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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies increases breadth in student education

With a variety of courses and flexible curriculum, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies offers students the broad education they need to collectively solve environmental problems.

In 1970, the Nelson Institute, originally called the Institute for Environmental Studies, was established as a research center at UW-Madison. In 2002 the institute was renamed after UW-Madison alumnus and former Wisconsin governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day. Nelson’s senatorial desk resides in the Director’s Office in Science Hall, where the institute is housed.

Since its founding, the Nelson Institute has expanded to offer an Environmental Studies program for undergraduates, including the recently-implemented environmental studies major and two certificates. The environmental studies certificate has been an option for students since 1979, though its curriculum was restructured in fall of 2011 when the environmental studies major was implemented. Even more recently, the sustainability certificate was created in 2014. At present, there are around 800 students in these programs.

Becky Ryan, the undergraduate program coordinator for the institute, believes the areas of study are becoming increasingly important as environmental problems reach the forefront of societal decisions. “I personally believe this is going to be the calling card of the future,” said Ryan. “Having that extra understanding of how journalism, engineering or agriculture—whatever your primary major is—can contribute to environmental questions is going to be a great credential.”

Whether you pursue a certificate or the environmental studies major, the education you receive explores a broad range of environmental problems as related to both human health and the health of the natural world—air, land and water. You’ll explore current and historical policies and debates, discuss how current situations could impact the future and, all the while, relate these topics to your primary major.

A unique difference pertaining to this major is that it must be taken simultaneously with another major. Rather than being contrary to the idea of liberal arts, this curriculum offers students more flexibility to take the classes in which they are genuinely interested while being able to graduate within four years.

“This major is not set up like your typical major,” said Ryan. “Unlike most majors that get at the idea of depth, which is really narrowing in on that one topic you’ve decided you like enough to learn the specifics, we’re more about breadth of your depth.”

Essentially, this means that environmental studies compliments whatever your primary major is. The curriculum is intentionally interdisciplinary, with a wide variety of course offerings spanning multiple departments, allowing the experience to be centered to their particular interests.

This flexibility also eases incorporation of studying abroad into your undergraduate experience. “Our students study abroad in great numbers,” said Ryan. “You can literally go just about anywhere and receive credit for environmental-related courses.”

Overall, the environmental studies program provides students with the knowledge they need to understand and discuss relevant topics while allowing them the flexibility to shape their own experience. “All the students in the program have environmental studies as their common denominator, but on top of that, all of these individuals have the power to bring their unique perspectives together to accomplish innovative problem solving,” said Ryan. “The amount and complexity of environmentally important things or problems cannot be solved by one discipline alone; we need all voices at the table.”

To learn more about the program, stop in the advising office in 70 Science Hall or visit

If you’re interested in what an environmental studies class is like, check out this list of featured courses offered this spring:

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