Columbia University's Undergraduate Major in Sustainable Development

Columbia University's Undergraduate Major in Sustainable Development

The Background of the Major

Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Columbia College and the School of General Studies are delighted to announce the launch of the undergraduate major in sustainable development.  Beginning in Fall 2010, Columbia will expand the opportunities available to students interested in the field of sustainable development. While students may continue to undertake a special concentration in sustainable development, they now have the opportunity to complete a major in this cutting-edge interdisciplinary field of study.

Students will be able to take challenging, cross-disciplinary courses that are specifically designed to provide a well-rounded education on the multitude of issues in sustainable development. The program provides an experience that cuts across disciplines to address complex issues of development as they relate to the interactions of natural and social systems. Students will address the fundamental issue of how to move toward a trajectory of sustainability that will allow future generations to pursue further progress in human well-being without causing irreparable harm to the planet.

The program benefits from the support of the pioneering work in sustainable development that the faculty and researchers of the Earth Institute have already done and will continue to do. Drawing from this cutting-edge research and development, graduates of the program will be uniquely prepared to approach issues of sustainable development from all angles. 

In 2007, the Earth Institute helped launch the special concentration in sustainable development for undergraduate students. The special concentration is a cluster of courses designed to serve as a complement to the disciplinary specialization and methodological training inherent in existing majors at Columbia. Since the commencement of the program, 76 students have declared the special concentration and 11 graduated in 2009. This high level of interest and engagement in the special concentration from both faculty and students reflected the need for a full major in sustainable development. Starting in September 2010, students may major in sustainable development or enroll in the special concentration along with one of the many other majors offered at Columbia.

From its inception, the major was developed by Earth Institute faculty in collaboration with faculty across the University community, encouraging the participation of various committees and undergraduate and professional schools at Columbia. This collaborative process involving qualified academics and departments contributed greatly to the development of a uniquely interdisciplinary program with an original structure. The program is open to all undergraduates from Columbia College and the School of General Studies, and will be taught by faculty from many of Columbia’s schools and departments.

The process of creating this exciting new major was led by Ruth DeFries, Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development, E3B; and Kevin Griffin, associate professor, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and interim director of the undergraduate special concentration. Both were influential in the development and success of the special concentration.  

The Major

The major in sustainable development is a unique educational program dedicated to and extending from the philosophical, ideological and structural traditions of the Columbia Core. Students who wish to complete the major in sustainable development will work with their program advisor to decide on course selection and sequencing. Study abroad and internships will be strongly encouraged, particularly as a basis for thesis research and to provide students with practical experience early on in their professional development. A minimum of 15 courses and a practicum are required for a total of approximately 47 points to complete the major.

Sustainable Development Foundation Courses (3 courses):

SDEV W1900  Introduction to Sustainable Development Seminar
SDEV W2300 Challenges of Sustainable Development
EESC W2330  Science for Sustainable Development

Basic Disciplinary Foundation Courses (5 courses):

One of the following science sequences:

EEEB W2001-W2002  Environmental Biology, I and II
CHEM C1403-C1404  General Chemistry
PHYS V1201-V1202  General Physics
EESC V2100-V2300  Earth Science
EAEE E1100-E2002 Engineering Science

Two social science courses to be chosen from an approved list in conjunction with the program adviser:

ECON W1105  Principles of Economics
SDEV W3400  Demography of Human Populations
POLS V1501  Introduction to Comparative Politics or V1601 International Politics
SOCI W1000  The Social World
ANTH V1002  The Interpretation of Culture
SDEV W2xxx Social Choices and Sustainable Development*

One of the following quantitative courses:

SDEV W3xxx  Quantitative Methods for Complex Systems*
STAT W1211 Introduction to Statistics (with calculus)
STAT W3105 Introduction to Probability Models
STAT W3107 Introduction to Statistical Inference
STAT W4105 Introduction to Probability
STAT W4107 Statistical Inference
STAT W4315 Linear Regression Models
STAT W4606 Elementary Stochastic Processes
MATH V2010 Linear Algebra

