University’s environmental requirement draws criticism

Students and others voiced concerns that the requirements are too broad and trivial.

Angela Gray

In a fast-paced and quickly changing world, new technology and modern approaches to education are vital.

The University’s liberal education requirements include four designed themes and cores.

Of those, an environmental theme, which is defined as the knowledge of the interdependence of the environment and human social and cultural systems, stirs competing arguments.

Linda Ellinger, assistant vice provost, said a task force consisting of students and staff was designed to create the undergraduate requirements in the early 90s.

Ellinger said that originally, each University college had a different interpretation of the undergraduate requirements, but the University decided to implement uniform standards throughout the colleges because administrators wanted the values of the institution to be reflected as a whole.

She said the required environmental theme originally was proposed as optional.

“The environmental theme was less popular with staff and students, but we felt a strong value for it here at the University,” she said.

She said that in the next few years, the University will need to re-analyze undergraduate requirements.

“From time to time, we need to step back and ask ourselves if the requirements are preparing students for (life) after college,” she said.

Bill Ganzlin, director of student services for the College of Natural Resources, said having many themes and core requirements creates a well-rounded curriculum.

“It’s good to have an understanding of issues inside a student’s major and outside of it,” he said.

He said the required themes are designed specifically to give supplemental background for students’ future careers and everyday life.

Jim Bowyer, professor in bio-based products, said the University needs a substantial course on the environment that examines key environmental issues in the context of population and economic growth. 

“It is not sufficient or even useful to require students to take a course on the environment and to then present students with an array of literally hundreds of courses that vary from the trivial to the substantial and to allow any one to satisfy the environmental requirement,” he said.

Bowyer said he thinks it would be more effective if there were fewer, more focused and substantial courses that filled the requirement.

Rob Fisk, president of the environmental studies club, said the vast range of courses that fulfill the environmental theme doesn’t allow students to get a full understanding of how the environment works.

“I’m graduating in May with an environment and natural resources degree and there is plenty left for me to learn still,” he said.

But he said he thinks at least one core requirement with an environmental focus is necessary for a well-rounded education.

Tom Pace, University of Iowa program assistant for registry and graduate analysis, said that for the Iowa undergraduate program, there is a natural science course requirement which includes seven hours of work over a semester.

He said the University of Minnesota has a “very different” system of requirements.

“The “U’ has a general requirement for everything,” he said. “They have a lot more general requirements than we do.”

Josh Baller, genetics and mathematics sophomore, said some requirements are unnecessary.

“I have the hardest time with finding something that fulfills a requirement and helps my major and gets some synergy going,” he said.

While University students work on completing their environmental requirements, a new generation of students is gaining environmental knowledge even earlier.

Danny Olsen, media relations representative for Strother Communications Group, which is handling promotions for a new interactive online educational program, said there has been a recent push for educating K-12 students about the environment.

This February, 900 K-12 schools in Minnesota will be participating in the adventure learning program “Go North! Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 2006.” The program delivers an online curriculum centered on the realities of oil exploration and the search for renewable resources in the environment.

“Many teachers went straight to the school board and demanded new approaches to broader ideas in education,” Olsen said. “Most classrooms just learn from textbooks and cover history and math.”

Programs like “GoNorth!” extend the reach of the classroom.

University professor Aaron Doering will be helping to deliver the online curriculum.