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Inside the Evolution of the ENVS Program

The Path History Takes to Change the Future

Kelsey Evans , CNR Editor
Banner image by University Visual Productions


We are bridge-builders, jacks-of-all-trades and lovers of people, the earth and the sciences and arts within. We are ambitious, passionate and unconventional. From the words of students, alumni, faculty and staff, these are some of the trademark descriptions of the Environmental Sciences (ENVS) program at the U of I. In honor of the program’s 30th anniversary, we trace the rich history of the ENVS program at U of I and the incredible people who have contributed to its successes.

“The 30th anniversary of the ENVS program provides a great moment to celebrate the achievements of the past and to reconnect with our alumni and recognize their accomplishments. It is also a time to look ahead and ask ourselves what we want the next 30 years to look like,” said Jaap Vos, director of ENVS and department head of Natural Resources and Society.

Fortunately for U of I, many of our environmental scientists do not overlook the interdisciplinary nature required to address complex environmental issues. Instead, they have embraced it, even if that means sometimes disagreeing with how to maintain a university-wide program within a traditional, department-based university format.

Environmental problems cannot be solved by a single discipline or way of thinking. Dennis Becker, CNR Dean

Students with notepads stand in front of a pond.
College of Natural Resources environmental science students conducting field research in the arboretum. Credit: University of Idaho Visual Production.

This vision came together in 1993, when members from colleges all across campus interested in environmental issues joined a task force to bring the program and its potential to fruition.

Representatives from agriculture, natural resources, science, engineering and other disciplines united to create a curriculum with specializations in social, physical and biological science. Within a year of launching, professors in every college were teaching and advising.

“U of I had all the building blocks,” said Margrit von Braun, who chaired the committee and directed the program for its first decade. “I felt I needed to push against the wall. For much of my career, I’ve worked with communities where there were public health implications, and there were always environmental, financial and social impacts.”

For the following decade, von Braun, an environmental engineer, directed the program while teaching courses in hazardous waste management and risk assessment. In 2011, Jan Boll took over and von Braun became dean of the College of Graduate Studies.

Jan Boll, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University, began teaching ENVS courses in 1996 and directed the U of I program from 2011-15.

Engineering tries to prepare students for every aspect, but it’s a specialized discipline.

With engineering alone, “I always felt like there were pieces missing,” von Braun said.

ENVS students are bridge-builders, “interested in looking at a problem in many different ways,” von Braun said, and U of I needed a degree to embrace that.

“The core of ENVS is a breadth of coursework. If you want to study ENVS — no matter what the emphasis — you require a foundation. The breadth is fascinating and fruitful because it constantly facilitates relationships across campus that we never would have had if this program had not come together in the 1990’s,” said J.D. Wulfhorst, professor of rural sociology and environmental science in the Department of Natural Resources and Society, and former ENVS director. 

An Atypical Path

True to the nature of environmental problems, the program’s path to success hasn’t been simple.

“At first, the program was housed in the Provost’s office. Then, it reported to a council of deans from the colleges,” von Braun said.

This was reflective of faculty and student interests that disagreed on which college would best house the program.

Bob Mahler, professor of soil, water and environmental science in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, was one of many who spearheaded the program, developing foundational coursework and later directing the program from 2015-17.

“In Fall 1993, I developed the Intro to ENVS course. I had 27 students in my first class. Then, I taught that course for 50 straight semesters — 25 years, with a peak enrollment of 350 students. I taught over 12,000 students in that course alone,” Mahler said.

Currently, ENVS 101 is in the common core curriculum and typically has 200 students each semester. In addition, the course is taught at several high schools as a dual credit course.

Jaap Vos, Ph.D.

Professor of Planning and Natural Resources | Director of the Environmental Science Program and Department Head, Natural Resources and Society

Water Center 242G


Email Jaap Vos

When ENVS moved to being administratively housed in CNR in 2013, it wasn’t a particularly popular choice due to concerns that the program would lose its university-wide focus.

Still to this day, maintaining a university-wide presence is no easy feat, as “traditional institutional incentives work against cross-college collaboration with shared curriculum. But it’s worth fighting for. Environmental problems cannot be solved by a single discipline or way of thinking,” said CNR Dean Dennis Becker.

