Social Sciences

Sustainability Science and Society—BS

Sustainability science is an emerging field that explores the interactions between global, social, and natural systems in order to understand how sustainable those systems are. The goal is to meet present needs (such as health, energy, food, shelter, and transportation), without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In light of unprecedented environmental degradation, social instability, and economic uncertainties in today’s world, the degree in sustainability cultivates the complex knowledge and skills needed for graduates to foster a secure and healthy future for all.

Global climate change and environmental degradation offer new challenges and new opportunities as government, businesses, and the public look for solutions. Sustainability requires the integration of three core dimensions:

  1. ethics, equity, and justice;
  2. natural sciences and technology; and
  3. economics, policy, and governance.

Venn diagram with economy, environment, and society. People figures, a graph, and a globe to represent each area

Students in the Sustainability Science and Society (SSS) major explore real world problems to understand the interaction of environmental, economic, and social systems.

Students will gain the tools needed to study the causes of environmental degradation and help solve pressing environmental problems. The Sustainability Science and Society major will help students understand and respond to complicated issues and lead creation of a sustainable future, while preparing them for new jobs in the emerging green economy.

What Will I Be Studying?

Students in this major will develop the interdisciplinary social science knowledge and skills needed to address the world’s most significant environmental sustainability problems. Challenges in environmental sustainability involve significant social dimensions, so finding solutions and providing leadership on sustainability issues benefits from an interdisciplinary foundation in the social sciences. Students will learn that there’s no single technical solution to address sustainability. We need people from many disciplines, including social scientists, engineers, and natural and physical scientists to work toward a more sustainable future.

"I've had a great experience here with the faculty, and they have all been instrumental in enabling me to pursue various interests. During my time in the department, I've been able to work on real-world research regarding electricity rates in Houghton County, learning about the Keweenaw from members of the community, and how to better adapt autonomous electric vehicles to meet the needs of rural America."Michael Ryan, 2018, Law and Society Concentration

The major is focused on the social sciences, yet draws upon other disciplines involved in sustainability science to give students disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary skills. For example, we require students to take at least nine classes related to sustainability in other departments.

Students take 11 foundational credits in sustainability science and society, then choose at least three methods classes, introducing them to a set of applied tools and research skills that are used broadly across the social sciences. Students will take breadth courses to gain experience in economics, environmental policy, environmental and earth sciences, and biological sciences, and then develop a focus of their choice in one theme. Focus choices include environmental policy, engineering sustainability, communities, environment and society, environmental health and justice, or environmental decision-making.

Students participate in experiential learning opportunities through our Enterprise program, a capstone seminar, internship, or community-based research through classroom projects or thesis work. Students work in small, upper-level classes with internationally recognized faculty in the fields of sustainability and environmental studies. The majority of sustainability professions require creative problem solving, organizational and leadership skills, and a broad knowledge base and training in analytical ability and critical thinking.

Solar panel in winter with sun shining
We encourage students to become involved in on-campus sustainability initiatives to acquire hands-on experience and develop civic engagement skills; examples include the new Sustainability Demonstration House.

Many classes in the major will challenge students to develop solutions and work in teams. However, experiences of working in real world settings are irreplaceable in developing core skills. Our program encourages students to do internships with existing organizations focused on sustainability. 

Finally, all majors will participate in a final professional development seminar that will help them debrief their individual internship and/or research experiences, share their lessons learned from these experiences, and prepare them to apply them to their career goals. 

What Kind of Jobs Will I Have?

There’s a growing demand for people who understand the complexity of sustainability problems and solutions. Employers need people who understand how to approach problems and solutions with interdisciplinary tools.

Sustainability jobs are found in some of the fastest growing fields in the 21st-century economy. Some of these positions involve technical skills in retrofitting buildings and installing renewable energy infrastructure. Many jobs in sustainability, however, require the social science skills that we will teach. Sustainability coordinators, directors, and managers are needed who understand how to integrate knowledge and experience. Their job titles include:

  • sustainability planner
  • public affairs specialist
  • water resources specialist
  • healthcare sustainability analyst
  • sustainability program specialist

Many organizations have begun creating departments and initiatives to develop environmentally friendly products and green business practices. Minimizing the use of resources while lowering costs is an important incentive for businesses, government, and individuals to innovate and operate more sustainably. To achieve this, there is a need for skilled analysts, consultants, educators, planners, and policy makers. Many of these jobs did not exist several years ago; this sector of the economy is expected to continue to grow, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Learning Goals

  1. Sustainability Social Sciences Knowledge. Students will demonstrate depth of knowledge in the core themes, issues, and developments in the social science dimensions of sustainability science, and breadth of exposure to the natural and physical science dimensions of sustainability science. These include:
    • Systems dynamics. Students will take a systems approach to understanding the links between human and natural systems, so they can understand the ways that changes in one part of a system can lead to complex consequences.
    • Tradeoffs. Students will learn benefit/cost approaches to understanding the complex tradeoffs in environmental decisions.
    • Scale. Students will learn that environmental and sustainability problems cross multiple scales, from local to global.
  1. Sustainability Social Science Engagement and Critical Analysis. Students will be able to understand and engage in discussions about major societal changes in sustainability, demonstrating a grasp of basic social science issues in sustainability. Students will understand the interactions between human, environmental, and engineered systems to understand and contribute to real world solution.
  2. Sustainability Research and Communication Skills. Students will demonstrate their competency in the following transferable skills:
    • Ability to conduct research and present findings
    • Ability to collect and analyze data
    • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills
    • Ability to work in teams and communicate across disciplines
    • Solid writing skills
    • A set of tools and techniques widely used in industry and the academy to identify, communicate, and resolve complex societal issues and support policy creation and decision making