Milestone Degree Propels Kent State Stark and Its Students into a New Evolution
Growing up, Kristina Doering-Hippich skipped down to explore the creek that flowed near her childhood home in Green. She took to the outdoors, this girl who grew up in the Scouts and celebrated Earth Day with her family.
Now raising her own three children, she understands what we do today impacts the future of our planet: for ourselves, our children and our children’s children.
“You can change the course of life, no matter where you are,” said Doering-Hippich, a Kent State University at Stark junior majoring in environmental geography. “There’s a point when you can shift and focus on green living, on giving back, on making a change.”
That change begins this fall as environmentally forward initiatives at Kent State Stark reach a pinnacle point. Kent State Stark and Kent State University are simultaneously introducing a new degree: Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies.
The move is a milestone marking the 20th bachelor’s degree that can be completed in its entirety at Kent State Stark.
“We celebrate degree number 20,” said Denise A. Seachrist, Ph.D., Kent State Stark dean and chief administrative officer. “An education is about showing the relevancy. We always are reflective and looking back at our history with pride, but we are always looking forward with hope. We have to find that balance, and this degree captures that nicely.”
Kent State Stark’s degree offerings have grown exponentially in number and scope over the years. Students can now start and finish 20 bachelor’s degrees, four master’s degrees, three associate degrees and more than 30 minors entirely at Kent State Stark. One such bachelor’s program, music technology, is only available at the Stark Campus. Other popular degree tracks include nursing, biology, business management, marketing and middle childhood education.
“The environmental studies degree is unique for our campus,” explained A. Bathi Kasturiarachi, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs, “especially because this is probably the first time a new degree has been offered at the Kent and Stark campuses from the get-go.”
A large globe finds a home in the corner of Room 217 in Main Hall. Blue and gold balloons float low to the floor following a recent celebration.
Doering-Hippich settles into her seat in Dr. Chris Post’s classroom. The associate professor of geography turns to address the students in his nature and society course. “Most people think climate change will harm Americans, but they don’t think it will happen to them,” he said. “How could this be?”
A graph reflecting the survey results shines brightly on a projector screen. The numbers stare back at the students eagerly jotting notes. Doering-Hippich doesn’t look up from her note-taking. She is familiar with the story and remains concerned that many in society are either unfamiliar or unwilling to take action steps that will slow harmful changes to the environment.
Cap and trade approach, climate protection agreements – all terms that for the lay person may seem daunting, but for students in this classroom they are powerful tools used to reduce harmful emissions.
The lessons Doering-Hippich and her fellow students learn in nature and society can be used toward the new environmental studies degree. The class is a core requirement.
The degree will prepare students to integrate concepts and knowledge on environmental issues from across multiple disciplines and to communicate about these in important ways. Throughout their studies, students will develop a set of key competencies in earth systems science, environmental social science, human-natural systems and sustainability science to be able to solve specific environmental problems.
Graduates of the program will understand the environment and how it relates to human activity and human resource needs. They also will be able to articulate how environmental problems are framed and how public attitudes and policies can be harnessed to provide solutions to environmental issues.
The B.A. in environmental studies is administered by the Department of Geography but the interdisciplinary components of the degree make it a truly unique offering.
“Working with environmental concerns is not just within the sciences, but it can work into the realm of the social sciences and the humanities,” Post explained. “We will be dealing with a lot of topics. Every geography Ph.D. can teach physical geography and human geography – it is all about the intersection of human activity and environment – that’s why geography and geographers will direct this degree program.”
Post, along with Greg Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences; and David Kaplan, Ph.D., professor of geography at Kent worked together to make the new degree program a reality.
“We are just excited about bringing a program to campus that will incorporate a number of faculty across departments – typically in higher education that’s not how you do it,” Post acknowledged. “You do not work interdepartmentally to establish a new program. We want to put our students in the best position to get the jobs they want, and that’s what we are accomplishing with this program.
