While a lot of us weren’t looking, green grew up and went off to college – think multiple degree programs, from sustainable agriculture and ecotourism to environmental liberal arts.

GGGGoing green on campus used to mean placing recycling bins in the dorms. Today, sustainability is increasingly found in the classroom, as more schools add sustainability degrees and programs to their academic offerings. From energy efficiency certification programs at community colleges to complete environmental immersion at Unity College or College of the Atlantic, green degrees are on the rise.

One of the latest efforts is under way at University of Maine Machias, a campus on the coast with about 1,000 students.

This fall, University of Maine Machias officials are deep in the process of re-branding their entire school around the current interest in environmental and community sustainability. It’s an outgrowth of the schools’ environmental liberal arts program, created about six years ago.

Machias already offers programs in marine biology, environmental recreation and tourism, and requires students to take “The Maine Coastal Odyssey,” a four-seminar course steeped in environmental sustainability.

“This is certainly in response to both what students are expecting and in anticipation of their career needs,” said UM Machias Provost Stuart Swain. “These issues of sustainability are interwoven in not only many different kinds of professional work, but also in preparing liberally educated students to confront the issues they’ll face in the world.”

Among the possibilities campus leaders are considering is shifting Machias to a three-semester academic year, or to create a “semester by the sea” program to attract students from other University of Maine campuses. That could bring in more students and more revenue, and take advantage of the weather and mostly empty facilities during the summer months. Much of the coursework in these programs is outdoors, officials said, and there are ways to maximize the potential of the school’s location and environmental focus.

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” President Cynthia Huggins told system trustees earlier this year.


Universities have long had natural sciences programs, and started carving out “green degree” programs in the 1960s as part of the burgeoning environmental movement. More recently, the trend has been toward degrees that are explicitly tied to sustainability, and overlaying those sustainability practices onto traditional fields of study, from architecture to engineering.

Many of the earliest environmental studies programs were at private universities such as Unity College and College of the Atlantic; the first environmental studies undergraduate degree was launched in 1965 at Middlebury College in Vermont.

According to the Princeton Review, more than 600 colleges and universities around the country offer degrees in environmental sustainability. Even specialty schools, such as the Boston Architectural College, offer specialized programs. In addition to historical preservation and classical architecture, the college offers a sustainable design program.

The academic programs have been fueled by a need in the marketplace, experts say.

According to federal labor statistics, the number of “green jobs” is increasing and as of 2011, the most recent data available, 3.4 million people were in jobs that produce goods and provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources.

In some cases, the sustainability program might be a minor to a traditional major. Or it could be a completely new degree.

In June, the University of Maine System trustees approved two new degree programs, both keyed to the growing sustainability movement.

Starting this fall, the University of Maine in Orono is offering a bachelor of arts degree in Human Dimensions of Climate Change, while the University of Maine at Farmington is offering a bachelor of arts in Outdoor Recreation Business Administration. At UM Presque Isle, they’ve started a sustainable agriculture concentration within their Environmental Studies and Sustainability program.

And sustainability is seen as a need in almost every sector. Earlier this month, the South Portland city council adopted a raft of local sustainability initiatives, and said they support hiring a full-time sustainability coordinator.

Sustainable ecotourism is another growing area, particularly in the Maine tourism market, according to David Jones, an associate professor in the Recreation and Leisure Studies at University of Southern Maine. Among the new offerings are the Maine Huts & Trails, with hiking between four eco-lodges, and an increase in sea kayaking, biking, and whale watching.

“That’s the niche right now, a whole new area” said Jones, who oversees a USM certification program in sustainable tourism. “People are starting to recognize that the environment is what people are coming here for.”

At Unity College, all students take the “Environmental Citizen Curriculum” as a base, conceived as a framework of sustainability science for all students. The school offers 16 environmentally focused majors.

Similarly, College of the Atlantic is another higher education institution in Maine that has long woven its entire curriculum around sustainability. There, all students major in human ecology, and tailor their individual programs from that base into their own specific academic design.


At Machias, rebranding the school to emphasize the environmental liberal arts program made sense for students and the school, the provost said.

“We know that issues about the environment, and our ability as individuals and as a community to flourish within that environment, will be paramount questions over the next century,” Swain said.

Meghan Duff, an associate professor of psychology teaches one of the intro environmental liberal arts courses to Machias freshmen. “We’re always trying to think about large, complex problems and how to solve them,” she said of the class. “That’s the gist of sustainability. It’s not just water and trees. It’s how do we build a neighborhood that’s sustainable?”

Duff said she takes the students out to local farms, working with them to identify and solve specific challenges in the workplace. “I like getting students to see how things connect,” she said. “I think we do better by our students this way than with a narrow focus.”

Hands-on work is critical to the programs, several instructors said.

“It’s designed so we’re not just teaching about sustainability, the students are actually doing it,” said Robert Sanford, chairman of the department of environmental science and policy at USM.

All freshmen and transfer students in that department take a field immersion course, for example, spending a long weekend at a camp on Coffee Pond in Casco, learning basic orienteering and map reading, topographical surveying, GPS use, and plant and tree identification.

“We work really hard on building community, and we work really hard on preparing the students for jobs,” Sanford said.


At the community college level, several Maine colleges have added new certification programs to meet the demand for more people trained in renewable energy fields.

Southern Maine Community College in South Portland has a Sustainability and Energy Alternatives Center that is used to train students in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

The University of Southern Maine has a similar “energy house” at the Gorham campus, which is used for hands-on training.

Travis Wagner, who oversees USM’s sustainability minor program, said companies are moving beyond compliance with regulations and are recognizing that it’s good business to proactively seek out ways to be more environmentally sound.

“You can’t just say you’re a green company anymore. Customers are a lot more savvy,” Wagner said. “We’re seeing the rise of the sustainability manager.”

Many Maine schools see themselves as perfectly positioned to meet that need, since they can provide hands-on training with local businesses, and using abundant local natural resources, to train the next generation of sustainability workers.

“It’s all about continuity,” Machias Provost Swain said about the evolving identity of the school. “We’re in a rural community and tied closely to that community and the natural resources here. Environmental liberal arts is formally recognizing that, and enhancing that identity.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: