Kent state professor develops new major

Logan Lutton

After three years in the making, the environmental studies major, the third for the department of geography, has finally arrived for the Fall 2017 semester.

Developed by David Kaplan, a professor of geography, the major focuses on the social science side of the environment by trading extra lab time for classes to teach students about human influence in the natural world. 

“This was the first time I’d ever tried to develop a whole major and I was amazed at how long it took,” Kaplan said. “I guess I thought, just like many other curricular actions, it would just go through the university.” 

In order to get approved, Kaplan’s plan had to go through the university, the board of trustees, the state, and a higher learning consortium, a multi-level state organization that approves academic endeavors.

Spending time as a visiting professor for a semester at the University of Oregon inspired Kaplan to pursue adding the major at Kent. While there, he noticed many of the students in his class were environmental studies majors.

“When I began to look around at other universities, I realized Kent was sort of an outlier by not having an environmental studies major,” Kaplan said. “So I started the process in late summer 2014. I put together a committee of people from biology, geology, sociology and geography and we developed a curriculum.” 

Even though this major has been in the works for some time, Kaplan’s team was unable to promote it. The Ohio Learning Commission mandates, until they have authorized a major, a university is not allowed to promote it.

“We finally just got approval this August,” Kaplan said. “This is the first class right now entering into it and there also a lot of students who may have been interested as pre-freshman, but they would not have been able to get information. I had a student the other day who said, ‘I really wanted to do this, but I looked last spring and it wasn’t available.’”

Kaplan said this should be the only year this will be an issue.

“It will be up there for incoming students next year to see and to get additional information,” Kaplan said.

Right now, there are 33 students enrolled in the major, with nine attending the Stark campus.  

Aiyanna Crawford, a sophomore, is one of the students at the main campus. She switched to the environmental studies major from geography after hearing about the program.

“It has everything I need,” Crawford said. “I wanted to do something more on the liberal path where it was more about looking at the connection between humans and the environment, versus just the chemical and biological factors of environmental sciences.”

Her passion for the environment and her desire to make a difference also made the switch an easy decision. 

“I believe this major helps because instead of hearing the scientist’s background and what they believe is going on, you get to be the connection between the scientists and the people,” Crawford said. “When the people finally understand what the scientists are studying, I believe that’s when the real change begins to occur.” 

Crawford finds her Nature and Society course especially interesting.

“We were just talking about some things like lawn care, something you don’t even think about, and how it’s socially constructed,” Crawford said. “We talked about how we view this idea of a front lawn as something that represents who we are, but we don’t realize the types of harm we do to keep them up, like the chemicals we put into our grass to keep it lush.”

There are many job options available to students who choose this major. Some of these career paths include an attorney, a park ranger or even an environmental journalist.   

V. Kelly Turner, an assistant professor in geography, teaches Nature and Society as well as Environmental Studies and Sustainability. 

“The idea is that this is really an applied major, in which you can go out and do environmental work,” Turner said. “Kent State has a sustainability coordinator. This is the kind of background someone like that would have.”

Melanie Knowles is the manager of sustainability on campus. She assisted Kaplan in the setup of this major by helping choose courses that were focused around sustainability, as well as looking for professional interest within the community outside Kent.  

“Part of the process of getting this major approved was having these letters of support from people in different types of businesses saying that they had the potential to hire graduates from this program,” Knowles said. 

Since the introduction of the major, her work with Kaplan is complete, but she still works with faculty occasionally by continuing her feedback whenever questions about sustainability arise in the major.

However, Kaplan’s work on the major continues. 

“I’m talking to every student who’s interested in taking this major and asking him or her how it can work, and what sort of things are going to be most useful for them,” Kaplan said. “I’m not trying to be this gatekeeper protecting our turf. This is a turf-less major.”

Logan Lutton is the science reporter. Contact her at [email protected]