What’s in a Name?

December 2013

Celebrating 15 years of the McGill School of Environment

MSE-LogoAs we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the founding of the McGill School of Environment, we can reflect on how it came to be, what has transpired over these years and where the programming is going in the future. In the early 1990s, students interested in courses related to the environment were taking a cluster of courses with no true cohesion to the degree that they were graduating with. The Deans  of Arts, Science, Agricultural & Environmental Sciences at the time had a vision – an interdisciplinary program which meant working across faculties to create a true program based around a theme, the environment. The idea was presented to senior professors across the University but the idea was closed down sighting tight resources.

The notion was raised again sometime later and Nigel Roulet was asked to head up a committee to review the idea in more depth and come up with a proposal. This process took over a year – with 2 professors from each faculty represented at the meetings. There was resistance from a few but a great deal of interest as well. A decision was made to bring in outside facilitators to give the process some objectivity and new direction. A conference/symposium was held over a weekend with 150-200 academics participating in a visionary process. Thousands of ideas were brought forth, both pros and cons, but there were common elements, enough to come up with three underlying necessities that eventually became the underlying mission of the MSE.

They were: breadth was essential; McGill’s depth could not be jeopardized; and a capstone experience was necessary. These three elements would make up the mission of the MSE – the organizational aspect would set up core courses to give the program breadth; thematic areas (domains) around issues related to water, air, conservation, environment and health, development and the environment would provide the depth; and the capstone experience would be the applied knowledge.

The proposed new interdisciplinary program was presented to each faculty council and then Senate and with the approval of Principal Bernard Shapiro; the idea was approved with the McGill School of Environment opening its doors in 1998 – with degrees being offered in three Faculties (Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, Arts and Science). In the beginning it was a small program, under 100 students were enrolled with 35 majors across Faculties. There are now 350 students enrolled with the majors divided equally across faculties with other McGill students taking the Environment Minor as part of their degree.

The MSE was the first inter faculty, interdisciplinary program at McGill and has become a model for programming at other Canadian Universities. It was also the first to offer field semesters to their students, with the Panama Fields studies laying the groundwork for other student opportunities outside the country. These field study programs are very demanding but the students have risen to the challenge and have allowed these programs to mature and expand with the high level of student commitment.

Looking to the future means being able to change – reacting to the emerging environmental areas, allowing for open and intellectual discussions at the interdisciplinary level and the establishing of a graduate program. The MSE needs to adjust the domains as the world changes. Continued work with Teaching and Learning Services to use the team teaching model, improve upon it and enhance the hands on learning approach, even bringing it to the graduate level. A space needs to be established to allow for spontaneous discussions taking place amongst students and faculty along the interdisciplinary themes – not only an intellectual space but a social space as well. This sharing of ideas in a free space will allow the MSE to go to the next level of education.

So what’s in a name? A lot when you are talking about the McGill School of Environment.

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