MES program designed to turn out ‘pioneering, adventurous students’


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Penn’s masters’ degree in environmental studies grew directly out of its Master of Liberal Arts program. As more and more MLA students opted for the environmental concentration, it became clear the field warranted its own graduate degree. So in 1997, Penn admitted its first class of 15 students to the Masters of Environmental Studies program. Since then, 73 men and women have graduated.

According to Susan Gill, director of professional education programs in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, the program attracts “some wonderfully pioneering, adventurous students.” With more than half already in the working world, it’s a diverse group, she says, and they are encouraged to take courses throughout the University. “Every semester a student comes in to tell me about an exciting course that he or she has found that I’ve never heard of before,” says Gill, “and they’re really wonderful at ferreting out interesting courses.”

As well as teaching the basic science of the environment, says Gill, “one of the things we’re trying to do in the MES program is to help people understand the social aspects of the environment and how to integrate those.” Increasingly, she says, students identify themselves as wanting to do environmental education to help inform and mobilize people about the issues that affect their lives.

People may know their lives are being affected by, say, flooding, but they don’t quite make the connections between cause and effect, says Gill. This year in particular, regional creeks flooded repeatedly. “Was there more rain this year? Yes. Was it of extraordinary magnitude? Of course not,” says Gill.

The combination of a rainy summer and increased development of our watersheds made the water run off more quickly, she says, filling up streams to the point of overflowing rather than absorbing back into the soil. “One of the things we’d like to be able to do is help people figure out why this keeps happening and what we can do about it. This is going to continue to happen unless there are some land-use policies made that will help to mitigate that runoff. It’s not rocket science.”

Regional environmental issues give students plenty to work with, but every summer they also have the opportunity to hone their field skills on two-week field trips in dramatic geologic settings like the Rocky Mountains and, starting this year, Scotland’s Isle of Arran. “I think courses like this are the answer to the question of why you would come to Philadelphia to study the environment. First, of course, you’ll be at Penn. Second, you won’t necessarily have to spend all of your time in Philadelphia.”

Originally published on January 13, 2005