A woman looks into a microscope.
Field research being conducted in the arboretum. Credit: University of Idaho Media Library.

Jaap Vos concurs that despite the challenges of a traditional university setting, we are becoming more deliberate with how we create our university-wide presence.

“Now, different colleges across campus will host ENVS faculty meetings to hopefully make it easier for faculty throughout the university to be active within the environmental science program,” Vos said.

Despite the challenge of being housed in one college, there are positives too. Ronald Robberecht, professor emeritus of ecology in the Department of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences, for one, sees CNR as a home for ENVS in a college with a long history of the study and management of natural resources.

“The college offers a large suite of courses in that area, including the science of ecology and its application to the management of natural resources, and human interaction with the environment. This provides ENS students great opportunities to interact with other CNR students that have similar interests,” Robberecht said.

Robberecht is hopeful for the future of ENVS at U of I.

“I’d like to see the program have more visibility,” he said. “We need more connections. As the ENVS program continues to grow, it will increase its influence across Idaho.”

Growing Collaborations

Many original faculty are still active, and many others from law, education, engineering and architecture continue to push for interdisciplinary, university-wide curriculum. But while the ENVS program has stayed true to its interdisciplinary origins, there has historically been a dominant biophysical emphasis.

That began to shift around 10 years ago, with a “refresh” gaining strong momentum in the last five years.

We reimagined the degree tracks to help students prepare for more specific career paths while maintaining the program’s interdisciplinarity hallmark. Lee Vierling, Distinguished Professor

“The program had reached a point where our students and faculty needed a ‘re-fresh?’ In particular, the undergraduate curriculum had become very difficult for students to navigate,” said Lee Vierling, university distinguished professor and ENVS director at that time.

Through new interdisciplinary collaborations across campus and conversations with our alumni and employer stakeholders, ENVS faculty then realized the opportunity to reconsider the curriculum for the first time in program history.

“We reimagined the degree tracks to help students prepare for more specific career paths while maintaining the program’s interdisciplinarity hallmark. At the same time, we revamped our graduate degree programs to be more responsive to working professionals and saw graduate enrollment double in just two years,” Vierling said.

In response, faculty across campus further integrated teaching essential skills like critical thinking, creativity and interacting with diverse perspectives.

Lee Vierling, Ph.D.

Associate Dean of Research, University Distinguished Professor

CNR 202B


Email Lee Vierling

Department of Natural Resources and Society

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“Faculty members such as English Professor Jenn Ladino have spearheaded the growth of the culture and communication track and done much with our humanities colleagues to integrate humanities with environmental science at undergrad and graduate levels,” Vierling said.

Wulfhorst also reflects on the 25th anniversary celebration in 2018 as a bright spot in the program’s history because it celebrated the growing incorporation of humanities and social sciences while helping everyone look beyond disagreements.

“ENVS is always expanding our conversations. This time in the program’s history proved that humanities studies are not just welcome but must be embraced as we continue to redesign curriculum, because it’s more inclusive for all the students to come,” Wulfhorst said.

The Semester in the Wild Program, for example, showcases ENVS’s strong vision of a multi-disciplinary experience that includes the humanities and social sciences not as add-ons, but as central elements of the curriculum, said University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Humanities Scott Slovic.

According to Slovic, with SITW, former CNR Dean Emeritus Kurt Pregitzer and Associate Dean Emeritus Tom Gorman embraced the idea that subjects like environmental writing, which enable students to integrate all aspects of their environmental knowledge and experience, could be “the glue” that would help hold together and make coherent everything students take away from their time in the wilderness.

A man holds a fish.
Brad Smith, North Idaho Director, Idaho Conservation League, Sandpoint. Credit: Brad Smith.

Where We Are Now: Pioneering Sustainable Education Across the World

Vos emphasizes that curriculum is ever-evolving, along with class formats.

“We need to make sure that we continue to have a curriculum that serves our students and provides them with a solid foundation for a successful career. At the same time, we need to think about how we deliver our courses. Thirty years ago, nobody imagined that our online, non-thesis master’s program would have 150 non-traditional students in it,” Vos said.

