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Number of Students Majoring in
Environmental Systems Continues on Upward Trajectory

Kim McDonald | Dec. 13, 2010

UC San Diego ESYS major Jamie Rhinehart took this photo of a water quality training exercise about five years ago while participating in an internship at the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

In only eight years, the undergraduate environmental science and policy program at UCSD, known as the Environmental Systems program, or ESYS, has grown from a handful of pioneering students to 270 majors. And this fall has been another banner year in growth.

“Last fall, we had 200 ESYS majors and this fall it’s increased to 270,” said Jane Teranes, associate director of the ESYS program.

Many of those undergraduate students are helping to improve the region’s environment by participating in yearlong internships and research projects with environmental and government agencies in the San Diego area. Because of these real-life job experiences, those students enter the local workforce or go on to graduate school better prepared to grapple with the environmental challenges of the future.

“We currently have 40 students involved in internships this fall and winter and we’ll add about another 10 to 15 this winter and spring,” said Teranes. “We have more students working on campus this year compared to other years, presumably because of the economy, but we’ve also seen a marked increase in the number of students working on campus sustainability projects. For example, we have about six students working with the sustainability resource center on the campus Climate Action Plan.”

Another trend Teranes is seeing among her students this year is more expressing interest in working on issues involving alternative energy. 

“We have several students working on local solar issues,” she said. “ESYS student Travis Bass is an intern with Gecko Logic up in North County and Frances Ho is an intern with URS Corporation and is working on Calico Solar and Imperial Valley Solar projects.”

What kinds of classroom experiences do ESYS students encounter? In addition to the basic science, math and environmental courses, they are required to take political science and economic science courses to understand environmental policy. But the most popular specialty or track within the ESYS major, Teranes said, is Ecology, Behavior and Evolution—in which about half of the students enroll.

Increased interest in ecology and the environment has also made the Ecology, Behavior and Evolution (EBE) biology major more popular among biology majors. And it’s increased the enrollments of ecology and evolutionary biology classes among non-majors.

“We’re overwhelmed with demand and our classes are absolutely packed,” said Joshua Kohn, chair of the EBE section of the Division of Biological Sciences.

“Last I checked, there were 170 Biology EBE majors and another 167 ESYS majors on the EBE track,” he said “The Biology EBE major had an explosive growth spurt two to three years ago when we grew from under 100 to around 160 in about a year. We would have more majors than we currently do if we were able to more reliably offer various labs and upper division courses needed for the major. But we currently have too few faculty to meet the demand.”

“One noticeable area of increase not reflected in numbers of majors has been the tremendous growth in demand for our courses,” he added. “Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (BILD3), the ecology and evolution part of the introductory biology series currently enrolls 50 percent more students than either of the other two introductory biology courses (BILD1, BILD2) in the series.”

Kohn said the current popularity among UCSD students in EBE courses reminds him of the 1970s when interest among college students in saving the planet had them flocking to ecology and evolutionary biology classes in droves.

“We are seeing another uptick again during the current environmental bubble,” he said.


What inspires me to focus my education on sustainability?

Susan Kram
I'm an Ecology, Behavior and Evolution Biology major and a Marine Science minor (a self-proclaimed marine biologist). I spent fall 2009 in South Africa doing a study centered on environmental conservation and the ecological study of various indigenous South African animals, such as the endangered Black Rhino. The course also emphasized the balance between meeting human needs in modern day society, while protecting and conserving indigenous species and their habitats. The study abroad was definitely connected to my interest in sustainability.

I like to study ecological biology to understand how our world works and how species interact with each other and their environments; and I like to practice sustainability, because I believe it to be the bridge for our society to properly co-inhabit the planet with other species.

What motivates me is a combination of the people around me and the beauty of nature which surrounds us. Working in the field of sustainability can be disheartening at times; the world can seem apathetic and progress is always slower than you'd want. But everyone I work with and interact with helps keep me focused on the goal. Sometimes we tell each other funny stories of sustainable things we did, or we vent about unsustainable actions that we saw. Either way, connecting with everyone is really important to me. And who isn't inspired by the natural beauty of our environment? For the most part, that's the end goal that I'm working towards...preserving the beauty of nature around us.

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