University of Pittsburgh
February 17, 2016

Pitt Adds Environmental Science Major

Department name changed to reflect new focus

Joe Miksch


Cell: 412-997-0314

PITTSBURGH—The University of Pittsburgh will introduce a new Bachelor of Science degree in environmental science this fall. Because of the increased focus on environmental research within the University’s Department of Geology and Planetary Science, the department recently made two substantial changes: updating the name to Department of Geology and Environmental Science and developing the new degree option. 

“Our faculty expertise has recently expanded into new research areas related to the environment and climate over the last several years, so developing an undergraduate program in environmental science and changing the name of the department were obvious steps forward for both the department and the University,” said Mark Abbott, chair of and professor in the department, which is within the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

The process that effected the change began in 2013, when the department conducted an external review. The outside faculty evaluators “told us that we have a lot of potential in environmental science. They said, ‘You’re already doing a great deal of research in the area. Because of Pittsburgh’s industrial history, there’s a lot to study,’ and we agreed,” said Associate Professor Emily Elliott.

From this initial idea, the department faculty members created a strategic plan and began to redesign established classes and form new ones while determining the major’s focus. The new environmental science major joins existing majors in the department, a geology (BS) degree and an environmental studies (BA) degree that is more interdisciplinary, incorporating areas such as environmental history and economics, as well as a fundamental understanding of environmental issues. 

Elliott says that the environmental science major will have four areas of focus: hydrology, geology, ecology, and climate dynamics. The major will include the impact of humans on these Earth systems. Students will be required to develop a fundamental knowledge of chemistry, physics, and biology and to apply that knowledge to environmental systems.

“Department Chairman Mark Abbott provided the leadership to make these changes, and we’ve had a great deal of support from the dean’s office,” said Elliott. “The department is clearly moving in the right direction with the development of the environmental science undergraduate program as it better captures the faculty’s expertise and will provide students a range of field and lab research experiences.”

Ongoing fieldwork in the department takes place on six continents and covers a wide range of topics including climate and environmental change, water sustainability and green infrastructure, energy geoscience, surface processes, tectonics, volcanic hazards, and environmental biogeochemistry, among others. The department consists of 11 tenure-stream faculty, 3 lecturers, approximately 40 graduate students, and 200 undergraduates.

Faculty members are expecting robust enrollment in the new major that intersects the existing majors of geology and environmental studies, particularly given job growth in the environmental sciences regionally and nationally. Employment in environmental science is projected to grow 11 percent from 2014 to 2024, considerably faster than 7 percent average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.