And that’s even with the work of countless others, such as Robberecht and Mahler, who pioneered the online platform of the ENVS in the early 2000’s.

Above all, “we need to stay true to the vision that the faculty taskforce had in 1993 and recognize that what makes ENVS unique is that it is a university-wide program,” Vos said.

Today, popular classes among graduate students include Principles of Sustainability, taught by Greg Moller, professor of soil and water systems, and fire ecology with Leda Kobziar, associate professor of wildland fire science.

For online ENVS master’s students, it is a build-your-own-adventure style of education. There are over 130 classes offered every semester. For their capstone projects, master’s students can, with faculty help, dive into their specific interests.

Being able to access courses online is especially beneficial for ENVS because it allows students from around the globe to study while managing other commitments.

“We have many students working for the U.S. Forest Service or other government agencies on ecology and public awareness. We have high school teachers looking to bolster their environmental science classes. We have a lot of students with leadership roles in local governments, and we have many who work in water treatment and environmental compliance,” said Elise Kokenge, assistant director of graduate studies.

With this flexibility, the ENVS core faculty from across the university are propelling the program to ever-growing heights: online master’s ENVS enrollment has grown from 46 students in Fall 2013 to 128 in Fall 2023. Demographically, students have shifted from being 48% on-campus residents to 85% nonresident students.

For the ENVS doctoral program, there have consistently been around 20 to 30 students from around the world. As of Fall 2023, there are 39% international students, 39% nonresident and 22% residents enrolled. Graduate students represent 40 different states and 15 different countries — and 30 different countries since 2013.

Since the online degree was offered, and still true today, “people don’t just want to be an engineer, architect or ecologist. They want to be environmental scientists with specific skills so they contribute in an ecological and beneficial way, especially in the world we live in now,” Kokenge said.

With this growing relevance, Wulfhorst regularly receives “so many inquiries from around the world that it’s hard to even get back to people. High demand is a great problem to have. It’s phenomenal to see all the individuals with diverse interests coming together. This diversity is game-changing,” Wulfhorst said.

But it’s also difficult because of the small scale of the university. More diversity requires more collaboration, for example.

“We have many different students, but we still have to decide whether a student should take this class or that class, for example. But regardless of where students want to go with their degree in the future, they get a breadth of study and a unique opportunity to take on significant research opportunities,” Wulfhorst said.

Fortunately, flexibility, especially with online learning, facilitates engaging conversations and research in beneficial ways.

“Information sharing creates more translations and deeper learning. It doesn’t mean that traditional classes are bad, but that being interdisciplinary and learning in different formats is incredibly valuable and essential to tackling tremendous environmental challenges,” Wulfhorst said.

Big horn sheep look at a trail camera.
Winter at Taylor Ranch. Credit: Andrew Armstrong.

It Takes a Team

From online classes to international fieldwork, throughout 30 years of ENVS at U of I, there are a few things that have stayed the same: incredible staff, enthusiastic students and driven faculty from every discipline, coming together to make the program what it is today.

Behind every student’s success, there has been a team of staff members and advisors supporting them. These people deserve credit for uniting and developing ENVS at U of I.

“Advisors are integral for communications and making the program work. And the ENVS advisors have been incredible — they have always had student success at heart. They were the ones who built the program,” Boll said.

Chris Dixon, an administrative assistant for many of the program’s foundational years, motivated students and helped keep the program progressing.

“Chris was the star who made everything click. None of us would be here to celebrate thirty years if it weren’t for her,” Wulfhorst said.

Now, as of Fall 2023, there are 58 different faculty and staff, from across all nine colleges, directly and actively advising current ENVS graduate students. Specifically, since summer 2016, campus-wide, 35 faculty advise master’s theses. For non-thesis students, there are 56 faculty advisors, and another 35 faculty advise doctoral students.

Kokenge is optimistic for the future of ENVS mentoring.

“We need to continue to build more faculty expertise and engagement into student projects, especially those non-thesis capstone projects, to give as much depth as possible. The mentor/mentee relationship is one of the most valuable and potentially long-lasting aspects of graduate school,” Kokenge said.

For staff beyond Vos as director, the program now has Erin Rishling as an administrative assistant, while Kokenge and JayCee Hollingshead provide graduate advising and additional administrative assistance within CNR. The ENVS program is also actively recruiting for an associate director to ease the burden of a growing program with significantly expanding online demands.

