Environmental Studies Students Solve Real-World Problems in the Classroom and Community

Pacific Ocean at sunsetUCSB’s Environmental Studies Program was born out of activism – a response by a group of 21 faculty members to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill – and today’s environmental studies majors continue to combine activism and academics in ways that are having a real impact on the campus and the community.

Says Bob Wilkinson, a faculty member in the Environmental Studies Program and at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, “as I reflect on the role of ES students who are engaging in real-world problem-solving, I'm reminded of David Brower's comment: ‘to make a difference, one needs to do three things - care, do your homework, and communicate.’ Our students care."

He continues, "Indeed, many are passionate about improving the world. With the skills, insights, and information they gain is classes, they are indeed changing the world for the better by communicating and engaging. And they need to know that their positive activism is an inspiration to all of us.”

ES students are the force behind public awareness campaigns, efforts to improve sustainability on campus, and programs to educate grade-school students about the environment. They are lobbying government officials, working with local businesses, and offering their expertise to local environmental non-profit groups. At the heart of their activism is a strong academic foundation combined with the need to “be constructive, find solutions, and advance the dialogue on environmental issues,” says Nick Allen, who graduated in 2010 as the Outstanding Senior of the Year in Environmental Studies.

The hub of most campus environmental activity is the Environmental Affairs Board, part of Associated Students, and it is no surprise that many of its officers are ES majors. EAB is one of the largest and best-funded student groups on campus. Over 2,000 people receive the weekly newsletter and about 100 attend weekly meetings. EAB undertakes various campaigns, funded by an annual budget of $30,000 that comes from lock-in fees approved by students in periodic elections. “No other campus has such a large and strong environmental group,” says Natasha Weidner, a junior ES major who was co-chair of EAB for 2011-12. “UCSB is unique in that its students have such power” to initiate and manage the Board’s far-reaching campaigns.

About the Environmental Studies major
Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara is an interdisciplinary program through which students may pursue a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in environmental studies or a Bachelor of Science in hydrologic sciences and policy. Some 70% of 2011 graduates completed the B.A., with 25% earning a B.S. and the remaining students specializing in hydrology.
Both ES degrees stress the interrelationships between the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. The B.A. gives students maximum flexibility to explore the social, cultural and scientific issues pertaining to the environment. The B.S. trains students to become proficient in the natural and physical sciences, and to be aware of social and cultural influences on environmental problems. The two curriculums are similar, but B.S. students are required to complete a full year of introductory biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus. B.A. students must complete a series of requirements including chemistry, biology, earth science, economics, statistics, and mathematics, but the degree places greater emphasis on the social sciences and interdisciplinary work. Detailed course requirements for both degrees are available here.
All ES students are encouraged to participate in internships as part of their education, and the internships mentioned here are just a few examples of the available possibilities. Many students are able to earn credit for their work, and paid internships are also available.
Currently there are almost 800 students pursuing the ES major and the program has awarded almost 5000 degrees since its inception in 1972. ES alumni work in a wide variety of fields in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, with positions including: National Park Superintendent, the President of the League of Conservation Voters, city planners and sanitation managers, and Assistant Secretary of California's Resources Agency. Every year the program offers a course on environmental careers which helps students think about achieving their career goals.

Political action is one of EAB’s major campaign areas, and helps students develop their communication and negotiation skills. Recent activities include participation in an international climate negotiation conference in Copenhagen, lobbying for green jobs in Washington, D.C., active membership in the California Student Sustainability Coalition, and meetings with local elected officials about issues including banning plastic bags in Santa Barbara County.

ES students traveled to Copenhagen in 2009 as official delegates for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. On their return, they organized their own conference to bring the lessons they learned back to the campus community. Attended by 600 people, the 2-day event brought together business, community, government, and student leaders exploring three intertwined perspectives on the climate change debate: economy and business; policy and government; and grassroots activism.

