Sell Us Your Major: Environmental Studies

This column is devoted to sharing student and faculty input on the various majors offered at Lawrence. The goal is to highlight areas of study that are not well known and to provide undecided students an inside look at things they may want to study.


Each part of our environment is balanced with another, and from that balance we shape our communities, social structures, cultures and lifestyles. As one part of the balance shifts, so do our lifestyles, and vice versa. This is one of the ideas that students and faculty in the Environmental Studies Department at Lawrence University are grappling with in order to be active in optimistic problem solving in the face of environmental issues.

Environmental Studies is a discipline that works to understand the core of environmental issues in our world today. This is based in a scientific understanding. In order to apply those understandings, students must also learn how culture, politics and the broader scope of humanities affect our interaction with the natural world in order to develop solutions to environmental issues that can be effective.

Associate Professor of Geology Jeffrey Clark stated, “Environmental Studies is about the living and nonliving, the natural and the built environment, humans and nature. It’s about their interaction. And people spend a lot of time trying to figure out what nature means and how separate it is from people.”

With a foundation in scientific analysis, Environmental Studies is dependent on how that scientific analysis reaches out to affect others. In this way, it melds effortlessly with the interconnected model of a liberal arts education. Clark said, “In environmental studies, in order to understand and to propose solutions, you have to understand what the problem is. This involves scientific inquiry. This may lead to solutions, but those solutions have to be implemented in a particular political, economic and cultural context. And so all those pieces make up environmental studies.”

“We could also think about how philosophy and history work into this,” Clark continued. “They discuss what our conception of the environment is through time and how that has evolved, or how that might be handled ethically. Also, how people create art is affected by the environment. We express their views and passions with the environment.”

For Clark, one of the most important facets of his teaching is being able to work closely with his students as they are learning and challenging themselves in new ways. “I really like small lab sections because I get to work closely with students,” he said. “I think we all like to share our experiences and ideas. I like to hear about new ideas from students and I like to share my experiences and ideas with them.”

Not only does Clark see these small lab sections as opportunities to share perspectives among one another, but he also values how these small lab sections allow for student led engagement opportunities. For example, a group of environmental studies students created the Sustainable Lawrence University Garden (SLUG) about twelve years ago out of a class that Clark was offering. The class started at the beginning of January, and by June, SLUG was already producing its first harvest of spinach.

“It just happened really quickly,” Clark reflected. “You can go from zero to implementation in this sort of a setting as long as people agree that there is some great idea.”

Clark also linked his department of Environmental Studies to the Freshman Studies program. He stated, “When I think about Freshman Studies, I think about showing that there are many different ways to think about the world; scientific, historic, artistic and philosophical. Through different works, Freshman Studies asks how we engage with our world around us and how we think critically. I think Environmental Studies fits in perfectly with that. You take any given environmental issue and it’s complicated and there are many different ways to approach it. It’s good citizenship and engagement building in that way, thinking about things through different perspectives.”

In the scope of their education, Clark aspires to give his students the tools necessary to get engaged with change. He wants students to leave Lawrence thinking ‘what now’ when they see that all the ways humans are impacting the environment.

“I try to bring them to a place where they understand that it doesn’t mean that things can’t change,” Clark said. “Things can change. I hope they have some optimism as long as they’re going to engage in process. Nothing just changes. There are people driving it. We have to recognize that change happens if we’re willing to engage.”

Clark elaborated this thought as he stated, “We have an apiary. That’s not legal in the city of Appleton, bees are considered livestock. But students on campus wanted to start bees as part of SLUG operation. The city said we aren’t zoned for it. So they worked very hard to do one simple thing, to get a variance for educational institutions. They were successful, but it took a year and a half. Through this, they got to see how to be politically engaged on the local level and how to gather local support. That is the kind of engagement we need; you see something that needs to change and you’re going to work towards it.”

At Lawrence University, the Environmental Studies department helps to expose the inner workings of our world and to wrestle with the role we play in both helping and hurting it. During this process, the department equips students with the skills to be optimistic about their ability to make an impact and to engage in change.