State of the Planet

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Senior Shares Insights on Sustainable Development Program

By Jessica Sotomayor2014-08-02 14.12.04

Norman Shafto is a senior in the undergraduate sustainable development major program.

What drew you to the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development?
What most drew me to the program was the interdisciplinary approach to looking at our planet’s issues. I had previously considered studying electrical engineering or environmental science, but sustainable development allowed me to take a path somewhere between those two.

What areas of sustainable development are you most interested in, and why?
Renewable energy certainly tops the list. While I may have been better equipped to help forward the field had I studied electrical engineering, I can better act as a lesion between engineers, scientists, and policy makers to find where renewable energy technologies are most needed.

What skills do you hope to acquire through the program?
As a senior time is running out, but I am certainly not done yet. During my time in the program I gained an understanding of climate systems, how they are changing, and the role these systems play in how society functions in terms of health, resource management, and urban planning. Learning to work with GIS provides a hands-on opportunity to put this knowledge into practice.

How do you intend to utilize these skills, and your degree, once you graduate?
I am somewhat unintendedly heading into the environmental policy-making arena, where I think people with the broad range of skills I have acquired are needed.

What is your favorite class in the SDEV program so far, and why?
I really enjoyed Climate Systems, despite the long weekly lab reports. The class provided a great in-depth overview of how the atmosphere, biosphere, and oceans interact with one another. I have applied that knowledge in nearly every other class, whether to think about urban air pollution, tropical diseases, or lack of water flow in the Nile River Basin.

Beyond the classroom, what, if any, extracurricular sustainability-related activities have you engaged in?
I have been an editor for Consilience – The Journal of Sustainable Development since my first semester here, exposing me to sustainability issues studied by scientists and scholars from around the globe.

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems, offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the Sustainable Development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health.

To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, please visit our website or contact Jessica Sotomayor, program manager, at


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