Finding Your Next Sustainability Course at U-M

Having gone to a much smaller university for undergraduate and graduate school, I’m always amazed by the sheer number of courses offered at the University of Michigan each semester. Just in the area of sustainability, I’ve interacted with students enrolled in courses covering a wide variety of super interesting topics including ecofeminism, sustainable architecture, food justice, renewable energy policy, campus sustainability, woody plants, and environmental activism among many others. With more than 800 different courses having been offered in recent years, there’s likely something for everyone. The trick is sorting through all the courses being offered in order to identify the ones best for you. 

Course Highlights for Fall 2023

Because my job role is focused on helping students, staff, and faculty get involved and engaged in sustainability on campus, I thought I’d highlight some of the sustainability-focused courses I know about that are coming up this fall semester and that sounded interesting to me:

  • Behavior and Environment, ENVIRON 360, EAS 560, PSYCH 360, SW 710, URP 544 – Taught by Dr. Raymond De Young, I’ve supervised many student interns who have taken this course in past semesters. It covers human behavior, how we interact with our environment, and how our environment can shape our behaviors. If you are interested learning about the everyday choices we make and why we might make them, this course is one you should consider! If you are considering it, PitE generally holds a “Pizza with Professors” event, and I’ve heard the professor almost always attends!
  • Advanced Energy Solutions, MECHENG 433, AUTO 533 – If you watched President Ono’s Inauguration Symposium this past spring, you likely remember the interesting panel discussion featuring several sustainability experts including Dr. Margaret Wooldridge, the instructor of this course. After hearing her speak on that panel, I’d definitely want to take one of her courses if I were an engineer, especially one that deals with a topic as interesting as how various methods of power generation including fossil fuel, solar, wind, and nuclear might allow us to meet current and future demand. 
  • Leadership for Turning Climate Anxiety into Action, EAS 501.005 – You may experience climate or eco-anxiety yourself, but did you know that more than 45% of young people report that those feelings negatively affect their daily lives? This seminar, which will be taught by Dr. Michaela Zint and Dr. Jessica Michel, is open to undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students from all U-M schools and colleges and will explore best practices for turning climate anxiety into action.
  • Energy Planning, URP 610.004 – Until just recently, I was lucky enough to have the office next door to the awesome instructor for this course, Dr. Sarah Mills. If you are interested in the complex web of policies and tools that affects how the U.S. transitions to low-carbon energy sources as well as the diverse stakeholder dynamics involved, check out this offering! This one was a bit tricky to find in the various course guides, but you can read more about it here.
  • Under Pressure: Water Systems, Society, and the Environment, ENVIRON 204 – In a state surrounded by the Great Lakes, I would be remiss to not include a course about water on this list! I’ve heard this one, in particular, is a strong introductory course because often ends up changing students’ perspectives on water issues. It covers the difficulty of trying to meet all the various and competing needs for water including for human health, industry, recreation, agriculture, and almost every other aspect of life.
  • Communicating Sustainability in the Digital Age, ENVIRON 465 – New course alert! I personally think the science behind communications is fascinating, and that’s at the heart of this offering. Also, based on the description, it looks like this course would be appropriate both for students interested in more traditional science communications as well as those focused on social media and other communications avenues for the general public.

How to Find Sustainability Courses

The one thing I’m not jealous about with all these courses at Michigan is how difficult it can be to find just the right ones for your unique interests and professional aspirations. There are so many that seem interesting, but I tend to find them through a few different outlets and not all in one spot, and sometimes I even learn about them through word of mouth. Given this, I reached out to the Academic Advising team over at Program in the Environment and met up over Zoom with peer advisor Becky Barsky. 

In case you didn’t know, you can reach out to the PitE peer advisors even if you haven’t declared a major or minor in the subject area. They have open advising hours each week, and no appointment is needed. It was really easy for me to set up a time to talk with them, and it ended up being a really safe and helpful space for me to ask a lot of little detailed questions. So take advantage of that resource if you’re not quite finding the courses your looking for.

A General Approach

Rather than talk about specific classes for this fall term, I asked Becky how she generally goes about finding classes to register for. She said she tends to start with the PitE Course List. This is a simple google sheet that lists all of the courses that are going to count for the PitE major and minors in the upcoming term. New course guides for subsequent terms will be posted here. PitE is a very interdisciplinary major, so you’ll find lots of courses on this list beyond those categorized as “ENVIRON.” There are courses in subjects including Spanish, Philosophy, Mechanical Engineering, Economics, Biology, and many more. Once Becky has an idea of the courses she wants to learn more about, she opens up the LSA Course Guide for the full description and to learn about the distribution requirements the course fulfills. 

Other Tools Available

That seemed to me like an efficient process for how to go about sorting through the classes, so hopefully you’ll find that a good approach too. Then, in case you are looking for any additional courses, I’ll share a few other tools that might help:

  • SEAS Course Listing. On the School for Environment and Sustainability website there is a listing of sustainability courses. The downside to this list is that it is not limited to the upcoming semester. If you are looking further out into the future for planning purposes, this can be a helpful tool. 
  • LSA Course Guide: Sustainability Special Offering. While Becky uses the LSA Course Guide after checking out the PitE list, you might also utilize the “Sustainability Special Offering” to see if there are additional courses in the LSA guide that touch on sustainability.
  • Graham List of Past Sustainability Courses. For a very comprehensive list of past courses that touched on sustainability across all schools and colleges, check out the Graham Sustainability Institute list of sustainability courses. 
  • Public Course Catalog. Lastly, Wolverine Access has the full Course Catalog.

Additional Advice

Before we ended our Zoom call, Becky shared a few other tips that I want to share with you all here:

If you are a first-year student, take some of the first-year seminar courses that you won’t be eligible to take later on in your Michigan experience. There are always a few that touch on sustainability. Plus then you’ll get to know others in your class. 

Second, if you don’t exactly know what you want to major in, take classes that might work for multiple different majors, are cross-listed, or meet a few different distribution requirements. That will give you more flexibility later on. 

Third and lastly, take at least one course that is “unusual” for you. Your time at Michigan is a time to explore what really interests you, so take the opportunity to try out some different courses so you are exposed to new ways of thinking and learning.