Vos is excited about the associate director search.

“The core faculty sat down together and came up with an exciting job and a great opportunity for somebody to take an active role in helping shape the future of the program. It will not only spread the workload, but also allow us to think ahead to the future. And online with the original vision, the hope is that the associate director comes from a different college.

“When I see the number of students that have graduated from the program, the growth in the program and the amazing things our students and our alumni do, I am grateful for that group of faculty in 1993 who not only had a vision for a university-wide ENVS program but also made it happen. It might not look exactly the way they imagined it 30 years ago, but we are a truly interdisciplinary program with university-wide involvement and young faculty who are bringing their own vision and ideas to the program. I can’t wait to see what ENVS at U of I will look like 10 years from now," Voss said.

A woman digs a hole in rocky ground.
Yvette Bonney, B.S. ENVS ’24, takes a soil sample in the dried bed of the Aral Sea to be tested for contaminants, 2022. Credit: Terragraphics International Foundation.

Spirit for the Future

Rula Awwad-Rafferty, design and environments department chair, professor of interior architecture and design and U of I service-learning fellow for the College of Art and Architecture, has been a social sciences core faculty for ENVS since she first came to U of I in 1998.

Awwad-Rafferty immediately embraced the importance of place and space in ENVS. Each student, regardless of ENVS “track,” must consider their impact on people, places, communities and ecology. According to Awwad-Rafferty, this relationship forms the “living spirit” of the environment.

Throughout those years, sustainability has been a core pillar for the College of Art and Architecture, offering specializations such as certificates that embrace “living futures” where students are learning to be responsible not just to sustain life, but to regenerate it.

“We study how to be regenerative of life, Indigenous communities and their respective resources, and the behaviors we engender as we form the next seven generations,” Awwad-Rafferty said.

Awwad-Rafferty reflects on projects such as researching once-thriving railroad towns in Idaho that faded during the age of highways, and are now, in some places, growing again.

“We look at how culture is expressed in infrastructure and the resulting ecological impacts,” Awwad-Rafferty said.

“I’m always fascinated to learn about not only the ecology, but the art, the livelihood, the creatures, and the possibilities of mitigating our relationships within that given environment. It has been an amazing 30 years,” Awwad-Rafferty said.

We look at how culture is expressed in infrastructure and the resulting ecological impacts. Rula Awwad-Rafferty, Design and Environments Department Chair

Awwad-Rafferty has also worked on projects with migrant workers in rural Washington who built Hispanic culture into the local landscape in unique ways.

Throughout all endeavors, Awwad-Rafferty and her students and peers “work with stakeholders and local communities to allow them to be co-authors or co-designers so that we can decolonize our approaches to ENVS. The resulting outcome is design that speaks to the people who are going to be living and using it. It is responsive to them, their skills and their landscapes,” Awwad-Rafferty said.

Fellow U of I ENVS core faculty member, Romald K. Afatchao, associate director of the Martin Institute and clinical professor at the School of Global Studies in Togo, Africa, also works to address climate change, food production and capacity building together with the community. Afatchao recently invited other U of I faculty and a group of students to assist in designing a school in Togo.

Awwad-Rafferty emphasizes that ENVS, “above all else, centers on the language, people, art and even the food that forms each place. This is the essence of the living spirit.”

Rula Awwad-Rafferty

Department of Design and Environments Chair, Professor, Design UI Service Learning Fellow

AA 306


Therefore, throughout the program’s history, “the action component of ENVS at U of I is the program’s spirit carried out into the world,” Awwad-Rafferty said.

Consider this article not just a celebration of success, but a thank-you letter to those who continue to contribute to U of I Environmental Science's endeavors, action and spirit.

“I’m always running into former students. It is joyous to see how their careers and lives have expanded, and to know that, collectively, we’ve given them the background to do that,” von Braun said.

“This third decade is a capstone to that first era — and who knows what possibilities are on the horizon. But the fact is, that there’s so much demand, and a great need due to climate change and the politics of natural resource management, that ENVS is only going to become more of a driver,” Wulfhorst said.

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