Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science is now offering a new major in Climate and Environmental Studies


Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science has launched a new degree in climate studies. The major integrates the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities to give students a comprehensive perspective on climate change, its challenges, and its potential solutions. Students can now declare their major and choose from an exciting list of new courses in the fall semester 2022. This is an innovative approach to studying climate, as existing climate majors at leading US universities generally focus on climate science.

The degree program was set up with a cross-institutional approach right from the start. David J. HessProfessor of Sociology, James Thornton Fant Chair in Sustainability Studies and Director of the newly appointed Program climate and environmental studies; Jonathan GilliganAssociate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Civil and Environmental Engineering and Associate Director of Research at the Vanderbilt Climate Change Research Network; and Betsey A RobinsonAssociate Professor of History of Art and Architecture, were all co-chairs of the faculty committee that developed the major.

David J. Hess

“We built this degree at a time when there is increasing recognition at the highest level of science and research that climate change is fundamentally an interdisciplinary problem that requires research and synthesis of knowledge across many disciplines,” said Hess. “Part of the motivation for creating this degree is to address the global need to educate the world’s future leaders in interdisciplinary approaches to climate change and other major challenges facing society.”

Jonathan M Gilligan

Climate science students receive a solid foundation through an interdisciplinary introduction to the field taught in a team, a focused course in climate science, and at least one course in climate and environmental studies in the social sciences, science, and humanities. All students take two courses in methods and practices such as Statistics, GIS, 3D Imaging/Virtual Reality, Communication and Technical Writing. Initially, most courses are offered by the College of Arts and Science, the School of Engineering, and Peabody College. Elective courses and immersion opportunities allow students to develop their mastery in a discipline or gain additional research or practical experience. In the coming years, the major is expected to expand with course offerings at other colleges and the addition of a thesis and internship component. There are also many opportunities for students to get involved in a “living lab” in Nashville and the surrounding area. “The Climate Studies major will provide highly visible connection points to make it easier for students and faculty to connect with communities and government agencies to collaborate on these important issues,” Hess said.

Betsy Robinson

“This major is both powerful and unique because it uses a multifaceted, problem-based approach,” said John Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy, dean of the College of Arts and Science. “Climate change is perhaps the most pressing problem of our time. Part of the college’s mission is to address critical problems and find effective solutions to them. I am thrilled that we are launching this new degree in such a creatively interdisciplinary way – Vanderbilt way.”

A number of Vanderbilt departments already contribute to the environmental curriculum across campus, including majors in Ecology, Evolution, and Organism Biology; an environmental science course within the life sciences; a major in Environmental Sociology; a minor in Environmental and Sustainability Studies; a cluster of courses in environmental anthropology; and a regular rotation of classes in environmental humanities. There is also an environmental policy path within the public policy program, an environmental engineering discipline within civil engineering and related courses at Peabody.

The new course in climate studies emerged from the College of Arts and Science Grand Challenge Initiativethe 2020 began and includes a climate and society project. “There has been a lot of interest from students and faculty in creating an interdisciplinary course that will encompass all departments at A&S, examine climate change from a variety of perspectives and encourage conversation and teamwork across disciplines,” said Gilligan.

Geer asked the interested faculty to develop a proposal for the new major. Led by Hess, Gilligan, and Robinson, and involving A&S colleagues from the humanities, social sciences, science, Peabody, and engineering faculties, the group fleshed out the structure and requirements for the major. Joe Bandydeputy director of Center for Teaching and senior teacher in sociologyled the group in developing goals for the program in four areas: knowledge, skills, attitudes, and ethics and values.

“There is no other program in the country that is approaching climate in this way,” Robinson said. “Many address the sciences, but we also emphasize the value of the humanities. We need to delve into history, culture, religion and ethics, art and design, and many other areas to truly understand the impact we have had and are having on our planet. We also need to be able to look ahead to where we’re going. This is not possible without the humanities.”

The course is flexible and can be combined with any other course. A dual major in science or social sciences could prepare students for postgraduate studies in climate science, environmental policy and justice, and many other fields. The major is intended to appeal to students interested in law, economics, public health, medicine, design and urban studies. It will enable graduates to pursue nearly limitless opportunities in entrepreneurship and green finance, consulting, human services, energy and transportation, food and produce, waste and recycling, conservation and heritage management, education, technical writing and journalism. In short, it’s a major for the 21st centurySt Century.

“We look forward to welcoming students of all backgrounds and interests to learn about climate and society – past, present and future,” said Robinson. “Wherever their careers take them, climate students will understand climate change and acquire the knowledge and skills to be thoughtful, responsible members and leaders of society in the future.”

In addition to Gilligan, Hess, and Robinson, the executive faculty committee for the Climate and Environmental Studies program includes faculty members Markus Abkowitz, Brooke Ackerly, Joe Bandy, Beth Conklin, Larisa DeSantis, Teresa Goddu, Patrick Greiner, Amanda Klein, Jolanda McDonald, Ole Molvig, Dan Morgan, Jessica Easter, Paul Stob, Anand Taneja, Lori Troxel and Matthew Zaragoza Watkins.

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