New Environmental Management Curriculum Promotes Depth, Breadth... and Flexibility

burke auditorium
The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) is launching a new curriculum for one of its core academic programs, the Master of Environmental Management (MEM) degree, which places more emphasis on subject specialization while at the same time building common foundational skills and affording flexibility.
Beginning in the 2018-19 academic year, MEM students will be required to select from one of eight academic specializations — all of which are geared toward meeting the environmental challenges of the 21st century.
While the format provides a clear roadmap to complete a degree in one of these subject areas, students can still devote more than half their academic load to classes outside their chosen specialization, retaining the flexibility that has been a popular component of the MEM program.
This curriculum will provide a new level of depth in the students’ chosen area while still offering the flexibility that we’re known for in our course programming.
— Julie Zimmerman, F&ES professor and senior associate dean of academic affairs
All incoming MEM students will also be required to take a series of common courses that will provide a shared foundation of knowledge and interdisciplinary perspectives that are essential for any environmental professional.
“This curriculum will provide a new level of depth in the students’ chosen area while still offering the flexibility that we’re known for in our course programming,” said Julie Zimmerman, professor of green engineering and senior associate dean of academic affairs at F&ES.
The new curriculum also introduces “learning communities” — including online portals that highlight the people, organizations, career paths and other resources — associated with each specialization.
“I believe this is one of the most exciting elements of the new curriculum,” said F&ES Dean Indy Burke, who made curriculum evaluation a priority after arriving in 2016. “These dynamic communities will create an organization around the specializations — including research, practice, events, and workshops — in a way that extends education and training beyond the classroom and illustrates potential professional opportunities.”
The new specialization areas are:
Students will also have the option to create — in consultation with their faculty advisor — their own “self-designed” specialization track, based on their professional interests. And other specialization subject areas are likely to emerge in coming years.
The School’s other degree programs — the Master of Forestry, the Master of Environmental Science, and the Master of Forest Science — will remain unchanged.
The revised curriculum represents a major step forward in what has been a continuing conversation at the School about how to best prepare students for the world’s increasingly complex environmental challenges — and for a rapidly changing job market.
The process — which was co-led by Zimmerman and Matthew Kotchen, professor of economics and former/interim associate dean for academic affairs — incorporated feedback from faculty and students, alumni and prospective employers.
Ultimately, Kotchen said, the new curriculum doesn’t change the mission of the school: to lead the world toward a sustainable future with cutting edge research, teaching, and public engagement on environmental challenges.
It simply changes how it’s done.
The environmental management field has matured over the past couple of decades… so the mission of a School like F&ES has to continue to evolve.
— Matthew Kotchen, F&ES professor and interim associate dean for academic affairs
“We’ve actually offered the opportunity to choose a specialization for a few years, but going forward we’re going to do it in a more focused way,” he said. “These changes are in part a response to Indy Burke’s leadership, but also because the world demands it.”
“The environmental management field has matured over the past couple of decades; it’s not just a fringe issue anymore, it’s a mainstream issue. So the mission of a School like F&ES has to continue to evolve to meet the challenges that come with that.”
Here’s how the new curriculum will work:
All incoming MEM students, regardless of their specialization, will take a common “perspectives” course as a group. This course will examine the challenges and opportunities of environmental management through the lenses of multiple perspectives and disciplines represented by the School’s faculty and staff.
Then, as a group, they will complete up to four half-semester courses that provide a common foundation of concepts, principles and tools required of all professional environmental managers — and an understanding necessary for initial MEM courses. (Requirements will be based on each student’s prior experiences.)
Those foundational courses (1.5 credits each) are:
  • Social Science Foundations for Environmental Managers
  • Physical Science Foundations for Environmental Managers
  • Ecological Patterns and Processes
  • Microeconomics for Environmental Management
By the end of their second semester, students will choose a specialization area, which will require completion of two core courses and four elective courses. All students will also participate in a designated  capstone course or independent project in the second year. In addition, students will be able to improve their competency in core professional skills — leadership and interpersonal skills; communications; project management and finance; technical skills; and work-life balance — in a series of short, non-credit modules.
Added together, those requirements will account for less than half of a student’s required credit hours, leaving ample opportunity to explore different disciplines or subject areas from across F&ES and Yale. Students may also elect to complete a second specialization.
“It’s very common for students to come in and not know what they want to do,” said James Saiers, Clifton R. Musser Professor of Hydrology, who helped introduce the idea of specializations while he was associate dean of academic affairs. “Or, just as frequently, they think they do know what they want to do but then change course after they’re exposed to these courses or issues that they didn’t even know about.”
In fact, the curriculum was designed to encourage interaction between disciplines and subject areas, from the foundational courses taught to all MEM students to the opportunity for capstone experiences that allow students to work with people from other specializations.
“We really believe this curriculum will better prepare our students for their future careers,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not necessarily driven simply by content or knowledge — because these things can change over time and you find that information online. Rather the emphasis will be on helping students understand how to think, how to solve problems, how to innovate, how to work in teams.”
“These are skills they will be able to take with them as much as the knowledge they get here.”
PUBLISHED: March 1, 2018
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.