September 19, 2007
Novel engineering major to prepare students to tackle climate change, pollution
By David Orenstein
When Stanford students come back to school this month after a hot summer, they'll be in the ideal frame of mind to consider a new engineering degree that is rare, if not unique, in the United States: the atmosphere and energy major.
The interdisciplinary undergraduate program is being launched as governments and businesses around the world try to reconcile their need for energy with increasing concern about the effects of pollution on human health and the climate.
"The major will create students who will have the skills to do things that are in high demand," said Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. "To come up with creative solutions to global warming and pollution while also addressing energy needs."
"Problems in the atmosphere are very closely linked to problems with energy," he added. "Global warming, urban air pollution, acid rain and other atmospheric problems are driven by pollution from energy. Right now there is a big disconnect between understanding these issues and solving them."
The undergraduate major, new for the 2007-08 academic year, follows in the footsteps of Stanford's graduate Atmosphere/Energy Program, which has grown quickly since starting in the 2004-05, when 15 students enrolled. The next year, 22 signed up. Applications to the graduate program have grown from 37 three years ago to 70 this year.
Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of their education, graduates from the master's program have gone on to jobs at places as diverse as Fortune 500 energy companies and environmentally focused, non-governmental organizations, Jacobson said.
About 60 universities around the country offer majors in atmospheric science, but none of them couple that so strongly with a curriculum in energy, he said. A student in a traditional atmospheric science major may therefore gain a deep understanding of how excessive carbon dioxide influences climate but won't know as much about what drives people to use the energy sources that emit the gas, or what energy alternatives could satisfy those needs more cleanly.
At Stanford, however, students will not only take classes titled Aerosols, Clouds and Climate Change and Weather and Storms, but also Electric Power: Renewables and Efficiency and Powering the Rim: Energy issues for the Pacific.
One such student will be junior Emily Gorbaty of Baltimore.
"In my future career I would like to work toward mitigating global warming, and I found that no other major addresses this issue as well as atmosphere/energy," Gorbaty said. "Ultimately I want to help implement renewable energy in developing countries, specifically India, China and Southeast Asia.
Jacobson said about a half-dozen undergraduates also have expressed interest in the new major so far.
Technically, the degree conferred will be "Bachelor of Science with an Individually Designed Major in Engineering: Atmosphere/Energy." More importantly, Jacobson said, the skills and knowledge conferred will be unique preparation for addressing urgent global problems with meaningful, practical solutions.
David Orenstein is the communications and public relations manager at the Stanford School of Engineering.