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March 11, 2000

UW-RF Adds Environmental Science Major

A new interdisciplinary major in environmental sciences has been approved for UW-River Falls.

The newest major received final approval from the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents on March 10.

Chancellor Gary A. Thibodeau said the major is a reflection of the University's commitment to societal needs and to its dedication of finding effective approaches to accessing faculty expertise in new academic settings.

"Society is on the threshhold of extensive reconsideration of how to build sustainable communities that minimize our impact on the environment and on natural resources. Our new major will incorporate our exceptional strengths in the sciences across the entire University to broadly train our students in all considerations of the environment so that they can immediately and effectively make a substantial contribution to resolving these important concerns," Thibodeau said.

The environmental science major will draw from faculty expertise from both the College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences and the College of Arts & Sciences. Six departments are represented: Plant and Earth Science, which was recognized with the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents Award for Teaching Excellence; Chemisty and Physics, which is designated as a Regents Center of Excellence in Undergraduate Education; as well as the departments of Biology, Geography and Agricultural Engineering Technology.

The major allows students to focus on a wide range of environmental science. Graduates will have widespread employment opportunities in the environmental sciences, including some with a distinct agricultural emphasis, as well as a solid base to pursue an advanced degree. Employment opportunities could include management of water quality, air quality, solid waste, or hazardous waste; independent consulting; regulatory agencies; pollution abatement; compliance auditors; and corporate environmental health and safety technicians.

Starting salaries in some of those areas could reach $40,000. UW-RF will enroll 23 students in the major next fall and include 35 students by 2004.

CAFES Dean William Anderson says graduates will have strong success at finding employment. "We will be capitalizing on our strengths in six different departments, which is very unusual for colleges nationally. We will be creating broadly trained graduates who will help the industries affected by environmental sciences to upgrade the quality of their work force."

Coordinating the new major is plant and earth science Professor Michael Kaltenberg, who, with Professors Kelly Cain and Kerry Keen, explained the goals for the new major.

Students will be educated to address environmental issues that requires them to be well-versed in interdisciplinary technical information gathering, analysis and remediation techniques, to communicate their findings clearly to others, and to work comfortably with extensive state and federal regulations in a socially responsible way.

Students will take 36 credits of study in the major, and will be required to participate in a new freshman colloquium that will introduce them to employment opportunities and fields of study. Hands-on service-learning experiences also are built into the programs, with many students participating in field experiences both in the South Fork of the Kinnickinnic River that traverses the campus, as well as in the St. Croix River watershed.

Further, students will take a senior seminar that enhances their job search skills, and which also will emphasize communication skills.

Of the latter, Keen noted that those in the environmental sciences often are confronted with difficult communication scenarios. As professionals, they must be adept at gathering and interpreting scientific data and then explaining it to others, including specialists and the general public. Those in the profession often are called on to translate their findings to laypersons in potentially hostile settings.

Overall, the program will stress flexibility in learning, Kaltenberg said. "That's inherent for the major since technology changes over time and our graduates will have to grow in their skills as the need requires. They will be broadly educated so they can change as their specialty area advances," Kaltenberg noted.

Cain added that the consolidation of many varied scientific disciplines will enable students to see how those sciences interact when addressing environmental issues.

"In environmental areas, issues are becoming much more complicated," Cain noted. "Substantial progress has been made on addressing some of the issues that could be easily resolved. Now society is addressing the more complex issues that require both a science and a social consideration. There is a need for students who can take on these responsibilities to effectively address new challenges."

Cain added that environmental problems do not respect political boundaries: a problem created in one community can affect many others, whether they are cities or states. "There is a need for graduates to deal with the environment and the social sensitivities as problems cross those boundaries. If you are used to dealing in that arena, there are a lot of opportunities."

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