F&ES Revamps Its Largest Master’s Program

Updated: September 13, 2011

For students enrolled in the Master of Environmental Management program at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), choosing courses is like being a kid in a candy store. The choices are abundant, even wondrous, and F&ES students are curious and interested in a lot of things. But while the plethora of choices is considered a virtue—the M.E.M. offers over 100 electives—their lack of organization has been a frequent source of confusion—until now.

The faculty recently grouped the electives into eight areas, called specializations, to make students aware of the variety of courses offered at F&ES and elsewhere at Yale and to help them marry their coursework to their interests, experience and near-term career objectives. The faculty had their own interests in mind, too. The specializations will assist them in advising students and in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the program.


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“The specializations will make it easier for students to figure out what courses will get them where they want to go and have the flexibility to accommodate their interests,” said Brad Gentry, senior lecturer in sustainable investments who helped organize the "Business and the Environment" specialization.

The other specializations are "Climate Science, Adaptation, and Mitigation"; "Ecosystem Conservation and Management"; "Sustainable Land Management"; "Sustainable Urban and Industrial Systems"; "Environmental Policy Analysis"; "Human Dimensions of Environmental Management"; and "Water Resources Management". They are part of the school’s ongoing curriculum reform and the overhaul of the Master of Environmental Management program—F&ES’ most popular, with 200 students.

James Saiers, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of hydrology, emphasized that the specializations are not required tracks, but exist to provide “counsel to students” as they create their own program of study.

“The new curriculum structure navigates the tension between having a minimum level of structure and the flexibility to customize a program of study,” said Saiers. “A lot of our students tend to go into areas covered by the specializations.”

Gentry said that between having faculty in industrial ecology and green chemistry and engineering, F&ES is strong in sustainable corporate management and green product design. In addition, the school is beefing up its course offerings in the fields of energy and finance, all of them offered in the Business and Environment specialization.

“We have a lot of strength in these areas and we send a lot of our students into that work,” he said. “We send a lot of students into finance positions, mostly from the joint-degree program. Energy is also huge among our students. How one finances energy projects is a big issue.”

Students who pursue the M.E.M. degree each year must now complete 16 courses in four major areas—foundations; new courses collectively called integrative frameworks; specializations; and a capstone—for a total of 48 credits over four semesters.

“We reformed the M.E.M. to take advantage of the faculty’s collective experience, develop new courses that would capitalize on team teaching and anticipate changes in the job market,” said Saiers, who chaired a faculty committee that led the reform. “Students also want more professional-skills courses to supplement academic offerings.”

Saiers said the five foundations courses provide the common knowledge needed for success in advanced courses, or electives, and are essential preparation for professional environmental management regardless of a student’s area of specialization. The foundations courses are: “Landscape Ecology”; “Physical Sciences for Environmental Problem Solving”; “Economics of the Environment”; and “Introduction to Statistics in the Environmental Sciences.” They then must choose between one of these two courses: “Society and the Environment: Introduction to Theory and Method” or “The Politics and Practice of Environmental and Resource Policy.”

The new integrative frameworks courses are team taught and interdisciplinary, and they illustrate how practices, methodologies and perspectives from multiple disciplines can be integrated to provide holistic answers to environmental problems. Students can choose between “Linkages of Sustainability”; “Science to Solutions: How Should We Manage Fresh Water?”; and “Global Resources, International Resource Exchanges, and the Environment.”

Students chart their path toward specialization by taking between nine and 11 electives chosen from 100 F&ES courses, as well as courses from across the university.

“We’re trying to be more strategic about how new classes are developed so as to make sure there is demand for the course and a need for it,” said Saiers. “We recognize the gaps and are working on developing a consensus around priorities.” Those gaps, he said, include courses on tropical resource management and land conservation.

“The idea is to engender a process by which we develop a sequence of courses, from introductory to advanced,” he said. “We want to streamline the curriculum and eliminate overlap.”

In the final year of the two-year program, students integrate their academic study and research in a capstone course or project. The course is organized and led by an instructor, and students pursue independent or group projects that provide a service to a client; explore environmental problems using nonacademic approaches, such as filmmaking or journalism; or produce research for publication in a scientific or trade journal.

“The specializations will help students pursue independent projects that will fill the gaps in the curriculum,” said Saiers.

Half-semester professional-skills courses supplement the traditional academic offerings and are intended to provide training in finance; leadership and management; negotiations and conflict resolution; and communications.

“Environmental leaders require more than academic mastery to solve environmental problems,” said Saiers. “They must become superb managers and leaders of organizations.”

Dean Peter Crane said that environmental professionals must be committed to ecological sustainability that is grounded in a comprehensive knowledge of the natural and social sciences and served by analytical techniques and management skills.

“Having an eye to the future is implicit in the investments we make in the young people who come to F&ES to learn,” he said. “Every one of our graduates is a long-term contribution to the sustainable management of the global environment.”

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“We reformed the M.E.M. to take advantage of the faculty’s collective experience, develop new courses that would capitalize on team teaching and anticipate changes in the job market.”
James Saiers