News release: Student demand surges for environmental studies courses at Rice U.


Katharine Shilcutt

Student demand surges for environmental studies courses
Rice’s Center for Environmental Studies responds with new and expanded courses, fall speaker series

HOUSTON – (Sept. 9, 2020) – As climate change emerges as the most important issue to a growing number of young voters, Rice University is witnessing a surge in demand for environmental studies classes. And the Center for Environmental Studies, which houses the popular environmental studies minor, is responding by expanding its classes and programs.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson will discuss the question “What Is Climate Justice Now?” during an Oct. 12 online lecture.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson will discuss the question “What Is Climate Justice Now?” during an Oct. 12 online lecture.

In addition to a public lecture series bringing in such voices as the “How to Save a Planet” podcast co-host Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, the Center for Environmental Studies is increasing the size of current classes, adding new undergraduate classes and a new graduate seminar in environmental humanities, and implementing a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation alongside the Humanities Research Center.

Enrollment in the intro-level environmental studies course has more than tripled over the last three fall semesters and includes students from more than 20 majors. The class gives a broad introduction to the many subjects people encounter when they think about the environment, climate and ecology. Rice’s environmental sciences major includes foundational coursework in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, but the minor considers different angles entirely.

“Our job is to consider questions from the point of view of humanities, social sciences, art and architecture,” said Joseph Campana, Center for Environmental Studies director.

A growing number of students enter their environmental studies courses with an understanding that Earth’s changing climate will be the central problem their generation must tackle, Campana said. A survey of the 76 students in his current intro course revealed reasons for enrolling such as “I can’t imagine a subject that needs more attention right now,” he said.

This semester, most environmental studies courses are packed, including the ever-popular Environmental Justice and Sci-Fi and the Environment.

“If environmental challenges were just natural science challenges or just engineering challenges, we would have solved a lot of this a long time ago,” said Richard Johnson, director of Rice’s Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management. “But they’re cultural, they’re economic, they’re social, they’re religious — it really touches every single discipline.”

Appealing to students from a broad range of majors was the purpose of the minor from its inception. And it’s a strength the Center for Environmental Studies is playing to by incorporating faculty from across Rice in its classes and lecture series.

“One in every 5 faculty members at Rice is identified as working with environmental issues in some way in what they do,” Johnson said. “If we weren’t approaching this in a collaborative and interdisciplinary manner, we would not be doing our jobs.”

This semester, a new online lecture series — Planet Now! Conversations in Environmental Studies, which is free and available to the general public — speaks directly to the questions posed in the Center for Environmental Studies courses.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder and CEO of Ocean Collectiv and founder of Urban Ocean Lab, will speak to the question of “What Is Climate Justice Now?” Oct. 12 at 6 p.m. The first lecture in the Planet Now! series will take place Sept. 14 at 6 p.m. and address the question “What Is Environmental Justice?”

A full lineup of speakers and webinar registration information can be found at


This news release can be found online at

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Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,962 undergraduates and 3,027 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 4 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.