A new undergraduate degree offered at Virginia Tech, Water: Resources, Policy and Management, is perhaps the first of its kind in the United States. There are a number of interdisciplinary graduate degrees and certifications in water available at universities around the country, but undergraduate programs in water have typically focused on a single discipline. Water-resources work includes multiple specialty areas, and individual experts are required to communicate productively with professionals and stakeholders from a wide range of competencies and perspectives. Although ability of this kind can be developed over time through practical experience, and fostered through graduate work as well, the opportunity to approach early professional training with depth and breadth of knowledge is a new and exciting development in water-resources education.
The story of this new degree is itself a case study of effective interdisciplinary water-resources leadership and communication. Two professors in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech started the process, little knowing how quickly the momentum for the program would develop. Stephen Schoenholtz (professor of forest hydrology and soils and Director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center – VWRRC) and Kevin McGuire (associate professor of hydrology and Associate Director of the VWRRC) called a campus-wide meeting one fall evening in 2010 to explore the interest and need for an interdisciplinary, graduate-level water program. They were greatly encouraged to see almost 40 faculty from five different colleges and 10 different departments around campus come together to discuss the topic.
Ultimately, the graduate program idea was deemed redundant due to other campus programs, but interest in a multi-disciplinary undergraduate degree rapidly gained energy on every level. Dean of the College of Natural Resources Paul Winistorfer quickly recognized the practical benefits an undergraduate program of this nature could bring to students, as well as the natural fit between the proposed program, the VWRRC (a USGS water institute), and university level strategic goals. Approval by the university Provost Mark McNamee, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia followed as Schoenholtz, McGuire, and other committee members researched and designed the degree.
Retaining an interdisciplinary base of support across the campus of Virginia Tech was of utmost importance to committee members as they worked out the specifics of the degree proposal. So as not to duplicate any part of the water-related degree in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the new degree was designed to specifically focus on areas of hydrology and the social sciences, but can be combined with the Civil and Environmental Engineering degree or any other university program if a student wishes to earn a double major. Additionally, the degree was conceptualized to require no new resources, but instead draw from existing courses selected from all five colleges partnering on the initiative. However, a wish list for future improvements in specific areas was included in the proposal, and, said Schoenholtz, “the Provost went for it! He corresponded with all five deans, looking for where new faculty were needed.” In the spring of 2014, seven new water specialists were hired as faculty for the new water program, housed in the departments of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, Biological Systems Engineering, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, and Geography. These new faculty hires, combined with the collaboration of more than 80 other faculty in 15 departments connected with the water program, underscore the intellectually diverse community in support of the Water: Resources, Policy, and Management undergraduate degree at VA Tech.
The degree program opened to students in the fall of 2015, with 23 freshmen and sophomores currently enrolled. Students can expect depth of specific practical knowledge as well as breadth through multiple perspectives. McGuire describes the degree in terms of “T-shaped learning” (see https://ucowr.org/files/Achieved_Journal_Issues/150/2_McIntosh_and_Taylor_150.pdf). Students will develop depth, the vertical bar of the “T,” by their focused study in one water science discipline and one water policy area. The breadth, the horizontal bar, comes through exposure to the interdisciplinary water core that all students must complete. “The new degree program is about water as a resource from the hydrologic science perspective plus economics, policy, law, and management,” explains Schoenholtz.
Specific course offerings were informed in part by a thorough analysis of the types of graduates employers currently need in their organizations, and address an anticipated job growth of 19 percent in water-related positions. VA Tech faculty reached out to businesses of all kinds to inform the degree design, including multiple NGOs, federal and state agencies, and private companies such as Coca Cola and North Face. As Schoenholtz describes, “People from government agencies, private industry, international aid groups, and more are all saying they want to hire people who understand the science and the human dimensions related to water.” The Water: Resources, Policy, and Management undergraduate degree at VA Tech will produce well-rounded graduates ready for careers in hydrology, water quality and supply, environmental consulting, water conservation, and water resource planning and management, to name a few. UCOWR congratulates the VA Tech water community on their well planned initiative to educate the future water leaders employers and our environment currently require.
To learn more about the program, visit these links: