All interdisciplinary programs, from African American studies to women’s studies, draw from various disciplines, which make the design of interdisciplinary programs more complex than a traditional discipline such as biology or political science. The design of environmental programs is made more complex because it includes the natural sciences as well as the social sciences and humanities, and it can be tied to a pre-professional program such as natural resource management. The result is that there is more variety in environmental programs than in any other academic program. Each type of program has its own basic philosophy, goal, strengths and limitations.
There are three common ways to shape an undergraduate environmental program.
- Pre-Professional Program
A pre-professional program focuses on vocational training. It comes after the completion of a liberal arts education in the first two years of college. Emphasis is in-depth disciplinary knowledge and what is called “instrumental rationality”: the ability to use reason to work effectively within an accepted social system. Such programs are usually and gain entry-level jobs.
Examples: Natural resources at UW-Stevens Point and nursing and education programs at UW Oshkosh.
- Specialized Interdisciplinary Programs
A specialized interdisciplinary program focuses on from several disciplines within a division. For instance, an Environmental Science program integrates knowledge from biology, geology, chemistry, and geography. An Environmental Policy program focuses on political science, economics, and sociology. Such programs develop extensive and deep expertise within that branch of knowledge and prepares students for graduate school or entry-level jobs.
Examples: ES and environmental policy majors at UW-Green Bay and the conservation and environmental science program at UW-Milwaukee.
- Fully Interdisciplinary, Liberal Art Programs
Examples: ES at UW Oshkosh and UW Madison.
A fully interdisciplinary program considers environmental issues within the framework of a broad, interdisciplinary education. It draws on and integrates knowledge from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Such a program develops the student’s ability to recognize and deal effectively with the full complexity of environmental issues: scientific facts, political theories, economic principles, ethical issues, aesthetic values, etc. In doing so, it develops the student’s ability to:
- recognize how ideas, values, and practical problems require knowledge of various disciplines
- integrate knowledge from various disciplines in understanding ideas and values and in solving practical problems
- evaluate differing positions and arguments in a rational and open-minded way
- “think out of the box.”
Liberal Arts Program
The ES program also is firmly based in the liberal arts at UW Oshkosh.
What is Liberal Arts?
"A liberal arts education transcends preparation for specific careers. A liberal arts education prepares students to be responsible citizens who understand and contribute to the changing world in which they live. It exposes students to a broad spectrum of knowledge about the human experience and the natural world, from contemporary science to literature, music and art. It enhances the skills of communication and critical thinking. It challenges students to appreciate their cultural heritage, to be sensitive to diverse traditions and opinions and to value truth. It encourages students to develop a lifelong commitment to inquiry. In sum, a liberal arts education develops the whole person who values knowledge for its own sake as well as for the achievement of specific objectives."
Placed within the framework and goals of liberal arts, an ES program challenges students:
- with a variety of approaches, genres, and sensitivities to nature, from science to poetry, in order to develop a more rounded perspective on nature and society
- by studying the way various cultures and historical periods have thought about and interacted with nature and society
- by exposing them to a variety of environmental and political perspectives, some of which are very different from the dominant ideologies of our time.
These challenges develop what is called “substantive rationality:” the use of reason to critically analyze and assess fundamental ideas, values and worldviews, including those that are accepted in our society. Such a program enables students to think critically and creatively about complex environmental issues. We feel that such ability is essential to the student’s future career and to the student becoming an informed and responsible citizen able to engage in the complex and ever-changing issues faced by members of a democracy.
With this emphasis on critical thinking, career preparation in such a program is not limited to vocational training. It also aims at developing the ability of students to become creative in their fields, and to become leaders in their fields. In addition, the interdisciplinary nature of the program gives students a greater ability to change fields during their career. Changing field, and even careers, is not uncommon, and environmental careers are rapidly expanding and diversifying. Thus it has been argued that “environmental studies should educate students for careers that don’t yet exist.” We believe a fully interdisciplinary program is the best way to do that.
A Challenging Program
UW Oshkosh's ES program is challenging in various ways.
- The courses themselves are rigorous, demanding substantial study time and high-level intellectual engagement.
- Students must be able to do well in a broad range of courses, including the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.
- Students are challenged to consider a wide diversity of political, philosophical, and cultural perspectives and various approaches to environmental problems.
- Students engage in "substantial rationality," using critical thinking to questions basic assumptions and values as well as employing creative thinking to form their own worldview.
- Students must be able to integrate knowledge from various disciplines, particularly in the interdisciplinary seminars ES 370: Environmental Science, Policy, and Problem Solving and ES 490: Senior Seminar
- In the capstone Senior Seminar, students are required to complete an honors-type senior thesis.
- Students must take the initiative to follow through with the ES career preparation program, which encourages students to gain practical experience and gives guidance on learning about ES careers and jobs.