Frequently Asked Questions

Sustainable refers to managing the world’s economy in a manner consistent with the continued healthy functioning of Earth’s ecosystems, oceans, atmosphere and climate. In this context, development refers to continued social, political and economic progress aimed at improving the wellbeing of the global community, especially for the poorest people.

Sustainable development is one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity. As the world’s population grows, we must develop new ways to meet our requirements for food, energy, water, and other basic needs without undermining the planet’s natural systems. This challenge touches on a vast number of issues, including poverty alleviation, climate change and food security, all of which must be viewed collectively to understand their complicated interdependencies.

Global pandemics, climate change, natural disasters, poor soil conditions, deforestation— these issues are at the heart of sustainable development. Achieving sustainable development requires systemic and integrated approaches that consider the complex interactions between the planet’s natural and social systems, while working at multiple levels of society, from the local to the global, to achieve a more equitable society.

The Earth Institute is made up of over 30 research centers and programs (housed both on the Morningside campus and at the Lamont campus in Palisades, N.Y.) and emphasizes a cross-disciplinary approach to solving complex problems associated with Earth, the environment and society.

While students do not apply to the Earth Institute or become students there, the Earth Institute maintains academic relationships with numerous departments on campus.  This collaboration between the Earth Institute and the Columbia community to provide academic programs, activities, lectures and events that seek to incorporate and advance the goals of both the Earth Institute and the respective academic departments and their students.  In doing so, the Earth Institute is able to offer programs such as the undergraduate major and special concentration in sustainable development, wherein students can incorporate courses in the earth and biological sciences, engineering, social sciences, and health sciences to gain a comprehensive understanding of sustainable development, as well as to tailor the program to their own interests.

The major requires 15 classes and a practicum for a total of approximately 47 credits, while the special concentration requires nine classes and a practicum for approximately 28 credits. The special concentration is modeled after the major but is intentionally more flexible.

  • Can I graduate with just a special concentration?
    No. A special concentration is not a standalone major or concentration; it is intended to serve as a complement to the disciplinary specialization and methodological training inherent in a concentration or major. In addition to the special concentration, students must therefore complete a major or full concentration. Students may graduate with either a major or a special concentration in sustainable development, but not both.

  • Why a special concentration and not a concentration?
    The special concentration is designed for combination with a second program to ensure that students gain academic depth in addition to the breath provided by their coursework in the special concentration.

  • Can juniors and seniors take the special concentration?
    It is strongly advised that juniors and seniors consult with their advising dean before deciding to declare the special concentration. The special concentration requires nine courses (not credits) and a practicum; many seniors would not have time in their final year to complete this coursework.

  • Can courses for the major be taken by students in the special concentration?
    Yes. Special concentrators may take any of the Natural Science, Skills/Actions, and Analysis and Solutions to Complex Problems courses required for the major.

  • Why are the natural science requirements for the major and the special concentration different?
    Students in the major are required to take a sequence of natural science courses as part of the basic disciplinary foundation requirement. This is to allow students in the major to develop more depth in a particular subject area. Special concentrators are not required to take a science sequence, but in fact many of the natural science course options for the special concentration are taken from one of the two-semester sequences. Students should note that for the major, EEEB UN2002 Environmental Biology is the same course as EESC UN2300.

  • Are the major or the special concentration available to Barnard and Columbia Engineering students?
    The special concentration and the major are currently only available to students from Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Students from Barnard should contact Professor Martin Stute and Columbia Engineering students should contact Professor Patricia Culligan for more information about declaring to similar programs.

  • Can graduate students declare the special concentration in sustainable development?
    No. This degree program is specifically for undergraduates. The School of International and Public Affairs does, however, offer a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development for graduate students who are interested in the field. Please review the Sustainable Development PhD website for more information.

Columbia College students typically declare their major or concentration (and any special concentration) through the Center for Student Advising during the spring semester of their sophomore year. Students in the School of General Studies may declare a major or concentration online during the months of March and October. Juniors and seniors who have already declared their major or concentration can also still declare the special concentration by speaking with their advising dean. Students will need to obtain departmental approval to declare and should have their major/special concentration declaration form signed by associate director, Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri ([email protected]) or program manager, Cari Shimkus ([email protected]), both of whom are located in the Office of Academic and Research Programs (Hogan Hall).

The program seeks to balance emphasis in both of these areas.  To be knowledgeable in the field of sustainable development, students need a strong foundation in both of these areas and then must concentrate on the unique interactions between them. The subtle emphasis among the various fields can then be directed by the student and their advisers to fit their interests and career plans. Ultimately, the program’s flexibility in this regard is one of its strengths, allowing you to tailor your education to fit your interests.

Upon declaring a Major or Special Concentration in Sustainable Development, students will be assigned a faculty adviser. The faculty adviser will be a student’s main resource for answering questions about course subject matter, research interests, professional goals, etc. Faculty advisers come from diverse disciplines in the natural and social sciences, including economics, environmental policy, biology, ecology, engineering and climatology.

Questions on program fulfillment, course substitutions and graduation requirements should be directed to [email protected]

Yes. EESC UN2330 Science for Sustainable Development fulfills the Columbia Core science requirement, as do some of the natural science courses. Students should refer to their school bulletins for specific courses that fulfill their science requirement.

A letter grade of C- or better is considered a passing grade, and is required of all courses taken for credit in the Sustainable Development Program.

Yes, to complete the science sequence, majors may take EEEB UN2001 and EEEB UN2002 OR EEEB UN2001 and EESC UN2300.

