New water degree program addresses complex interdisciplinary issues

Competition for clean water around the world intensifies year after year. Stressors such as climate change, land use, and changing demands on water resources call for a scientific understanding of the water cycle. Sustainable urban expansion requires an understanding of the interactions among water availability, water quality, culture, and society. Increasingly, solutions to sharing water in a sustainable manner require a mix of skills involving water science, law, economics, management, and related social sciences.

In response, the college has led the charge to create a new undergraduate degree in water. The bachelor of science program — titled Water: Resources, Policy, and Management — will provide students with a background in water science as well as law, economics, management, and the social sciences in one of the most innovative, interdisciplinary offerings in the country. In addition, it will position graduates for a wide spectrum of careers in private industry, federal and state agencies, and nongovernmental organizations.

Water monitoring
Coursework for the water degree includes many opportunities for field study, helping to prepare students for future careers.

“The timing of this new program could not be better, nor more urgent,” said Brian Richter, director of global freshwater strategies for The Nature Conservancy. “Job opportunities will await students upon graduation. Many corporations are now awakening to the water risks in their business operations and supply chains, and they are looking for help.”

The degree’s academic home will be in the college’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. Four other Virginia Tech colleges — Agriculture and Life Sciences, Architecture and Urban Studies, Engineering, and Science — are partners, reflecting the program’s interdisciplinary nature. The degree will be initiated in the fall 2015 semester, building its curriculum from existing courses in 13 departments across campus.

In addition, seven new faculty members were hired specifically for their expertise related to water. They add to the university’s existing capabilities by exploring such subjects as the effects of climate change on agriculture, management of water and natural resources, transport of chemicals to surface water and groundwater, and development of decision-support tools to mitigate the negative impacts of human activities.

“In order to sustainably manage the resource, understanding the human side of water is as important as understanding the science,” said Stephen Schoenholtz, professor of forest hydrology and soils and director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, which is housed in the college.

Students in the water major will select one area of focused study from four water science specializations: aquatic ecosystems, hydrology, water quality, or water treatment and public health. They will choose another area of focused study from four water policy specializations: water, climate, energy, and global issues; watershed management; international water management; or water policy, planning, and economics.

Schoenholtz, who will coordinate the program with an advisory committee representing faculty from 10 departments, found strong, widespread support for the new degree program and interest in its future graduates. The program addresses an expected 18 percent job growth in positions requiring a comprehensive understanding of water issues. “It’s exciting to look at the jobs opening up in corporate sustainability in an array of companies such as MillerCoors, Coca-Cola, North Face, and Estee Lauder,” Schoenholtz said. “There is a strong outlook for jobs to meet the growing needs for sustainably managing water.”

“The new degree is exactly the kind of curriculum innovation we need to address global challenges,” Dean Paul Winistorfer added. “We’ve brought together the many facets of water expertise on our campus to form what will surely be a leading national educational effort. The Winston-Salem Foundation was the first external partner to support the degree program with a donor-directed gift, and we are thankful for the growing financial support of this innovative program.”




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    The new water degree is already garnering philanthropic support from the alumni community. Alumnus Jeff Rudd is funding two endowments specifically for the interdisciplinary program.