State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Want to Be a Sustainability Expert? Don’t Quit Your Day Job!

By Kristen French

If a wildfire were to threaten a plastics manufacturing plant, how could potential damage to the plant be mitigated? As sea levels rise along the East Coast of the United States, how might this impact coastal bridges and roads, and how can engineers preserve their integrity? And how do you determine the carbon footprint of a toy truck made in China and sold to kids in the U.S.?

These and other similar sustainability science questions are increasingly becoming part of the risk management calculus for companies today. Getting a handle on sustainability has become an essential step in protecting future profit. But it’s also become a more technical discipline.

Columbia University is now offering a Sustainability Science masters program, which aims to train students to use sustainability science to solve real-world environmental problems. The program, which launches this month, will be aimed both at working professionals in a variety of different industries as well as newly minted college graduates with degrees in engineering, math, science and related fields.

Getting sustainability risk analyses right often requires understanding up-to-the-minute research in sustainability science and technology, and accounting for high levels of uncertainty. It may require deep knowledge of the workings of climate and marine systems, greenhouse gas emissions, climate modeling and applications, or remote sensing technology. Very few professionals have this kind of training.

Who do sustainability managers turn to when they need to make a decision about, say, whether to use plastic or aluminum packaging in a new product, or whether a new sea wall is tall enough to protect against rising seas and severe storms? In the future, they may turn to graduates of the Sustainability Science program.

“With the increased emphasis on environmental sustainability both in the U.S. and globally, public agencies, NGOs and private enterprises will need employees skilled in the scientific and technical components of assessing and managing environmental risk,” said Arthur Lerner-Lam, who directs the program and is deputy director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Students in the new masters program will learn to use scientific methods to observe and monitor sustainability, model data to understand the environment, and integrate science into the decision-making of organizations. It’s the kind of training that could prepare them for jobs in environmental assessment, environmental technologies, environmental engineering or environmental compliance.

A Unique Curriculum

The sustainability science masters differs from Columbia University’s masters degree in sustainability management in that it is focused more exclusively on science and engineering as opposed to policy, economics and finance.

Here are five more things you should know about the new program:

1. It’s customizable. Columbia’s Sustainability Science masters program will be siloed into separate tracks for professionals in different industries and departments. These will include: a pollution track, an ocean health track, a natural disaster response track, and a risk-assessment track.

2. It’s taught by scientists and practitioners. The program will be taught by PhD research scientists who work at one of the top-ranked environmental research institutions in the country. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is the world’s leader in earth and environmental science and a pioneer in the use of observational technologies—including aircraft, airborne and submarine drones, and satellites—in collecting and analyzing environmental data worldwide and in real time. In addition, students will be able to draw on the academic expertise of the wider Earth Institute and Columbia University communities.

3. It culminates in a real-world capstone project. Each student will be required to complete a client-oriented real world capstone project that integrates everything they have learned in the program. This can be a project with a real-world application within the company where they currently work.

4. The size is just right. The program aims to have approximately 30-40 students per class, about the same size as Columbia’s Sustainability Management program.

5. The timing is flexible. Students may complete the program in as few as three semesters, or as long as four years. The program offers both a full-time and a part-time option, as well as the flexibility to switch from one to the other each semester. Full-time students typically take four courses per semester; part-time students must take at least one course each semester.

The need for sustainability science professionals is growing. Is a career in this field right for you or your company? The Sustainability Science program is now accepting applications—the deadline for the Fall 2018 semester is May 15. Find out more on the program website.

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