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Students Practice What They Learn in Unique Sustainability Curriculum

MPA ’18 workshop group focusing on the Wildlife Innovation and Longevity Driver (W.I.L.D.) Act Faculty Advisor: Bob Cook
MPA ’18 workshop group focusing on the Wildlife Innovation and Longevity Driver (W.I.L.D.) Act (Faculty Advisor: Bob Cook)

It was in 2001 that the Earth Institute set out to create its first education program. It would produce a new kind of environmental professional—someone with formal training in management and policy analysis, but one who also understood the environmental science behind one’s management and policy actions. The program, too, would focus on the application of these skills in the real world, because the environment was in trouble and help was needed. The next year, the one-year Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy was established in partnership with the School of International and Public Affairs.

Since then, a three-semester special workshop course has anchored a curriculum that includes basic applied environmental science, management, and policy analysis. The workshop challenges students to integrate their knowledge and to apply it as if students were now holding jobs in the field.

The first part of the workshop takes place in the summer semester, when students first arrive at Columbia, and when they are concentrating on the key areas of environmental science: climatology, ecology, hydrology, environmental chemistry, and toxicology. What the workshop asks students to do then is to use this new knowledge to understand the science behind an environmental bill, and then to evaluate the bill’s scientific merit in addressing the environmental problem that it addresses. The course infuses the real world in this exercise by requiring students to work in teams, develop a work plan, and to make weekly presentations that translate the scientific issues in ways that non-scientists can understand.

In the fall when the students turn to management and policy, so does the workshop. This time, the student teams use their environmental bills as the basis for practicing program design, budgeting, and performance measurement. Each team has to create a program that would be responsible for implementing the bill if it were passed. This semester, teams are designing the implementation of bills that have to do with energy efficiency for businesses and secure and resilient water systems.

As  students enter the spring semester – their final one before graduation – the challenge to synthesize and apply their knowledge becomes greater. Now students leave their bills behind, and instead take on projects for clients in government and the non-profit sector. Since 2003, students in this program have completed nearly one hundred projects for organizations such as the Sierra Club and the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development. The range of projects is telling of the students’ ability to apply what they have learned to a great variety of environmental issues. In 2016, students worked on the carbon intensity and inefficiency of the United States energy grid. The year before on green procurement strategies for New York State.

Rachel Patterson, MPA ’18 presents on the Secure and Resilient Water Systems Act
Rachel Patterson, MPA ’18 presents on the Secure and Resilient Water Systems Act (Faculty Advisory: Howard Apsan)

By the end of these workshop courses, students have not only synthesized their formal training in environmental science, management, and policy, they have also gained ample practice in the skills that make them effective professionals: teamwork, project management, memo writing, and presentations. This training makes them stand apart and it makes them versatile. The employment statistics tell the story well: graduates are employed in fairly equal numbers in business, government, and civil society.

Prospective students can witness all of this learning every semester, when teams make public presentations about their projects, or they can see past presentations online. The application deadlines for this program are November 1 (early decision); January 15 (fellowship consideration); and February 15 (final).

Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and The Earth Institute jointly facilitate the MPA Program in Environmental Science and Policy. Now in its 13th year, the unique 1-year program has over 800 alumni who currently hold leading sustainability positions around the world.

The next deadline to apply to the MPA-ESP program is January 15th, 2018. Contact Laura Piraino [] to learn more.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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