The case for interdisciplinary environmental education and research.

Author:Focht, Will


We start this discussion of environmental science research with a definition of environmental science. In doing so, we must come to terms with the differences, if any, between environmental sciences and environmental studies. It is commonly believed that environmental sciences programs emphasize natural and applied sciences whereas environmental studies programs place more emphasis on social sciences and the humanities. Preliminary results obtained from an ongoing study directed by one of us (Focht) do not reveal major differences in the core curricula among programs entitled environmental sciences and environmental studies. Both program types address cognitive skills such as systems thinking, critical thinking, problem solving and communication. Moreover, the inclusion of life sciences, physical sciences, statistics, policy and ethics as important components of their curricula is popular in both program types. We therefore must conclude that reified differentiation of environmental sciences from environmental studies is neither justified nor helpful.

Now, we can properly consider whether a universal definition of environmental sciences and studies exists. Based on a survey conducted as part of the same study mentioned above, Vincent and Focht (1) demonstrates that we can state with some confidence that no universal agreement exists on the definition of environmental sciences and studies.

If little agreement can be found among environmental program directors on a definition of environmental sciences, perhaps a consensus can be discerned within the environmental field. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Even a cursory search on the Internet turns up 47 environmental licensures, registrations and certificates in environment, health and safety and another 11 relating to environmental specializations within other fields.

We now turn to the plurality of the terms "environmental sciences" and "environmental studies". It is apparent that several disciplines and fields can be considered as environmental sciences or studies. Certainly, geography, geology, agronomy, botany, zoology, microbiology, climatology, ecology, oceanography, chemistry, engineering and physics concern themselves with the environment. Likewise, political science, sociology, psychology, economics, management, communication science, ethics, history, literature and the fine arts devote significant attention to the environment. In fact, almost every discipline on a college campus can legitimately claim an interest in, and offer important contributions to, the study of the environment. So we must face the question: what do the disciplines and fields commonly referred to as environmental sciences and studies offer?

The most obvious answer is that environmental science and study seek to integrate the insights and methods of multiple disciplines in their investigations. The reader will notice that we used the singular forms of science and study. This, of course, is intentional. While there are many environmental sciences and studies departments and programs at colleges and universities across the U.S., we wish to distinguish our topic of conversation by referring to environmental science and study in their singular forms. In fact, many environmental science programs now use the singular form; however, programs labeled as "environmental study" remain few. In the remainder of this article, we will use only the singular forms.

Given that the difference between environmental science and study is vague, often superficial, and rarely determinative, a term that combines them is desirable. However, no such term has emerged that has gained widespread support. In fact, a new national organization established last year has taken the name of Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, which unfortunately, uses plurals. For the moment, therefore, we are left only with the combined term, "environmental science and study".

We are now ready to offer our definition of environmental...

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