Launching the programme in Environmental Studies (ES) at Yale-NUS has been among the most satisfying challenges of my career. It ranks up there with framing the curriculum, hiring the faculty, and leading a 100-day around-the-world academic program as Academic Dean for Semester at Sea. As a researcher long interested in the design and delivery of interdisciplinary programs around environment (often with a global twist), the opportunity to help build a top ES programme has been a tremendous gift.
This happy outcome was never certain. When the inaugural class matriculated in 2013, then-president of the College Pericles Lewis warned me that 0% (i.e. ‘nil,’ ‘nothing,’ ‘nada,’ goose-eggs’) of the entering students noted environmental studies as a possible major.
Flash forward four years later. Because of the inspired teaching and research of my ES-faculty colleagues, 10% of that first class chose environmental studies as their academic home (amazing, given the strength of the many programs from which Yale-NUS students may choose). The ES programme continues to attract between 8 – 10% of all YNC students as majors — and we have our fair share of students minoring in ES as well.
Peering down the road I imagine that we could draw up to 15% of future cohorts into the major, as many new ES courses come online. Already, our courses typically fill or overenroll, and our students have birthed two organizations that are making a real difference: I’dECO and the Sustainable Solutions Network. More exciting projects are in the mix.
As the inaugural chair of the programme (I’m now taking a break from those duties), I marvel at how students and faculty have collaborated around this dynamic experiment in applied, interdisciplinary education. Our ES major combines elements of some of the world’s strongest environmental studies programmes with the unique opportunities provided by a liberal arts college in a vibrant Asian city. We strive to be different in ways that build upon the best experiences in undergraduate education.
Our students and faculty work together on environmental topics both local and global, drawing upon the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Coursework and applied experience expose students to a range of environmental issues from the familiar, such as energy choices and climate change, to the less well-studied, like the rise of consumerism and the impacts of changing settlement patterns.
To make all this happen, major coursework revolves around an area of specialisation (AoS) designed by students in consultation with their advisor in the third year of study. The AoS is supplemented by a rigorous one-year research or practitioner project, and is often informed by study abroad and internship experiences.
Students prepare for their AoS by completing introductory and intermediate courses that interrogate the range of approaches to environmental studies and illuminate key concepts and approaches in the field. The college’s common curriculum also informs the AoS, as do independent readings and other close work with the environmental studies faculty.