Board of Regents approve University of Iowa’s request for degree in sustainability science

Beginning in the fall the University of Iowa will offer a bachelor of science in sustainability science, focusing on human, environmental, and social issues involving sustainability.


Roman Slabach

The Old Capital from the roof of UIHC in Iowa City, Iowa on March 25, 2019.

Kelsey Harrell, News Reporter

After three years of development, the University of Iowa has received approval from the state Board of Regents to offer a bachelor of science degree in sustainability science beginning in the fall.

It will be an interdisciplinary degree involving different UI departments, allowing for connections among each area of focus to understand the broader idea of sustainability. In each discipline, the focus tends to not be on interconnectedness but on the individual area itself. The new degree will focus on the interactions of humans with the environment around them, said Professor David Bennett, the Geographical & Sustainability Sciences Department chair.

The degree will connect environmental issues with economic issues, allowing students to have a better understanding of how changes in economics can affect the environment, Bennett said. There will be courses offered in the major focusing on the environment, analytical skills, and communication, he said.

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Being able to communicate the complexity of the issue of sustainability to the public in effective way is an important skill for students in the major to have, he said. The major also gives students the flexibility to specialize in human, natural, analytical, or science issues in sustainability, he said.

“Many of the most important problems that we’re facing right now can be, and are often bundled, in that concept of sustainability and resilience more generally,” Bennett said.

The UI offers a certificate in sustainability, but it is very broad. The new degree will have different focuses for students to choose from, Bennett said, and it will be rigorous with all the requirements in numerous areas of focus.

A major in sustainability science is offered at only one other university in the state, and the UI will be the only regent university to offer a degree in sustainability for undergraduate students, said Helena Dettmer, the liberal-arts associate dean for undergraduate programs and curriculum.

“I think one of the benefits of doing this degree is because of the complexity of global warming,” Dettmer said. “The broader more interdisciplinary the degree is, the better prepared a person’s going to be to try to see all the picture and the consequences of actions.”

During the three-year process of developing the degree, the departments involved wanted to create a degree that was rigorous and would prepare students for a career in the field once they graduated, Dettmer said.

With the expertise in sustainability the UI faculty have, it puts the university in a place where it can be one of the first to offer a degree in that area, said Andrew Forbes, an associate professor of biology. 

Compared with environmental science, which focuses on the natural world, sustainability science focuses on social systems, agriculture, and urban systems, Forbes said. There’s more of a social concept to the sustainability-science degree that sets it apart from environmental science, he said.

“We’re so strong in these environmental and sustainability fields, the university is a great place to study if you have any interest in those things at all,” Forbes said.