Environmental science degrees: Save the planet while you study

Concern about the eco-system is attracting more students to take the subject
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The word "environment" has been cropping up in course titles for several decades now. A trawl through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) list throws up first degrees that mix this feel-good buzzword with linguistics, marketing, Latin American studies and chemistry. Anything goes, it would seem.

But, for a university to offer a degree called "environmental science", the amount of flexibility narrows sharply. Several core elements have to be included, and new students quickly start an in-depth study of water, rock, soil and air, of what happens when these substances interact, and of what can go wrong when we throw a spanner in the works and influence the natural processes.

To cope with that, you'll probably need to have spent slightly more time in your school's science block than in lessons involving the wordier subjects. "What we are running is a science degree," explains Professor Harry Pinkerton, head of the department of environmental science at Lancaster University. In common with most universities, Lancaster requires at least one science subject at A-level to enter the course, and stresses the scientific demands of much of the degree.

For example, in dealing with climate change, students have to master the physics and chemistry that's driving it. To that end, Lancaster students without A-level maths and chemistry have to take courses in those subjects.

But this degree is certainly not all lectures and books. Students will also find themselves in wellies and anoraks, studying at close quarters the changes in the outside world. Within a week or two of starting, Lancaster students travel, with Professor Pinkerton, to a remote valley in the Yorkshire Dales, to look at how mankind's influence has blurred the evidence of glaciation.

Lancaster and the University of East Anglia were the first universities, back in the 1960s, to offer a degree in environmental science, and today are among a small handful to have a department of environmental science.

At most other places, courses in environmental science, and its close relation, environmental studies, are taught across several academic departments, reflecting the wide reach of the subject.

At Manchester University, for example, modules in the first year include maths, geography, geology, biology, chemistry and a chunk of fieldwork. "That sounds like a long list of subjects," agrees the programme director Dave Polya. "But if we are understanding the earth as a whole system, there are a number of important specialities to cover."

Polya, too, emphasises the role of maths in the course, to enable students to calculate, for example, the safe limit for pollutants in drinking water, or the acceptable level of discharges from factories into rivers. This, he argues, symbolises how scientific precision is essential, to back up the more emotional arguments advanced in ecological debates. "Now it's no longer sufficient to say 'benzene is a bad thing, so we must ban it'," he explains.

That's not to say that communication skills aren't also important for environmental science courses. "You need scientists with an awareness of the interface between science and politics and the regulatory bodies," says Polya.

Manchester offers an environmental studies course as well as the "science" version. The two degrees have much in common in the first year and then diverge, the "studies" students veering more into politics and economics while not abandoning their scientific base.

However, there is no uniform dividing-line between the two types of degree, and it pays to look carefully at the exact content of each course, regardless of its title.

Salford University's BA in environmental studies is a good example of a distinctly social studies-based degree. It contains no overtly scientific elements, and applicants do not need to have a science subject at A-level. "It concentrates much more on the sociological aspects connected to environmental changes," says the programme leader, Andrew Clarke.

Whatever the degree's name, though, all graduates are well placed to enter a job market that has grown from almost nothing 30 years ago to one now thought to employ 170,000 people in the UK.

And there's no sign that man's behaviour around the world is changing enough to cause this sector to shrink much in the near future.