Environmental science is key to developing sustainable solutions

Challenges facing the Earth require an understanding of relationship between natural environment and human activity

Environmental science helps us understand how the natural world works. Photograph: iStock

Climate change and climate action are two phrases often spoken and discussed on the airways, in headlines and among friends in the local pub.

With the undeniable threat climate change poses to civil society and the changes to the world it is already beginning to cause, it makes sense then that educators want to increase knowledge in this area.

Courses on the subject are an interdisciplinary study that examines the interaction between humans and the environment, with specific reference to the effects of modern technological advances.

While there is a growing awareness of the need for environmental protection, Prof Astrid Wingler, head of the school of biological, earth and environmental science at University College Cork (UCC), said there has always been demand in this field by students and graduates have always been employable.


“I think they’ve always had good opportunities because one of the strengths they have is they are really kind of well trained in a range of sciences, not just the biology but also the chemical sciences,” she said.

“And, also, how to do environmental impact assessments. We see growing opportunities in the renewable energy sector, especially in relation to the geologist. For example, that’s not my area of expertise – I’m a biologist – but if he wants to build a wind farms, for example, you have to do a geological assessment as well. And so, there are a lot of students getting employed in the offshore wind energy industry.”

In terms of employability, there are certain areas in which a large proportion of graduates end up.

“So, graduates from environmental ecology, they would often do environmental consultancy, for example, doing assessments of any development or on the environment, on biodiversity and so on,” she said.

“With environmental science, they do, for example, water quality assessments. That may be very important, again for environmental consultancies but also for local authorities or for any kind of industry, really, that has to comply with environmental regulations. So, there could even be things like the food industry or pharmaceutical industry or Government departments that are dealing with natural resources.”

Prof Wingler said many graduates report having a certain element of job satisfaction as they are able to try to make a distinct difference in the biggest challenge facing the world today.

Well, we need to be more environmentally sustainable. I don’t think we have a choice. We need to protect our biodiversity,” she said.

“Ecosystem services are services provided by ecosystems. So, that could be something like clean water, carbon sequestration and so on. And to maintain those ecosystem services, we need to maintain biodiversity. We need biologists on the one hand to monitor and protect the biodiversity but we also need the environmental scientists who can study other aspects of the ecosystems such as the water quality, the carbon in the soil and so on.”

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According to Prof Wingler, students on these degree programmes pick up a significant number of practical skills.

“That is like field work. Students go out in the field and monitor the best in the fields or take water samples. There may be some equipment that you use in the field to monitor the water quality there or they take samples back and then they do the lab analysis,” she said.

“That is kind of the lab skills as well as the field ones. And then on the environmental side, they learn a bit about legal aspects and the regulations as well.”

Outside of the sector-specific skills, students also learn transferable skills through research projects and group work, Prof Wingler added.

“How to manage a project, how to plan things, that whole data analysis is very important.”

Prof Sarah Culloty, head of the college of science, engineering, and food science at UCC, said the study of environmental science “has never been more relevant”.

“A greater focus on environmental awareness and improving sustainability in all sectors of society has created an increased demand for appropriately trained environmental scientists,” she said.

“This course equips students with the skills and attributes required by a wide range of enterprises in solving key environmental challenges.”

Most universities in Ireland now offer an undergraduate course in environmental science, which is largely about the application of fundamental sciences to environmental issues.

Some of the areas that are studied in these programmes include environmental management, which is how strategies can be developed and implemented to protect and sustain all aspects of the environment; clean technology, which is the study of the physical methodologies and techniques for dealing with increasing levels of waste generated by the manufacturer and consumer; and a focus on health and safety.

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DCU offers a course in environmental science and technology, in which students gain a strong scientific core in biology, chemistry, physics and maths.

In Trinity, there is an environmental sciences: biological and biomedical sciences course, which is a four-year programme that seeks to equip students with the skills needed to safeguard the future of the planet.

UCC has five degree programmes that focus on the environment: environmental science, ecology and environmental biology, geoscience, plant biology and zoology.

As part of the programmes, students have the opportunity to study abroad for a year in United States or Europe, while a work experience module is also available in the final year for six to 10 weeks.

In University of Galway, there is a four-year environmental science programme, which required 512 points for entry last year.

Some of the recently-formed technological universities also have programmes of study in this field. The Atlantic Technological University, for example, offers a three-year, level 7 programme in environmental science and ecology, which required 287 points last year.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times