Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Earth Systems, Environment and Society: A New Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Major at the University of Illinois

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Earth Systems, Environment and Society: A New Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Major at the University of Illinois

Article excerpt


The new undergraduate major in Earth Systems, Environment, and Society (ESES) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is designed to offer an innovative, multidisciplinary liberal arts and sciences education in the scientific and human dimensions of the Earth system that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries to explore the complexities and interconnectedness of society and the physical environment. The fundamental motivation behind the ESES major is the recognition that the Earth is a complex system in which the solid planet, the oceans, the atmosphere, and life (both human and non-human) interact in countless ways. To respond adequately to the environmental challenges of our time, it is necessary to understand these interactions and interdependencies that transcend traditional disciplinary classifications. The curriculum within ESES balances a broad exposure to diverse disciplines at an introductory level with a more focused substantive course of study at the upper level. Bringing together diverse perspectives from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, this program allows students to study important and exciting interdisciplinary Earth system topics, such as climate change, societal development with limited resources, human impacts on the environment, deforestation, land use change, and issues pertaining to water use and availability.


One of the changing paradigms for geosciences programs in higher education is the ever-increasing interdisciplinary nature of research and education, particularly in studying the complexity of the interactions between the processes affecting the Earth system. Humanity faces great challenges in the 21st Century to understand andlimit our impact on the Earth system. To address these challenges, it is essential for citizens to understand the nature and implications of environmental change, how it at once influences and is influenced by individual and societal actions. In addition to providing highly trained researchers with strong backgrounds appropriate for solving specific technical problems, it is also necessary to cultivate an informed citizenry equipped to understand the choices to be made in areas ranging from environmental protection to energy policy, from land-use issues to space exploration.

At the same time, we recognize that Earth science and Earth systems education is at a crossroads. Through national programs such as the NASA / USRA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration / Universities Space Research Association) Earth System Science Education for the 21st Century Program (ESSE 21), the NASA Earth System Initiative, and the NSF (National Science Foundation) Geosciences Education Program, a vibrant academic and professional community of Earth systems educators has emerged to investigate means of transforming geosciences education at colleges and universities. New courses are being designed, curricula revised, and a variety of outreach projects in Earth system science are emerging. These programs are having a great deal of success integrating Earth system science at the undergraduate level and are even beginning to bring it to the K-12 curriculum through educational outreach projects. Our objective here is to share the ideas that are continually developing at UIUC through a new undergraduate interdisciplinary major that attempts to bring together the strengths of a variety of disciplinary perspectives into a unified, systems-focused curriculum.

The undergraduate years provide an ideal opportunity for students to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to make new strides in understanding the technical aspects of the Earth system, and to develop an appreciation of the interactions between society and the Earth system sufficient to make informed policy choices. As we analyzed our existing Earth science education programs and how we want our programs to evolve into the future, we realized that the University has an opportunity to take a leadership role in an innovative direction in undergraduate education, offering a new and unique perspective and experience to students interested in engaging with these fundamental topics. …

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