Georgetown University announced Feb. 15 the launch of the Earth Commons Institute, which focuses on strengthening the university’s engagement with the environment.
Through research, education and action, the institute provides an interdisciplinary platform for the study of sustainability and environmental stewardship at undergraduate and graduate levels. Developed from the Georgetown Environment Initiative (GEI), the new institute puts resources and students to work on issues ranging from food and water security to environmental justice and climate change, as well as facilitates degree programs for both graduate and undergraduate students.
The goal of the Earth Commons is to train the next generation of problem solvers and create a lasting environmental impact, according to Peter Marra, founding director of the Earth Commons.
“There were already a few paths that had started to be paved that I moved forward on, including the development of a new masters program with the business school around the environment and sustainability management,” Marra told The Hoya. “I began thinking more carefully about an undergraduate degree, I began thinking more carefully about bringing on new faculty in particular areas so Georgetown could begin doing research and teaching in particular areas.”
Marra serves as the Director of the GEI and teaches courses about biology and the environment. Marra spent 20 years as the director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
The Earth Commons has both undergraduate and graduate programs, all of which focus on environmental scholarship and interdisciplinary solutions, Marra said.
In conjunction with the McDonough School of Business (MSB) and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Earth Commons created a new Master of Science in environment and sustainability management. The program combines science and business and is currently accepting 40 students in advance of its launch in the fall 2022 semester. Graduates will have career opportunities centered around protecting the environment within nonprofits, organizations or the government.
The new Master of Science in environment and sustainability management gives students the opportunity to engage in a curriculum that includes courses on earth systems, impact investing, the science and economics of climate change and energy, and sustainable supply chains, according to Maria Petrova, co-director of the program.
“Our unique curriculum combines principles of environmental science with business management skills, delivering the comprehensive knowledge students need to become effective leaders in environment and sustainability,” Petrova wrote. “Key characteristics of the program are its small, 40-person cohort size; two focus areas in climate and energy, taught from both a science and business perspective; and access to thought leaders and business executives that have global and national presence.”
Yasmin Gulamhusein (COL ’24), an intern at the Earth Commons who is working to support the launch of the new master’s program, said that the Earth Commons is already giving her the opportunity to participate in sustainability efforts by conducting her research focused on food waste reduction in higher education institutions.
“From my own experience, the Earth Commons has given me exposure to a community of faculty members and fellow students interested in environmental stewardship,” Gulamhusain wrote. “I would not have previously had the opportunity to pursue my own research nor have had the support of a diverse group of leaders and peers.”
[Disclaimer: Yasmin Gulamhusein serves as a photographer for The Hoya.]
Current undergraduate majors placed within the Earth Commons include environmental biology; science, technology and international affairs with an energy and environment concentration; biology with a concentration in ecology, evolution and behavioral biology; and the earth and environmental engineering program in partnership with Columbia University.
The Earth Commons will combine academic disciplines and various groups at the university to promote sustainability through academics, according to Meghan Chapple, vice president of sustainability at Georgetown.
“The institute model is a cutting edge approach to environmental and sustainability education and research in that it builds bridges between schools and, through the partnership with the Office of Sustainability, across the administrative practice of the University,” Chapple wrote to The Hoya. “It is a model for the future of higher education, and how working across disciplines is essential to solving our biggest problems on this planet.”
Shelby Gresch (SFS ’22), an intern at the GEI who will continue her work with the Earth Commons, said the institute is working to engage students from many backgrounds and academic disciplines in environmental protection efforts.
“It represents the next chapter in Georgetown’s commitment to incorporating environmental issues into every part of the University— academically, socially, and institutionally,” Gresch wrote to The Hoya. “In that spirit, the Earth Commons will offer a variety of opportunities to students, from events to classes to a hub for environmental action.”
Gresch has worked with the Earth Commons to create a living lab consisting of a sustainable garden where students can grow food to be donated to the larger community. The experience also allows students to learn firsthand about sustainable food systems in urban environments by talking to individuals at community gardens, urban farms and university farms.
Applying solutions through experiential learning is an important part of the Earth Commons’ mission, Marra said.
“The action piece comes from a natural partnership between the need to teach and the need to learn and the need to take action,” Marra said. “Putting students in these situations where they’re problem solving with the faculty and where they’re taking on some of the biggest challenges we have is a perfect way for us to tackle those things through action.”
Marra said that installing a sustainability garden in a prominent location on Georgetown’s campus will allow the community to become more informed about food sources.
“We’re hoping to put one of these on campus where students are growing food and producing food, not just for themselves but for our community that is struggling with food insecurity,” Marra said. “That’s a big deal, and we want to put it in a prominent location on campus so people are aware of where food comes from.”
In addition to offering academic courses and research, the Earth Commons also draws upon a variety of disciplines, including sections on biodiversity, justice and health. Its undergraduate-led magazine, titled “Common Home,” features writing and art from students, professors and scientists on environmental and sustainability topics.
Marra said that there are a plethora of options available for student involvement and engagement with the Earth Commons as the institute continues to expand.
“This is not a siloed institute, this is an institute without walls,” Marra said. “We are an institute that encourages participation from throughout the university. We are a network, not a hierarchy.”