ES majors also led UCSB delegations to PowerShift, a student environmental summit in Washington, D.C. that took place in 2009 and again in 2011. Nick Allen attended PowerShift 2009 and related lobbying efforts, when the UCSB group met with more than 20 members of Congress and their aides to discuss energy policy, using a detailed report by Allen and fellow EAB member Quentin Gee about the clean tech industry in California as a basis for their informed discussions. Cristina Cook, another ES major who is co-chair of EAB this year, attended PoswerShift in 2011 and said in a press release that she expected the event to strengthen her activism. “I’m currently running a water-conservation campaign with EAB, and PowerShift will benefit this project by giving me new ideas and strategies,” she said.


A humorous take on a serious issue - plastic bag pollution - which is the focus of a campus-wide campaign this year. EAB photo.

That water conservation campaign is one of EAB’s priorities this year, coupled with a campaign to limit the use of plastic on campus, starting with single-use plastic bags and plastic bottles. Senior Ally Gialketsis, a member of EAB and head of the Isla Vista chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, has been involved in the “Rise Above Plastic” campaign for the last two years. Ally originally majored in history, but the grass-roots activism of her work with Surfrider led her to add a second major in ES.

In spring 2009, EAB and Surfrider jointly organized a week of awareness on campus, with tabling and education about plastics and their effects on the oceans. They filled a home-made container with plastic bags and displayed it on De La Guerra Plaza in front of Santa Barbara City Hall, to call attention to the amount of plastic that is thrown away and ends up in the ocean. More recently, Ally represented the UCSB Plastic Pollution Coalition (which includes EAB and Surfrider) when a group of local environmentalists met the mayor of Santa Barbara and other officials to discuss a proposed ban on plastic bags in the city. EAB’s sustainable business campaign is also part of the effort by encouraging local businesses to find alternatives to the plastic bags.

With the support of the Coastal Fund, a student-funded Associated Students initiative that works to protect the local coastline, the plastics campaign is gaining renewed force this year. Alyssa Hall, a junior ES major with a minor in math and science education, is the Coastal Fund’s outreach and education coordinator. Much of Alyssa’s outreach is centered around the 2012 UCSB Reads program, which has selected a book about plastic pollution, Moby Duck: the true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea, and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools-- including the author-- who went in search of them, by Donovan Hohn. The Coastal Fund has provided $10,000 to buy copies of the book that will be distributed free to students and serve as the basis of discussions on campus and in the wider Santa Barbara community. Alyssa will be working with the University Library and faculty on related events including film screenings, lectures, and discussions, all centered on the effects of plastic pollution on the environment, with the overall theme of “Making an Impact. What’s Yours?”.

Internships are another way that ES students combine their academic interests with the desire to effect real change in their community. Katie Kasatkina, a senior with a double major in ES and philosophy, has been a member of a number of campus groups, including EAB, throughout her UCSB career. With substantial support from the Coastal Fund and the Geography Department, Katie established the Coastal Stewardship & Policy Program in April 2011. As the program’s director, Katie works with local non-profit and government organizations to develop student-staffed projects that benefit the UCSB community and adjacent coastline. Although each project is unique, all internship positions offer leadership and work experience, and opportunities to develop professional communication and excel in a specialized skill set particular to the field of interest. The program also encourages networking and invites students to participate in special events. Katie Maynard, the Campus Sustainability Coordinator for Academics and Research, advises the program.


GIS map of the Gaviota Coast complete by an intern working for the Coastal Stewardship & Policy Program.

In summer 2011, intern Aaron Hemeon worked with Isla Vista Parks and Recreation District to redesign and promote the redevelopment of Greek Park. Among many other project deliverables, Aaron presented new park landscaping and design plans to the district’s board of directors, which approved them July 2011, and the project is now in the fund-raising stage. In addition to working with the district, Aaron reached out to the Cheadle Center for Biological Diversity and Ecological Restoration for advice on sustainable landscape design. Intern Mimi SooHoo, a graduate student, worked with the Environmental Defense Center on GIS mapping of the Gaviota Coast. The five maps she made will be used for future outreach to showcase and protect Gaviota’s valuable environmental resources. Students participating in the program this fall worked with mentors from the California Water Impact Network and Get Oil Out. Project updates, details, and future opportunities are available at stewardshipandpolicy.org.

