Sustainability Studies major now available

Professor advocates major as both stand-alone degree and dual major opportunity

RPI now offers a new major in the school of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Part of the Science and Technology Studies department, the Sustainability Studies major will provide undergraduate students with the opportunity to address the issue of society’s continuance in the environment. Professor Kim Fortun—one of the faculty members who helped spearhead the process of creating the new major and current director of the program—emphasizes that the major is for both those who wish to focus solely on sustainability and those who want to pair it with various other disciplines. Sustainability, in this context, refers to the maintenance of society in terms of social, economic, political, and environmental issues.

Fortun explained that the proposal for the major “had to go through reviews within the STS Department, within the School of HASS, and at the institute level.” Following these reviews, a committee composed of three faculty members of other universities took another look at the program. This involved visiting RPI on several occasions and eventually submitting a report. The committee’s report was supportive, but it made clear that “RPI would have to provide needed resources in faculty and staff for it to succeed,” said Fortun. The New York State Board of Education then reviewed the proposal, giving its approval during the fall of 2011. By this time, students had already shown interest in the program; several had already declared they would major in Sustainability Studies once it had been approved. During this review period, the proposal was also presented to faculty across campus, “with the goal of creating synergism between different programs,” Fortun added.

The program is essentially a combination of humanities, social sciences, and technology. For example, students gain insight into how environmental issues have progressed both scientifically and politically. Using this historical background as a platform, students then learn about the current state of sustainability efforts both in terms of technology and government policy. The major also involves a “technology” requirement; students specialize in a particular field of the natural sciences to give perspective on issues of sustainability. This requirement results in an opportunity for students pursuing the degree to consider dual majors, Fortun explained.

When it comes to dual majors, though, most only consider those majors which are very closely associated with sustainability, such as biology, earth sciences, or environmental engineering, said Fortun. However, she stresses that the sustainability studies major has the potential to pair with many more majors, particularly those that many would not normally associate with the field. These include math, computer science, physics, and civil engineering. Such a range of potential dual majors should, Fortun hopes, encourage more students to become interested in both the major and the subject as a whole.

Joseph DiLuzio ’12 explained that he became interested in the sustainability studies major due to his “lofty” goals. As a student majoring in mechanical engineering and design, innovation, and society, DiLuzio felt that his skills could be used for something of greater importance than “product design.” He wants his “degrees to reflect what kind of person [he] will be.” With a degree in sustainability studies, DiLuzio said he can focus on his goal of “fixing the world” through the development of a greener, more sustainable society.

Elizabeth Anderson ’14, on the other hand, decided to pursue the degree simply due to her interest in the environment. In order to accomplish her goal of earning a graduate degree in science and technology studies or anthropology, Anderson decided to become a sustainability studies major to prepare herself while engaging in work she finds interesting.

Research in sustainability, Fortun mentioned, has the potential to significantly improve societal life. Current problems, such as reliance on foreign sources of fossil fuels, oil spills, and other forms of environmental pollution could be solved.

Classes in the program’s curriculum include Consumer Culture; Environment and Law; Environment and Society; Globalization and Development; and Oil Politics.

Fortun hopes that, in the future, there will be a sizable number of sustainability studies majors, students who choose to dual major in the program, and individuals who choose to minor in the subject. Overall, she hopes that more students become interested, “knowing that what we do today” will greatly impact life “for generations that follow, in locales around the world.”