Analysis and Solutions to Complex Problems Courses (2 of the following):

SDEV W3xxx  Climate Solutions*
SDEV W3xxx  Managing Water Scarcity*
EAAA W4200 Alternative Energy Resources
SDEV W3330  Ecological and Social Systems for Sustainable Development
PUBH W3100  Fundamentals of Global Health
SDEV W3200  Global Food Systems
SDEV W3360  Disasters and Development
SDEV W3410  Urbanization and Sustainability
The Summer Ecosystems Experience for Undergraduates (SEE-U) Summer Program

Skills/Action Courses (2 courses):

SDEV W3390  GIS for Sustainable Development
SCNC W3010 Science, Technology and Society
SDEV W3450 Spatial Analysis and Modeling for Sustainable Development
EESC W4050  Global Assessment Remote Sensing
SDEV W3xxx  Survey of Social Science Methods for Sustainable Development*
SDEV W3xxx  Survey of Legal and Policy Methods for Sustainable Development*
SDEV W3320  Economic and Financial Methods for Sustainable Development

Electives (2 courses + a practicum):

One of the following practicums:

SDEV W3500  EI-Lamont Sustainable Development Practicum
INAF U4734  SIPA-EI Practicum in Environmental Science and Policy

Two of the following courses:

Additional courses from Analysis and Solutions to Complex Problems
Additional courses from Skills/Actions
Senior Thesis Seminar (two semester sequence, to be developed)
Upper division courses as approved by program adviser

Capstone Workshop (1 course)

SDEV W3280  Workshop in Sustainable Development

*Asterisk notes classes that are currently under development


Interschool Committee for Sustainable Development

Steven Cohen, Earth Institute and School of International and Public Affairs 
Peter Coleman, Social-Organizational Psychology, Teachers College
Patricia Culligan, Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics
Ruth DeFries (Co-Chair), Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (E3B)
Peter deMenocal, Earth and Environmental Sciences
Joe Graziano, Mailman School of Public Health
Kevin Griffin (Co-Chair), Earth and Environmental Sciences
Upmanu Lall, Earth and Environmental Engineering
Edward Lloyd, Law School (Environmental Law Clinic)
Shahid Naeem, Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology
Stephanie Pfirman, Department of Environmental Science (Barnard)
Robert Pollack, Biological Sciences
Elliot Sclar, Urban Planning and Public Affairs, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; School of International and Public Affairs
Wolfram Schlenker, Economics
Sam Sia, Biomedical Engineering
Andrea Solomon, General Studies
Sara Tjossem, School of International and Public Affairs
Kathryn Yatrakis, Columbia College

Career Opportunities

Students who complete the major will be equipped with a combination of a strong theoretical foundation and ample practical skills (such as GIS, statistical tools and/or social science survey methods) that are in demand by professional organizations across public, private and non-profit sectors as well as in graduate educational programs. For instance, the 11 graduates of the special concentration in sustainable development from 2009 are working with organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Geochemistry Department at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Earthjustice, Columbia Medical Center, Clinton Global Initiative, Community Lab and others. The program will prepare students to pursue graduate studies in many disciplines such as: sustainable development, public health, international affairs and environmental sciences. Students interested in doctoral studies would be well trained to enroll in programs such as the Ph.D. in sustainable development offered at Columbia.

The rapidly increasing economic development of a fast-growing population has led to significant pressure on the environment and threatens all of Earth’s vital functions and support systems for human life. This state of affairs poses an unprecedented challenge to humankind concerning its future capacity for economic development and human well-being on a global scale. The challenge requires timely responses based on solid knowledge of the human/environment interface, proven technological options to mitigate adverse effects on the environment, and means to translate this knowledge into action. Thus it has never been more important to educate a new generation of students who are dedicated to the fundamental links among the natural sciences and the social practices and who understand the values and beliefs that influence decision making.


For more information on the undergraduate major in sustainable development, please contact:

Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri, Senior Program Manager

For more detailed information on specific course offerings, please consult:

Columbia University’s Directory of Classes:
School of General Studies:
Columbia College: