Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Going green

New academic program, center to focus on environment

February 1, 2010

by Tom Parisi

NIU is gearing up to launch a new interdisciplinary environmental studies program that will provide students with broad-based knowledge of key 21st century environmental issues, such as climate change, water conservation and development of alternative energies.

Kendall ThuA newly reworked minor in the subject area will debut next fall, with plans to initiate a major in environmental studies a year later, pending approval from the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Eventually, the university intends to offer graduate studies in the subject area as well.

NIU’s strategic planning process identified strong faculty interest in the development of the environmental studies program. It aims to meet pressing social and scientific needs for a workforce that possesses a wide-ranging understanding of environmental and energy-related issues.

“Students are very in tune with environmental issues, and there’s a tremendous interest in this growing field, which has fast become part of the new economy,” said Melissa Lenczewski, a professor of geology and geosciences who is serving as interim director of environmental studies.

“I’m constantly getting e-mails from students asking, ‘When can I major in this?’ ” Lenczewski added.

Students will learn to apply foundational and theoretical knowledge from engineering, the humanities and the natural and social sciences to current environmental issues and policies. Courses will be taught by faculty in anthropology, biology, engineering, geography, geology, history, law, philosophy, political science, technology and other fields.

The environmental studies minor and major will open a wide range of career options with corporations, consulting firms, conservation agencies, environmental research laboratories, government and community planning organizations and overseas non-governmental organizations.

“More and more companies are thinking about their environmental or carbon footprints as part of their corporate models, and they’re finding an in-house need for people who can address these issues,” said Christopher McCord, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Environmental awareness has become a deep part of our societal awareness,” McCord said. “The new major and minor will be attractive areas of study for many students and will complement existing, more-focused areas of study, such as environmental geosciences or environmental biology. We’re positioned now to offer a wide variety of degree opportunities.”

A new Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy (initially to be housed in Montgomery Hall) will be established to oversee the academic programs.

The colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Engineering and Engineering Technology, which together spearheaded development of environmental studies, anticipate having an institute director in place by July 1. Strategic planning funds were earmarked for the post. Additionally, the colleges hope to add as many as six new faculty associates of the institute over the next four years.

“The institute also will bring together faculty from various disciplines across campus to ramp up research efforts in environmental and alternative-energy issues,” said Promod Vohra, dean of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology. “We envision that it will serve as a resource for the university and the region.”

NIU researchers are world leaders on the issue of climate change and also have strengths in environmental law and policy, energy technology, alternative fuels, environmental restoration, water quality and the links between environment and society.

“In our efforts to be responsive and engaged with the emerging needs of the region, the proposed institute will not only address the energy and environment issues at the regional level but also will be in line with national strategic priorities,” Vohra said. “It is yet another example of faculty from various disciplines coming together to develop innovative curriculum to render our students more relevant and functional.”

Five new courses have already been developed for the minor and will be offered next fall or in the spring of 2011:

  • Environmental Science, focusing on the physical environment and topics such as climate change (ENVS 301);
  • Biological Systems, concentrating on environmental restoration, wetland issues and the loss of biodiversity (ENVS 302);
  • Environment in the Social Sciences and Humanities, exploring how humans interact with the environment (ENVS 303);
  • Environmental Policy, delving into the laws, politics and economics behind the issues (ENVS 304); and
  • Green Technology, spotlighting alternative energies and other green technologies (ENVS 305).

Environmental Studies also has started a new speaker series this semester. Upcoming presenters include philosophy professor Jason Hanna, who will speak on moral responsibility and global climate change, and geography professor David Goldblum, who will discuss the likely impact of climate change on Canadian forests.

For a listing of events and more information on Environmental Studies, visit