Sangeet Anand | Environmental education should be a requirement, not an option

The statue of Benjamin Franklin outside College Hall on September 14, 2019. Credit: Kelly Chen

Penn’s four undergraduate schools offer programs to enhance student learning in all subject areas. These general requirements cover a wide range of academic disciplines ranging from hard sciences and mathematics to arts and humanities. Although these four programs address the elements necessary for a complete education, one major gap remains: the lack of an environmental foundation.

The global environmental emergency remains one of the most pressing issues of this century. This generation is forced to fight against various environmental poisons, such as rising carbon emissions and pollution of our air and water. Emerging environmental leaders, such as Greta Thunberg, show how today’s youth can take action against a deteriorating planet through a combination of activism and education. However, large gaps still exist in the knowledge of these environmental solutions in order to reverse the harmful effects of the environmental crisis. What can we do? Improve our environmental education systems.

An environmental education is an all-encompassing term for various fields in the environmental arenas. Agricultural life sciences, sustainable technologies, and green policymaking all contribute to this umbrella term. Effective environmental education is one that explores one of these categories and makes it applicable to the field of work that interests a student. For example, engineering students could use a heavy environmental requirement in STEM that exposes them to the development of green technologies. Nursing students would most likely prefer an environmental education that targets life sciences and human health.

Instilling an awareness of environmental issues early on can help individuals think broadly about how various career paths fit into sustainability. Additionally, educational programs can provide the right tools for students to instill a deeper understanding of the environmental crisis and to critically examine these challenges. Therefore, college curricula must include a comprehensive environmental education component to deal effectively with environmental issues.

Recently, the Wharton School’s Department of Legal Studies launched the course LGST 299: “Climate and Environmental Leadership in Action”. As one of the first 20 students to pilot the course, I was introduced to an interactive classroom setup with indoor and outdoor components. Part of the course required each student to participate in a camping venture in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., where we had to apply the skills we learned in class. Since I had never been camping before, I was tasked with difficult tasks such as setting up tents, monitoring the amount of litter produced, and navigating the terrain. During all of this, I was simultaneously reviewing various classroom lessons such as ecosystem services and leadership skills. This is environmental education as it should be: integrating environmental knowledge with real-world applicability, bridging the gap between experience and education.

While there are a few other classes like this, most of Penn’s environmental programs remain rooted in student interest and are only offered as electives. As a result, many students are unaware of some of the groundbreaking sustainability and eco-friendly technology courses offered by Penn.

On the other hand, the prerequisites for environmental science courses such as ENVS 100: “Introduction to Environmental Science” provide a generic view of the subject as a whole that often leaves students indifferent to how they can relate this course to their interests. Additionally, the SSAP (Student Sustainability Association at Penn) and its partner environmental clubs take a traditional approach to environmentalism that focuses on the Penn campus itself. Classes and clubs must go beyond Penn and create impact for all kinds of communities and places.

The University of Minnesota has incorporated a general education requirement that requires most students to complete at least three credits in environmentally related courses during their undergraduate years. This requirement has led professors from all different university departments to engage in environmental literacy. As a result, students are better able to relate their interests to environmental responsibility. This shows that the same can be done even at Penn. Penn can create targeted environmental course requirements for each undergraduate school to generate interest in reducing our global environmental footprint.

SANGEET ANAND is a sophomore at Wharton studying economics with a focus on business, environment, energy, and sustainability from Potomac, MD. His email address is