Students could see environmental studies as a selectable major as soon as 2024.
The Student Government Association at the University of Memphis passed the "Keeping up With Climate Change" bill, presented by the environmental committee, to create and add an environmental studies major to the curriculum.
The vote was unanimous among the senators who attended the Town Hall on February 17.
"The world is changing. Issues of climate change and global warming are coming to the forefront. It's much more common now for schools to offer [environmental studies] programs like this, and Memphis needs to jump on board," said Jamie Baroff, chair of the SGA environmental committee and creator of the bill.
U.S. News & World Report 2022 lists the University of Memphis as one of Tennessee's top 10 colleges/universities among Vanderbilt and Union. Yet, of the 10, U of M is the only institution that does not offer an environmental studies major or approved equivalent. At least, as of now.
Now that the bill has passed, the next step is finding a home for the environmental studies major, either in the College of Arts and Sciences or the College of Professional & Liberal Studies and determining whether new courses need to be added to accommodate the major.
However, before any progress can be made, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission must first approve the bill.
Baroff, along with the assistance of Dr. Ron Serino, the director of interdisciplinary studies for the College of Arts and Sciences, created a potential four-year undergraduate track from existing courses taught at the University of Memphis.
When factoring in current earth science courses, environmental studies minor courses, and the 16 faculty and advisors associated with that minor, the University of Memphis possesses nearly all the classes and faculty necessary for an environmental studies major.
Depending on which college is decided upon, there may not be a need for additional courses, alleviating concerns about the present labor shortage.
“This kind of information of student and employer demand helps us to make this case to the state on why we need to add this program,” said Serino.
Upon approval, the bill will be presented to the deans of both colleges, who will then deliberate and decide which college will house the major.
“Our college has a lot of the faculty, courses, and students who’d be interested in this program, and would be able to offer the program. That’s why I hope that it’s able to stay in the College of Arts and Sciences,” said Serino.
The College of Arts and Science houses the environmental studies minor, yet the process of adding a major to CAS is far more extensive than establishing a concentration in CPLS. Adding a major requires a presentation in front of state legislators and a signature of approval. Establishing a concentration only requires approval from the university.
“Our college is always ready and willing to assist our colleagues across campus with relevant degree programming for our U of M students,” said Dr. Joanne Gikas, associate dean of the College of Professional & Liberal Studies.
The implementation and approval of this curricular change, determined via administration, should be completed no later than the 2025 Fall semester.
In 2019-2020, environmental studies was the 85th most popular major nationwide, with 9,409 degrees awarded, a 3.9% increase from previous years, as reported by College Factual and Data USA.
Job opportunities in this field have also expanded. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of environmental scientists and specialists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2020 to 2030.
Some possible careers with a degree in environmental studies include land use planner, meteorologist, microbiologist, invasive species specialist, environmental lawyer, zoologist, soil and plant scientist, hydrologist, ecologist, sustainability consultant, nature conservation officer.
In her presentation to SGA, Jamie cited local environmental concerns such as the Byhalia pipeline, the Defense Depot on Airways Boulevard and the TVA Whitehaven-area landfill.
“I knew all of the examples I gave in the presentation, but still, having to specifically look at the statistics and the interviews of the people who are affected, it’s never easy,” said Baroff.
This bill is one of multiple steps the University of Memphis has taken to combat climate change and educate students on its effects. Others include the Lowenburg College of Nursing’s participation in the Nurses Climate Challenge and the Department of Earth Sciences Honors opportunities.