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Environmental science a booming field

Thanks to such issues as climate change, fracking and the need to replace aging infrastructure, the public is more attuned to the environment. Environmental science employment is forecast to expand 15 percent by 2022. Southwestern Michigan College’s Associate in Science transfer degree provides a sturdy, affordable foundation for baccalaureate degrees opening doors to fields from A to Z — acoustical engineering, archaeology, agriculture and astronomy to zoology — with forestry, botany, geology, biology, hydrology, seismology, entomology, meteorology and climate science, among many others, sandwiched in between.

Environmental science careers are so varied they almost defy categorization — waste management/recycling, conservation/resource officer, environmental and sustainability consultants, water- and air-quality scientists, environmental laboratory chemists, environmental educators, environmental engineers, resource economists, environmental lawyers and EPA inspectors.

“There are a gazillion things you can do with an environmental degree and a lot of interest. I had a student who graduated last year and another in the spring who want to double-major in environmental journalism,” said Deirdre Kurtis, who teaches ENST 112, a comprehensive semester elective for non-science majors.

“Core classes (biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics) you can do [at SMC] your first two years, then branch out and specialize your third and fourth years. Western offers environment and sustainability studies and freshwater science, Central Michigan has environmental science, Michigan State has environmental science and policy and Grand Valley has an environmental studies program. Those are some schools I know our students head to,” Kurtis said.

Indiana University South Bend offers a sustainability studies degree.

“I tell students to specialize in what they’re passionate about, which doesn’t mean they can’t do something else. I work with Simeon Paulson, environmental stewardship director at Camp Friedenswald” at Shavehead Lake in eastern Cass County’s Porter Township. “He’s an edibles expert” who majored in biology.

“Businesses are interested in sustainability and not depleting natural resources because it makes sense economically,” Kurtis said. “It costs them lots to dispose of stuff. Being eco-friendly can save them a ton of money. From an energy perspective, we see a lot more LEED-certified buildings,” such as the Pokagon Band Community Center off Dailey Road, just south of SMC’s Dowagiac campus.

Kurtis grew up in New Jersey, daughter of an aerospace engineer and always interested in math and science, in contrast to her brother and sister.

After earning a resource management degree with a minor in marine science, she worked in a laboratory for two years.

Kurtis left the lab, where she felt isolated, and consulted a career counselor, who “helped me figure out I definitely wanted to do environmental stuff because I’m passionate about it, balancing it with working with people. Nobody inspired me to go into science. I thought by teaching maybe I could be that connection person because I’m excited about science.”

Her belief that scientists could be more effective communicating their knowledge led her to coach her father, who is now an adjunct instructor, how to “bridge his knowledge” and find the “meeting point between what you know and what [students] know. If you talk up here all day it’s like another language,” discouraging students who feel anxiety about science.

“It’s not dumbing things down,” she said, “it’s grabbing them and bringing them up by simplifying it, relating it and explaining it a different way.”