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New USF program to focus on Earth

As the world's population continues to soar, expected to pass 6-billion by the year 2000, a new undergraduate degree program at the University of South Florida aims at dealing with humanity's ever increasing impact on the environment.

It's not just about "saving the planet."

"But that's what people think of when they think of the environment," said Richard A. Davis, a distinguished research professor of geology and the environmental science and policy program director.

What USF hopes to do with its new interdisciplinary program is to train the next generation of environmental professionals who will have to deal with interrelated aspects of natural resources, laws that govern the use of those resources and the interests of the people they affect.

Once students finish the course requirements, they will be qualified to work for private and government agencies addressing problems like waste management, water, soil and air quality and pollution. But what will set these graduates apart from people with traditional science degrees is that they also will have a knowledge of advanced mathematics, policy issues, economics and ethical issues related to the environment.

The degree, housed as an interdisciplinary natural science degree in the College of Arts and Sciences, is expected to receive final approval from the state Board of Regents in July.

"It would be unusual for something to be turned down at this point," said Rollin Richmond, dean of the College of Art of Sciences. When Richmond submitted an implementation proposal to regents in September, he said there weren't any dissenting opinions. USF plans to grant degrees to 15 to 20 students within two or three years, according to a feasibility study of the program. That number is expected to triple in three years.

Students pursuing the degree must complete 51 hours in the major, and take either a policy or science emphasis.

But all candidates must take four of the five new core courses. Two introductory core classes, one which deals with policy issues and the other with science, will be offered for the first time in the spring. Candidates must take the seminar and choose between an internship or project to complete the core of the curriculum.

The supporting courses, such as biology, chemistry, environmental law and philosophy, already exist.

"I think it is absolutely essential for USF to have the degree," said Joni Freedman, national accounts manager for The Environmental Careers Organization, a non-profit agency that matches up college seniors and graduates into apprenticeships with government agencies, corporations and consulting firms.

While there always will be a need for specialists in biology and geology, Freedman said, more employers are asking for environmental science graduates.

More than 490,000 jobs in environmental industries, in everything from recycling to asbestos abatement, are expected to be created nationally, according to USF documents. And a survey conducted by USF showed a positive attitude by private, state and consulting organizations in implementing the broad-based degree.

"Unless its a high-tech job, they like to see students or graduates with a well-rounded background," she said.

Those people will be able to work outside the laboratory and understand and interpret legislation for state agencies as well as to the public, said Bruce Wirth, resource projects director for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

"The people I see in the profession now, they all had to learn a great deal outside of their field of training," Wirth said. He said engineers need to have an understanding of the concerns of hydrologists, and vice versa. "And all of them have to have an understanding of law, its intent, and what the public is looking for."

As USF's program is phased in, it will join two other state universities and three private universities in offering similar programs. Florida International University's program has been in place since 1972. The University of Florida, which is at the same planning stage as USF, and Florida State University both hope to offer a degree soon. At Eckerd College, Jacksonville University and Rollins College, 20 to 60 students graduate each year with undergraduate degrees in environmental sciences or studies.

But Davis doesn't expect graduates to flood the field. In fact, he predicts all 10 state universities will have their own undergraduate degrees focusing on some aspect of environmental sciences within 10 years.

As far as practical experience, Davis said, Florida graduates only have to step outside.

"Look at Florida. We have 16-million people living on this flat piece of limestone with a little bit of sand on the surface," he said. "We should have topped out a long time ago. And its not stopping."