EESC 1600/4600 are separate sections of the Earth Resources and Sustainable Development course. Both sections of the course to count toward the program, but for different requirements. The 1600 section satisfies one of the 2-course natural science foundation requirement, which is intended to provide an in-depth introduction to natural science concepts at the 1000/2000 level. The 4600 section satisfies one course of the Analysis and Solutions to Complex Problems requirement, which are higher-level courses that join natural and social science perspectives around sustainable development themes. Students are not permitted to transfer sections across requirements–the 1600 section will only count for the science sequence and 4600 will only be accepted for Analysis and Solutions.

Yes, and we encourage students to study abroad. The best place to get information is from the Columbia University Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement. Courses accepted by the University for credit can be applied toward the major by working with your program adviser to find logical substitutions within the curriculum.

  • Can classes taken in the Tropical Biology and Sustainability program in Kenya counts towards the Sustainable Development requirements?

    Yes. Student majoring in Sustainable Development who enroll in the Tropical Biology and Sustainability program in Kenya can apply four courses below toward (1) Analysis and Solutions to Complex Problems; (1) Skills and Actions; and (2) elective program requirements.  Students in the special concentration can apply two courses towards (1) Analysis and Solutions to Complex Problems; (1) Skills and Actions.

    EEEB OC3920: Biology of African Animals and Ecosystems
    EEEB OC3921: Tropical Agriculture
    EEEB OC3922: Field Ecohydrology
    EEEB OC3923: Ecology and Conservation of African Landscapes
    EEEB OC3924: Natural History of African Mammals
    EEEB OC3926: Vector Biology
    EEEB OC3928: Paleoecology

  • Can the SEE-U course be taken as six credits?

    Yes. If students in the major or the special concentration take SEE-U as a six-credit course, they can use three credits towards the Analysis and Solutions to Complex Problems requirement and three credits towards the Skills/Actions requirement. If SEE-U is taken for three credits it will count as one Analysis and Solutions to Complex Problems class. Please note:  No more than 6 SEE-U credits can be applied towards the program requirements.

Yes. Through the Global Fellows in Sustainable Development Program students can apply for funding to conduct practical fieldwork in environmental and sustainable development that is related to their academic studies. Students doing senior theses are encouraged to apply. To learn more about the program and upcoming application deadlines please contact Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri ([email protected]).

Course substitutions are typically not permitted. While there are undoubtedly many Columbia courses that are similar in content to the courses required for the major and the special concentration, the program has been structured to ensure that students graduate with a well-rounded education and a working knowledge of the subjects that Earth Institute faculty have identified as critical for success in the field. The courses were specifically designed and selected to provide a holistic skill set and, therefore, we do not allow course substitutions.

Students in both the special concentration and the major are required to complete a practicum. If a student wishes to substitute the practicum requirement with a related internship, they will first need to submit this form for pre-approval by the program directors. Students typically are not allowed to get credit for an internship; however, if the student presents a strong case they may use the internship only if they enroll in an independent study course for which they must write a paper and receive a passing grade. Students must enroll in the independent study course (SDEV UN3998) during the same semester that they do the internship, or the semester immediately following. Please note only unpaid internships/independent studies are eligible for the practicum requirement.

Yes. A list of previously approved electives can be found in the Major section under Student Resources.

For more details on the university’s policy on double counting, please contact your advising dean.

Yes. A senior thesis sequence can be taken by majors to fulfill the electives requirement. For special concentrators, the expectation is that those students who wish to do a senior thesis will do so in the department of their major or concentration. Additional information can be found on the Environmental Science Research Seminar website.

Yes. Majors will be considered for honors if they have at least a 3.7 GPA in their major courses and receive an B+ or better in the senior thesis courses.  A student’s departmental involvement will also be considered.

Urban Studies majors may obtain a Specialization in Sustainable Development by enrolling in a total of five (5) courses as described below:

Two (2) introductory courses:
SDEV UN2300 Challenges of Sustainable Development
EESC UN2330 Science for Sustainable Development

Three (3) additional courses from the following list:
EAIA E4002 Alternative Energy Resources
SDEV UN3330 Ecological and Social Systems for Sustainable Development
PUBH UN3100 Fundamentals of Global Health
SDEV W3200 Global Food Systems
SDEV UN3360 Disasters and Development
SDEV UN3410 Urbanization and Sustainability
ECIA W4100 Management and Development of Water Resources
SDEV UN3366 Energy Law
EESC BC3045 Responding to Climate Change
SDEV UN3355 Climate Change and Law
SDEV UN3390 GIS for Sustainable Development
SCNC W3010 Science, Technology and Society
SDEV UN3450 Spatial Analysis and Modeling for Sustainable Development
EESC GU4050 Global Assessment Remote Sensing
SDEV UN2320 Economic and Financial Methods for Sustainable Development
SUMA PS4100 Sustainability Management
EAEE E4257 Environmental Data Analysis & Modeling
SOCI UN3010 Methods for Social Research
The Summer Ecosystems Experience for Undergraduates (SEE-U) Summer Program

Graduates of the program go on to work in public, private and non-profit organizations and many go on to pursue graduate studies. Graduates are working at organizations such as: the Natural Resources Defense Council; Earthjustice; Booz & Company; Clinton Global Initiative; USAID; ICF International; Unilever; Boston Consulting Group and Teach for America. Former students are also pursuing higher degrees in sustainable development, environmental law, earth and environmental engineering, and public policy.

Students who have trouble registering for courses should contact the course instructor and let them know they are part of the major or special concentration. Students can also contact program manager, Cari Shimkus ([email protected]), for assistance.