Alyssa Hall has completed a series of academic internships at the Cheadle Center, in addition to her job at the Coastal Fund. She has worked with the herbarium collection manager helping to preserve plant specimens, followed by a curatorial internship with Dr. David Chapman, through which she learned how algae function in the environment and in daily life. With another intern, she researched, wrote, and designed a field guide to 34 native and two invasive species of local algae. They had to identify funding sources and applied to and received grants from the Coastal Fund and The Green Initiative Fund (TGIF) to cover production and printing costs.


Ryland King, center, with children during one of EENG's sustainability lessons. Photo by Spencer Sheehan.

Educating grade-school children about their environment is another priority for ES students. In 2009, then-sophomore ES major Ryland King and a group of UCSB undergraduates founded Environmental Education for the Next Generation (EENG), a non-profit organization focused on bringing sustainability education to first and second graders in the Santa Barbara community. As a freshman, Ryland became interested in an EAB project that developed lesson plans on sustainability for a local second-grade class. When he learned that the plans were to be discarded after being used just once, he applied for and received a small grant from Associated Students to expand the program. He developed a curriculum binder and approached 10 schools about introducing the program, but only one – Adams Elementary School – agreed. That simple beginning of six lessons for second graders has grown into a registered 501(c) organization that has expanded to four regions (Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and San Luis Obispo), and will teach more than 2,300 students in 90 classrooms between now and June 2012. The major impetus behind its growth is the $100,000 won by EENG in a contest organized by Dockers in 2010.

Using these funds, EENG has hired regional directors for each of its four regions. These directors in turn liaise with public schools and recruit college students who work in the classrooms. The science-based curriculum now covers first and second grade, with teams of five students teaching each class. The course lasts for 8 weeks, with weekly lessons on subjects like the importance of bees, the water cycle, composting, water conservation, and energy efficiency. Each lesson includes an activity, project, or experiment with the children working in small groups. The classes and materials are free to the schools.

Students involved with EENG have worked with Writing Program instructor Leanne Kryder and her students in the professional writing minor to develop grant proposals and marketing plans. Nick Allen, who became involved in EENG when he was co-chair of EAB, is the group’s director of business development, responsible for fundraising, marketing, media and publicity. He sees EENG as “a socially responsible entrepreneurial adventure” with great potential for expansion in California and to other states.

The Cheadle Center’s Kids in Nature program is another way of reaching out to local children, focusing on underserved fifth-graders. Each year the Center recruits a number of student interns to lead a year-long series of lessons and local field trips focusing on environmental science, botany, ecology, and habitat restoration. As part of their experience, the student interns take an upper-division course on biodiversity and ecological restoration taught by Dr. Jennifer Thorsch. Having completed this course, Alyssa Hall is now a paid intern for the program, responsible for coordinating field trips and lesson plans and assisting the undergraduate students with their own projects. Alyssa originally wanted to study environmental law and policy, but as a result of her internship experience, now wants to work in environmental education and outreach.

The students all agree on the need for collaboration and coalition-building between the different environmental groups on campus. This is the goal of Molly Gordon, a junior ES major who serves as Community Environmental Issues Coordinator for the Associated Students External Vice-President for Local Affairs. Part of her role is to connect various groups, including Coastal Fund, EAB, Surfrider, and TGIF, with Associated Students and with each other, through weekly meetings and by connecting people working on similar projects. Molly also wants to make AS itself adopt greener practices, for example using less paper in the offices. In addition, EAB plans to help AS implement rules its adopted last year mandating sustainable purchasing and consumption, including a requirement that 50 percent of food served at AS events be locally produced.



More information about the Environmental Studies program is available here. The Environmental Affairs Board meets every Wednesday night at 7pm in the Multicultural Center’s Graduate Lounge.

November, 2011

News Date: 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011