Allegheny College Celebrates 50 Years of Environmental Science Education, Impact and Progress

Allegheny College is celebrating 50 years of environmental science education. The first major was “Aquatic Environments” in the 1972-73 academic year. Fifty years later, Environmental Science and Sustainability (ESS) is one of the largest majors at the College. From religious studies to business and data science to global health, students across nearly every program find intersections with ESS.

Professor Eric Pallant, who has taught in the department since 1987, reflects on the decades since he began at Allegheny, including how intersectionality has helped advance the study of the environment.

“We really needed the humanists. If we didn’t change how we thought about the world, it didn’t matter what the data we scientists could produce said. If we didn’t feel any different, people would not hear our message. We needed people who were artists and photographers and video makers and writers to get us to reimagine our relationship to the environment.”

One of the hallmarks of Allegheny’s ESS program is hands-on experience. Students learn by doing, whether it’s researching organisms in French Creek, collecting soil in Bousson Environmental Research Reserve, GIS mapping of climate vulnerability, or conducting energy audits for local community organizations.

Every student is involved in actionable, physical immersion in the world of environmental science and sustainability. In the words of Professor Pallant, “We probably have more waders and boots than books.”

The practical benefits of an environmental science education at Allegheny are far-reaching. When the Erie Wildlife Refuge was in jeopardy of being defunded, ESS Department Chair Professor Terry Bensel devoted an entire semester to studying the economic benefit of the Refuge.

He says, “We spent that course studying things like water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, and the impact of recreational activities on the local economy. From hotel stays to hunting supply and fishing supply stores and local restaurants, gas stations, anything that somebody coming to the refuge from out of the region would spend money on.

We did surveys of hundreds of local residents to gauge their attitudes about the refuge and their willingness to pay for participating in it. We put that all together and came up with a pretty compelling argument that the refuge provided millions of dollars in benefits to the local region and economy.”

The Refuge submitted a report to the U.S. Department of the Interior based on the students’ work and their budget has not been cut.

The College also engages the entire campus and makes institutional decisions with a focus on sustainability. The Board of Trustees adopted Environmental Guiding Principles in 2002, cementing Allegheny as a leader in environmental science education and  integrating environmental concerns as a priority in decision making.

In 2007, the College committed to be one of the inaugural schools to sign on to the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments, and in 2020 the College became the first school in Pennsylvania and eighth in the country to become carbon-neutral. Kelly Boulton ‘07 is the director of sustainability for the College and was recently invited to the White House in recognition of the institution attaining carbon neutrality.

“This is truly an institutional win,” said Boulton. “We rely on participation and commitment from all areas of campus, including academics, physical plant, finance, and beyond. It’s no surprise we are attracting students who are looking for top-notch programming in the area of environmental science and sustainability, because we are living it throughout all facets of the College community.”

The College will offer special programming to celebrate the anniversary throughout the year, including welcoming keynote speaker Dr. Zoie Diane ’14 to speak about the dimensions of plastic pollution.

Visit the ES50 website to learn more about Allegheny’s innovative environmental science and sustainability work and to read about the fascinating careers our alumni enjoy.