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New UW-Stevens Point major links sustainability across various disciplines

September 27, 2023
Professor Samantha Kaplan, middle, leads, small group discussion in the SUST 100: Sustainability as a Profession course, including Olivia Franklin (far right).
Professor Samantha Kaplan, middle, leads, small group discussion in the SUST 100: Sustainability as a Profession course, including Olivia Franklin (far right).

Olivia Franklin was drawn to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for her college experience so she could continue her two passions – cross county running and environmental study.  

As a state qualifier for Kaneland High School in Maple Park, Ill., Franklin spent hours running through nature preserves in her hometown. This not only provided the experience she would need for 10,000-meter runs with the UW-Stevens Point track and field team, it inspired her interest in the resource management program. When she learned of a new major launched during her second year, she knew community sustainability was the perfect fit for her future.  

This bachelor’s degree combines Franklin’s interest in natural resources protection with a chance to study policy. This fall the junior is enrolled in SUST 100: Sustainability as a Profession, with Professor Samantha Kaplan, geography, one of the campus leaders of the new program curriculum.  

Kaplan said programs at UW-Stevens Point have long focused on natural resources, ecology and the environment, but with less emphasis on human and urban resiliency The community sustainability curriculum, developed over several years with faculty teaching diverse disciplines, takes a complementary approach, with core coursework in urban planning, policy, environmental history, climate change and ethics.  Majors will study across multiple systems to learn about the ethical, social and economic considerations around sustainable community development.  

“They will understand how systems are linked together,” said Kaplan. “Sustainability, as a discipline, centers on interaction between society, the economy and the environment. Practitioners must work across multiple sub-fields to solve complex problems.”

The program is comprehensive, providing analytical skills, coursework and training with tools used in sustainable planning, organizational leadership and community development.

Kaplan organized career presentations for the new course, emphasizing the real-world applications of the coursework. Invited speakers in SUST 100 include urban planners, environmental educators, sustainability directors and other professionals in emerging sustainability-focused careers. 

“It is a sector that will mushroom, and we will need to meet future needs and be on the pulse of those careers,” she said.    

Students choose an internship experience that matches their area of interest. This summer, Franklin worked at Schmeeckle Reserve, studying trail usage for her community engagement project. Junior Emily Mueller interned with the Wisconsin Conservation Voters, working on a clean energy campaign and advocating for causes she cares about. 

A New Berlin, Wis., native, Mueller expects to complete her community sustainability degree in spring 2025, along with minors in sustainable energy and urban planning, plus undergraduate certificates in environmental ethics and environmental justice.  

She has already gained real-world skills in her GIS course lecture and lab. In addition to better understanding the technical skills, Mueller said she also learned patience and perseverance in creating the data points and map features she needed to create her project. 

“Each step had to be done exactly right and one small mistake could ruin the project. Learning to go slow and asking for help when I needed it was a big part of that class. GIS helps professionals take data and create an output that can be used to analyze relationships and trends,” said Mueller.  

Building off the first 40 required core credits of the community sustainability program, students then select a degree emphasis—resilient urban systems and policy or environmental justice and community leadership. Foundational studies examine social inequality, environmental law and regulation issues.  

“It offers a little bit of everything,” Mueller said. 

She thinks the degree will empower her to act in an effective way, as she is studying the program’s policy track. Mueller will be poised to find employment in environmental consulting, urban planning or corporate sustainability.  

“Understanding what we are going through and caring for the environment, that is exciting. You are part of the change that the world needs,” she said. 

More companies are expanding sustainability efforts beyond the renewable and environmental sector. According to the Global Green Skills Report, in 2022 job postings requiring environmental skills grew at 8 percent annually over the past five years. In most economies around the world, in 2019 the “green hiring rate” accelerated ahead of the overall hiring rate, according to the report. 

Nationwide, job growth for urban planners, commercial and industrial designers, compliance officers and technicians working in mapping is projected to increase 12 percent from 2021 to 2031, according to Lightcast labor market analytics.  

Franklin is hopeful industries will seek graduates well versed in environmental studies and sustainable planning skills. Her goal is to pursue work in urban planning, so she also selected the policy emphasis track of the new major.  

“I realized with how much has happened in environmental change over recent years,” she said. “It is exciting to know I will have the skills for a sustainable development career that will make a difference.”