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Environmental Studies program receives grants to add new faculty members, create new programs

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    Students in Introduction to Environmental Studies present their class project.

Goal is to expand the global emphasis of the program

Southwestern’s Environmental Studies Program has received a major boost thanks to $1.3 million in funding from three recent grants.

A $750,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will enable the university to hire a new tenure-track faculty member in environmental geography, add environmental content to courses across the curriculum, and establish a new Center for Social and Environmental Justice.

Overall, the grant is designed to expand the global emphasis of Southwestern’s Environmental Studies Program. For example, a portion of the funds will be used to develop a new course titled “Introduction to Cultural Studies” in collaboration with the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

“Unless we understand the cultures that are engaging in environmentally destructive practices, we can’t begin to change the way we live,” said Laura Hobgood-Oster, chair of the Environmental Studies Program.

The Mellon Foundation grant will enable Southwestern to hire a tenure-track faculty member in environmental geography who can begin teaching in fall 2010. Environmental geography is a branch of geography that offers tools for measuring human impact on the environment.

This will be Southwestern’s first full-time faculty member dedicated to environmental studies.

“An environmental geographer will bring critically important analytical tools to our program,” Hobgood-Oster said. “Students will learn skills that will translate into better research design and into more informed and measurable sustainability and advocacy projects.”

To go along with the grant, Southwestern create a new Mellon Environmental Fellows program. Five students a year will be offered a $5,000 fellowship to participate in a study abroad program during their junior year that has an emphasis on environmental issues. During their senior year, fellows will be expected to share what they have learned from their study abroad.

The Mellon Environmental Fellows also will provide key student leadership to the new Center for Social and Environmental Justice, which will facilitate environmental research projects on campus and in the community. A major goal of the center will be to help students integrate their study abroad experiences into local projects. For example, Hobgood-Oster said, a student who studies green building abroad might return to Georgetown and become involved with local green building initiatives.

Part of the new grant from the Mellon Foundation will enable the university to hire a full-time staff coordinator for the center who has strong skills in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS is a sophisticated mapping system that allows many different kinds of data to be layered onto digital maps. 

 “GIS technology allows complex information to be presented in graphic form so that it is very understandable,” Hobgood-Oster said. “For example, students can map the spread of invasive species in order to help craft policies to halt their expansion, or they can analyze the prevalence of environmental toxins in different communities and associate that with socio-economic or racial composition of those communities to help understand environmental racism.”

A $436,000 gift from the Kendeda Fund will be used to buy the equipment for the GIS lab as well as support various sustainability projects on campus such as the Environmental Fellows program. 

Southwestern also has received a $129,000 grant from the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) that will enable the Environmental Studies Program to hire a postdoctoral fellow for two years. This fellow will teach two courses a year in the area of global ecology. The ACS postdoctoral fellow program also was funded by a gift from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Jinelle Sperry has accepted the postdoctoral position and will begin teaching a course on biodiversity in the fall. Sperry completed her doctorate in conservation biology at the University of Illinois and does research on how predator and prey relationships happen. She also has been doing research at Fort Hood on the effects of military equipment on animal habitats and how that affects the relationships between predators and their prey.

“Having this fellow will strengthen the scientific component of our Environmental Studies Program and further the development of a global emphasis for our program,” Hobgood-Oster said. 

Southwestern’s Environmental Studies Program was started in the 1999-2000 academic year. It currently has 19 majors and six minors.

Hobgood-Oster said the new additions to the program will give Southwestern an environmental studies program that combines strong grounding in theory with practical experience.

“This will give Southwestern a unique approach to environmental studies that no other school in Texas has and few others in the country have,” she said.