ecology-based and policy-based environmental science, and communication for environmental managers. More courses will follow in subsequent years, and internships will give students a chance to refine their new skills before graduation.

“There is always tension between basic and applied research, and that spills over into teaching, but in environmental studies, nobody argues with the idea that you should do problem solving,” said Press. “These new courses will give students the hands-on skills they need to go out and solve problems.”

Courses in land and watershed management will give students “real-world” experience in areas such as controlled burns, erosion control, wetlands restoration, and water-quality monitoring. A new geographic information systems (GIS) lab course will emphasize the needs of “clients” from county planning departments and park districts to land trusts.

Policy-based courses will address the needs of business and industry, from regulatory compliance to the latest proactive strategies employed by private-sector environmental management departments to manage energy, materials, and waste. Students will learn to conduct audits of air emissions, water pollutant discharges, and hazardous material and waste management, as well as other skills.

Many of these opportunities require traveling outside the Santa Cruz area, noted Press. “If students want to work with federal agencies, they have to be in San Francisco or Washington, D.C.,” he said. “If they want to audit petroleum refineries, they have to do that in Richmond or Long Beach.”

The new field-study courses will be relatively expensive to offer because they require low instructor-student ratios and involve travel costs and liability issues, but the department kept costs down by building on existing curricula and utilizing existing faculty, staff, and practitioners, said Press. The Luce Foundation contributed $210,000, and the campus has provided $60,000 for the five-year pilot program.

In addition, writing and multimedia communication will be the focus of two courses that will teach students to prepare everything from a press release to a public presentation enhanced by PowerPoint visual aids. Small stipends will support students during post-course internships.

“It might not sound very glamorous, but this is the stuff of environmental science, and it has to be done,” said Press.

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