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MIT Better World

In a 2016 survey, more than 40% of roughly 900 undergraduate respondents expressed interest in such a minor, with more than half considering a career related to environment and sustainability. To complete the minor, students will choose three electives from a list of more than 70, in addition to the two core courses, within four content pillars: Earth Systems and Climate Science; Environmental Governance; Environmental Histories and Cultures; and Engineering for Sustainability.

Spectrum interviewed John Fernández ’85, professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture and director of MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative, which hosts the minor.

Why do MIT faculty and students want this minor?

JF: I study cities, and the numbers—demographic, carbon emissions, urban energy, water scarcity—tell me that the coming few decades will bring ever-greater stresses to providing a humane and sustainable world for the more than half of the world’s population living in cities. I’ve had many conversations with colleagues who expect that fast-moving issues such as environmental pollution, resource scarcity, and the consequences of climate change offer important opportunities for teaching with an eye toward creating solutions. Conversations with students almost always include a reminder to us to focus on applications—that is, learning about the environment is important, no question about that, but understanding is not enough. Students are interested in doing something about it.

What is illuminated by juxtaposing the government and science pillars in one core course, and history/engineering in the other?

JF: Professors Selin, Solomon, and Sterman have all been deeply engaged with the policy-making world. Through their work, and that of many others at MIT and beyond, there is a very powerful message that science and engineering need to make a sustained effort to motivate international actions to address large-scale environmental challenges. The intent behind the coupling of engineering with history and cultural studies is equally powerful. A good engineer can be even more effective through an understanding of the unintended consequences of technology, in the past as well as in the imagined future. Both of these partnerships of perspectives are meant to bring the complexity of the natural and human world into the classroom.

What kinds of opportunities will the minor help open for students?

JF: Students in the minor will share an enhanced ability to act in an effective, productive, and competitive way, whatever their major and future career choice. The choices are many: Google X’s Moonshot Factory is keenly interested in technology solutions for specific consequences of climate change. Northrop Grumman and General Electric and many other large companies are in great need of creative people with a science-based and practical view toward the environment. And the opportunities for startups are endless.