Environmental Studies Major Kicks Off First Course

“I’ve discovered I actually have a passion about caring for the environment, and I believe that will have a significant impact on how I observe the world,” said Bailey Partain ’24, speaking of the college’s new class, Environment and Society.

Environmental issues are increasingly serious in today’s world, and Houghton’s new Environmental Studies major was created to prepare students like Partain to address these challenges. The new major was kicked off this semester by the Environment and Society course, where students are beginning to see how contemporary society impacts the dynamic relationships between humans and the natural environment.

The issues students encounter and work through in this course have become meaningful for them. “I’ve had moments of more extreme emotion than expected…. I’ve felt sad about the amount of waste and pollution that has accumulated; I’ve been passionate about the overpopulation discussion, angry about the decline in wild species, and excited about different ways that I can do my part to influence the world for the better. The course has been influential but also compelling as it calls us to question our values and recognize our impacts,” Partain expressed.

The course focuses on three ideas: principles that direct human and environment interactions, important environmental challenges, and evaluating possible solutions to these challenges from a variety of perspectives. These directly address the larger aims of the Environmental Studies major—examining complex environmental issues facing the planet and learning effective strategies for responding to them.

Reading and lectures underpin the course, but Brian Webb, Houghton’s Sustainability Coordinator, who instructs the class, expressed that a major component is student engagement with the material. After reading, students post video responses to questions on Flipgrid, a video discussion platform. Webb finds this the most enjoyable aspect of the class: “It is clear from the videos that they’re not only being challenged with new content but are applying this learning to develop new holistic approaches to environmental problems.”

Flipgrid video discussion during a recent Environment and Society class

Students have also found this rewarding. “This has given me an opportunity to practice talking about what some would deem ‘controversial issues’ and simply think through the material I’m interacting with. It’s helping me become more articulate about issues I am so passionate about,” said student Vivian Rivers ’21.

Through such discussion, Webb and his students have created a space where learning comes from truly listening to one another, helping Houghton to position themselves in the “courageous middle,” where careful analysis, dialogue and debate are important in speaking about the complicated world.

Along with that, Webb noted that one of the largest outcomes of the class so far is students “opening [their] eyes up to how human behaviors impact the world at large.” He said that, though we do not typically think about it, just turning on a light or purchasing something from Amazon can have an impact we may not be aware of. As the class has progressed, students have become more aware of how human actions including these impact the natural environment, contributing to challenges like biodiversity loss, population growth and climate change.

Environment and Society is having an immediate impact on students’ personal choices. “I’m learning how to respond to questions I’ve gotten about my lifestyle as an environmentalist and how I can do better in continuing to alter my daily choices,” Rivers noted. Along with that, the class continues to lay a foundation for students’ practices in their future professionally. As students evaluate their actions and possible solutions to complex issues from social, political, scientific and ethical perspectives, they prepare themselves for future work in fields like environmental law, sustainability leadership and public policy.