Survey probes student interest on environment
Several student groups have taken the opportunity this election year to advocate new policies regarding the environment and other social issues. Over the past several months, Leah Nguyen, a Master of Social Work candidate in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, has been measuring student interest in hopes of starting a new academic program focusing on environmental and social issues.
According to Nguyen’s survey, the two subjects overlap in how the environment affects health and how environmental policies relate to social welfare.
This same survey was given to four of the schools at Washington University last May, Nguyen said. However, the survey was not given to the College of Arts & Sciences, the largest of the undergraduate schools. Nguyen said that doing the survey again was important in making sure that the results represented all students at the University.
Nguyen’s survey is intended to determine interest both from graduate and undergraduate students in classes that deal with the intersection between environmental and social issues.
“I was thinking pretty broadly. I wanted to start a program here, and I was thinking about what role the Brown School could play both for our students and then for any other professionals that are doing environmental work but should be considering social issues as well,” she said.
Nguyen said that initial responses from students indicate that there is a high level of interest in such classes. She estimates that 10 percent of those responding said they would definitely work on environmental issues professionally, and an additional 20 percent said there was a possibility.
Additionally, 50 percent planned to work on social issues.
“We didn’t really get a good picture of what undergraduates are interested in last year,” Nguyen said.
Since offering the survey to all schools, the number of undergraduates who responded rose to more than 700, representing more than 10 percent of the undergraduate population, which is much higher than the average response of only three percent, according to Nguyen.
“By and large, the majority of the respondents now are undergrads,” she said.
The survey also asked students to rate the likelihood that they would enroll in classes that would potentially deal with environmental and social issues. While Nguyen noted that the classes were just to give the students an idea of the types of issues addressed, the response from students was very positive.
“The classes I proposed aren’t ones professors have said they will teach. Students have given feedback [on the classes],” Nguyen said.
“Management and Mitigation of Environmental Disasters” and “The Triple Bottom Line: Profitability and Social and Ecological Sustainability” are just two examples of classes suggested in the survey.
According to Nguyen, that preliminary analysis suggested that undergraduate students were more likely to say they would work professionally on environmental and social issues, but she said that the analysis was not complete since the initial data only included a small number of undergraduate students.
Students also have the option of volunteering to be part of a focus group on the topic. According to Nyugen, the focus groups allow more in-depth information to be collected—data that the survey cannot provide.
Nguyen hopes that with students demonstrating such high levels of interest, the University might expand the number of classes available.
“We need to give data that there’s an unmet need so we can develop a program. I’m also looking at whether there are job pathways for students that have social work and environmental training,” Nguyen said. “I think there’s room for expansion of the undergrad classes.”
She also mentioned that the election season probably makes students more aware of the issues that she is dealing with.
“With rising gas prices and oil prices and then rising food prices that are related and other things, there are a lot of things that have come up that made people realize the impact the environment has on people,” Nguyen said. “It’s because it’s affecting their pocketbook, it’s affecting them directly. That’s usually when change happens. With any profession, it’s not going to get developed until there’s a need for it.”