School of Earth, Environment and Society

Dr. Charles Onasch (center foreground) is the director of the newly formed School of Earth, Environment and Society. The school’s departmental chairs are (from left) Dr. Arthur Samel, geography, and Dr. Sheila Roberts, geology, along with Dr. Philip Terrie, interim director of the Center for Environmental Programs.

Three academic programs form new BGSU school

A history of informal collaboration and common interests has led to a formal reorganization for three academic programs at the University.

The BGSU Board of Trustees on Friday approved the reconfiguration of the geology and geography departments and the Center for Environmental Programs into the new School of Earth, Environment and Society, effective July 1.

“This new school will facilitate interdisciplinary teaching and research while, at the same time, maintaining the identity of the three units within the school,” according to its director, Dr. Charles Onasch, geology.

Onasch said faculty in the participating programs started talking two years ago about how their shared interests in research and teaching might benefit from a more formal structure.

There was considerable common interest in geospatial science and technology—which he defined as being “used for the acquisition, management, visualization and analysis of features or phenomena that occur on the Earth”—and in the interactions between the Earth, the environment and humans.

The three components of the geospatial field are Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing—which Onasch described as gathering information about the Earth’s surface without being in physical contact with it—and the Global Positioning System (GPS) technology with which many people are probably now familiar.

GIS is a technology widely used in the natural, social and health sciences, as well as in business and government. It is used to examine relationships between spatial information, which includes anything that is tied to a location.

He said, for example, that in determining a location for a nuclear power plant, a number of criteria would come into play, such as distance from metropolitan areas. A GIS map could be created to show possible locations relative to metro areas, and serve as one of many maps (“layers”) that would collectively reveal what areas would meet all the criteria. “You can look at as many different data sets as you want” and get answers from GIS, Onasch explained.

The three programs in the new BGSU school all have a similar GIS course now, but one common GIS course is under development for students in each of the three units. That ability to eliminate overlap and duplication through a streamlined curriculum is among the benefits of the reconfiguration, he said, pointing out that students will be able to branch out from the central course within the individual units.

Another benefit will be the introduction of new courses and programs under the school banner, he added. For instance, because geography and environmental programs don’t currently have graduate programs, “this (school) will give them access to graduate students,” said Onasch, who envisions the school awarding bachelor’s and master’s degrees that stress interdisciplinarity between studies of the Earth, environment and society.

The new configuration should engender creation of physical geography and Earth science statistical courses, as well as a greater diversity of geospatial courses, that the geography department can’t offer on its own, said Dr. Arthur Samel, chair of the department.

“This has not been a contentious marriage,” he said. “In this case, I think there’s a genuine realization that all of us have a chance to benefit.”

From a research standpoint, the school’s creation will enable easier collaboration on interdisciplinary studies, Onasch said, and it may provide some benefit for securing external funding for cross-disciplinary research. “Discoveries today are being made at the boundaries between disciplines,” the director pointed out.

The Center for Environmental Programs has always been interdisciplinary in nature, and with the new school having a similar orientation, “I think we really belong here,” said Dr. Philip Terrie, interim director of environmental programs and an American culture studies faculty member. He called the reconfiguration “another step forward” for interdisciplinary studies on a campus that already has a tradition with the approach through such programs as American culture studies and women’s studies.

“I think the school will provide a lot of opportunities for the scholarship of engagement,” Onasch predicted, noting that geology and geography faculty are working now with the Wood County Auditor’s Office on developing a countywide GIS system.

And strengthening geospatial studies is timely in another way as well: A recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor cited geospatial as “one of the key areas of job growth” in the technology sector, along with nanotechnology and biotechnology, he said.

March 26, 2007