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Cultivating The Next Generation of Conservationists

Infrastructure such as Elmhurst College’s green roof educates students about tangible solutions to common environmental problems, from storm runoff management to energy efficiency.

by Ellicia Sanchez

In this era of Internet and social media, the younger generation is facing the realization that environmental concerns illuminated by the media will one day be their responsibility to solve. As the planetary climate crisis reaches new levels of complexity, employers in all industries are recognizing the need for specifically educated professionals to combat accumulating ecological issues.

In both the nonprofit sector and private business, there is increased urgency for staff well-versed in conservation science. Collegiate academic institutions observe the same developing pattern in environmental studies and science departments. Such programs prepare students for positions that require comprehensive knowledge of sustainability, biology and political science.

When Rick DiMaio first noticed alarming variations in the climate, he was working as a flight operations meteorologist at United Airlines during the late 1980s. As a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he witnessed firsthand how increasing temperatures negatively affected flight procedures at the airport. DiMaio wanted to know more about why this was happening and how changing weather patterns influence humanity’s day-to-day practices.

“I realized it was time to adapt and mitigate,” says DiMaio. After spending time working in Chicago TV broadcast media, he wanted an outlet where he could incorporate more teachable moments about the rapidly changing climate. In 1992, he began a career in environmental education at Columbia College Chicago filling in for meteorologist Tom Skilling. This catalyzed his journey as a professor of climate change and meteorology.

"Corporations everywhere are trying to learn how to work within the ramifications of the environment. When learning how to do so early on, it saves money on the bottom line. School administrations are recognizing this,” explains DiMaio. Whatever the industry, there are incentives to operate in an ecologically responsible manner. Colleges and universities strive to meet the demands of the constantly evolving job market. Through educating pupils in the principles of sustainability, environmental studies and science departments satisfy those demands.

At Columbia College Chicago, DiMaio wanted to use his experience as a meteorologist to equip students with the skills necessary to navigate this relatively new territory. He thinks it is important that environmental science instructors are able formulate their curricula through the lens of their specific discipline. “It’s not just about teaching the science behind the environmental issues, but the real-life implications of how it will influence our economy and lifestyle,” DiMaio emphasizes.

In September, Elmhurst College welcomed the first class of students participating in the new environmental studies program. Upon receiving a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, faculty began formulating a curriculum. Dr. Katrina Sifferd, interim acting director of the program, hopes to use her background in law and philosophy to help develop fresh coursework.

“We currently offer two different tracks: a policy-based major, as well as a science-based major. We’re also working on an environmental humanities minor,” notes Sifferd. She is looking forward to senior capstone classes, in which students from both tracks will collaborate with an off-campus nonprofit or company to tackle a real-world environmental issue. “We’re so excited to see our students use the tools they’ve acquired in their various courses to offer a solution,” says Sifferd.

Sifferd notes that youth today exhibit a heightened concern regarding environmental issues compared with past generations. “This is about to become a problem that’s touching every avenue of human existence,” she states. It’s a trend seen at universities everywhere. Dr. Liam Heneghan, professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University, also observes that his students enter the classroom quite enlightened when it comes to matters of conservation.

He explains, “None of the major problems are unfamiliar to them. They come pre-equipped with a knowledge of the crisis.” Heneghan has taught environmental studies at the collegiate level since 1994. He claims that 20 years ago, the concept of environmental science was much more exotic. Now, his classes are “ripped straight from the headlines.” Heneghan peruses myriad news sources every day and uses what he finds in the classroom. He believes the contemporary nature of the coursework influences students to join the environmental sector.

Media attention to the global crisis is another avenue that drives students to pursue the conservation movement academically and professionally. Sifferd credits teenage activists for empowering their peers to involve themselves in the world of conservation. “I think someone like Greta Thunberg has made such a huge impact on the awareness of young people in their ability to facilitate change,” she explains. The next step for many of these aspiring activists is fine-tuning their skills in the classroom.

In response to mounting pressure to enact “green” business practices, companies are seeking college graduates familiar with the tenets of sustainability. When institutions of higher education offer degrees in conservation science, their students are introduced to largely untapped sectors of the job market. In order to adequately defend the planet, environmentalists must become adept in these skills early in their careers.

The transformation of becoming an accomplished activist begins on the college campus. Universities that offer programs dedicated to the natural sciences are creating a path for the next era of great environmental advocates. Not only will these individuals understand the complex nuances behind society’s changing ecological needs, they will be equipped with the knowledge to solve them.

Ellicia Sanchez is a staff member with Natural Awakenings Chicago and The Mike Nowak Show, and a graduate of the LoyolaUniversity Chicago Institute of Environmental Sustainability. Contact her at [email protected].

Photo courtesy of Elmhurst College