“I have had students coming to me and asking for some type of environmental degree for a few years now,” Post continued. “Dr. David Kaplan noticed the need to have such a degree that several programs already on campus can come together to play a part in. The hope is to retain on campus these students who have environmental interests but may want to use those interests to affect public policy.”
And for millennials such as Doering-Hippich, Kent State Stark’s timing could not be more perfect. She is interested in sustainability and paying attention to the environment daily.
“We would be behind if we were not offering this degree. This generation has grown up with climate change,” Seachrist said. “Couple that awareness with the interdisciplinary aspect of this degree and it becomes user-friendly for our students. If they have an aspect that they are really strong in they can focus on that while reaching out to a different discipline.”
The degree program, approved by the Higher Learning Commission and the Ohio Department of Higher Education, will appeal to any student with an interest in environmental studies. “This is a good example of a degree that has both the sciences and social sciences mixed in,” said Kasturiarachi. “It is a very well-rounded degree and that is how it is designed in other parts of the country as well.”
A Perfect Fit
Both Kasturiarachi and Seachrist agreed the degree fits the mission of Kent State Stark.
“The fact we have a LEED gold-certified Science and Nursing Building where we capture rain water and harvest the light, an environmental studies program really fits nicely with the goal of the campus,” Seachrist said.
Grants have provided for sustaining wetlands behind the Science and Nursing Building and a wind turbine, which generates some power. New funding obtained by Matthew Lehnert, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences, was awarded by the Kent State University Foundation for the construction of a teaching and research greenhouse also on the eastern hub of campus.
From a biological sciences perspective, Smith said faculty commitment to undergraduate research and obtaining the resources to do the work is evident in the 17-acre parcel of land and wetlands on campus that has become an outdoor classroom. The pond is well-suited for wetland research, he explained.
“Biology is a support field in environmental studies, but the outdoor classroom is a good place for them to look at natural resources and potential impact on natural resources,” Smith explained. “We can focus on that area, which is surrounded by human influence. Over the course of their studies, they get to know that parcel well and from different perspectives. Students can really put their learning to the test.”
Smith added Kent State Stark, which offers a Bachelor of Arts in Biology, is experiencing increased enrollment in the biology program.
“One of the things that has been most evident over the past three years since I’ve been here, there is lots of support for research,” Smith said. “We’ve tried to get students more involved in research and more and more of our students are taking advantage of doing independent research projects. Our faculty is committing more time to working with students in the field. Grades are important but they need experience.”
A new course this past summer provided students with the opportunity to design, plant, water and harvest a campus garden. The course, taught by Post, focused on giving students the tools, time, contacts and guidance necessary to set up a network of organizations and individuals who participated in the food’s organic production and distribution. The goal: to empower students to find better solutions to food concerns.
“The overarching goal,” explained Kasturiarachi, “not only is to use the garden as a food incubator to provide fresh vegetables for our Conference Center but also for Flash’s Food Pantry and the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank.” “It is a beautiful cycle,” added Seachrist.
‘Save the World’
Where food is produced in the world and where there is malnutrition also was explored in Post’s summer garden course.
“When we look at global trends, we must look at local economies,” he said.
Back in Room 217, Post knows each of his students by name. Geography, he explained, is the only discipline looking at scale and is best suited to understand issues of scale on a global, national and local level.
“How do we live green on campus, for example?” Post asked. “We build buildings that have as small a carbon footprint as possible. We use wind turbines and solar panels. We build a green roof on our new building, which is a way to counter carbon emissions.
“As we implement climate-safe progress into the classroom, that puts Kent State Stark at the forefront,” he told his nature and society students.
For Doering-Hippich, understanding environmental issues and how she can make a difference keeps her aiming for her degree while being mom to her 12, 9 and 5 year olds.
Recalling the creek near her childhood home where waters flowed with diverse wildlife, she now understands it’s all about sustaining what we have while positively impacting the future.
“I guess, really, what I’ve always wanted is what most of us want," said Doering-Hippich.
“What I’ve always wanted is to save the world.”