Environmental Studies

Academic Department Introduction

Environmental studies examines the interdependent relationships between humans and the environment. Our department helps students cultivate the expertise, confidence, and empathy needed to tackle pressing environmental issues as scholars, scientists, activists, policy-makers, planners, artists, storytellers, and more.

Learning goals

Our goals are built upon values, skills, and experiences that recognize the complex, systemic inequities of environmental issues and actively empower people whose voices and perspectives have been marginalized. These include:

  • Gaining an understanding of how racism, colonialism, and power shape environmental problems; appreciating the complexity of environmental challenges; and engaging in complicated dilemmas in a spirit of collaboration.
  • Using data, argument, and case studies to understand social, physical, and biological processes.
  • Participating in a transdisciplinary and collaborative learning community where fellow students, faculty, staff, alums, and the public are all valued sources of expertise.

Programs of study

Environmental studies major and minor

Students gain skills, experiences, and values necessary to tackle pressing environmental challenges.

Course highlights

  • Elements and molecules interact with the environment producing global challenges such as climate change, ozone depletion, and heavy metal pollution. This course is a general introduction to the chemistry of such environmental problems, focusing on the chemical principles that regulate the effect, fate, and transport of chemicals in the environment. It explores how the structure of a chemical relates to its environmental impact and how interactions can be predicted through chemistry. Assignments will include working with real data-sets of elements in the environment, such as records of carbon in forests, oxygen in the ocean, and heavy metals in soils. Chem 103 is intended for students with very little prior chemistry experience. This course does not count towards the chemistry major or minor. (CHEM 103 and ES 103 are cross-listed courses.)
  • This course examines the relationship between nature and society in American history. The course will consider topics such as the decimation of the bison, the rise of Chicago, the history of natural disasters, and the environmental consequences of war. There are three goals for this course: First, we will examine how humans have interacted with nature over time and how nature, in turn, has shaped human society. Second, we will examine how attitudes toward nature have differed among peoples, places, and times, and we will consider how the meanings people give to nature inform their cultural and political activities. Third, we will study how these historical forces have combined to shape the American landscape and the human and natural communities to which it is home. While this course focuses on the past, an important goal is to understand the ways in which history shapes how we understand and value the environment as we do today. (ES 299 and HIST 299 are cross-listed courses.)

Places and spaces

  • Students, staff and faculty listening to a person who is standing and talking outside. Some are sitting on stone benches and some are standing.

    The Frost Center for the Environment, home of the Environmental Studies Department, offers access to the Science Complex, greenhouses, and laboratory equipment. Thoroughly interdisciplinary, the Frost Center supports programming and initiatives that engage the whole community, such as talks on topics ranging from eco-poetics to environmental justice.

  • Various plants and trees inside the greenhouse. Glass panels can be seen in the background.

    A stunning greenhouse that embodies architectural sustainability and interdisciplinary education, Global Flora houses the College’s preeminent collection of plants in dry and tropical biomes.

  • Students and a professor sit at lab tables. The professor looks at their laptop, the students examine a beaker. Another student looks at their laptop.

    The Environmental Science Research Laboratory is a shared space in which faculty and students engage in research in the natural sciences that informs—and is motivated by—interdisciplinary environmental questions and issues. They analyze environmental samples ranging from plant material to ocean water and use the resulting data to better understand scientific processes and feedback. Photo: Dave Burk © SOM

Research highlights

  • Professor Jay Turner stands in between two students. Behind them are two American flags.

    Students working with Professor Jay Turner have tracked investments in clean energy manufacturing since the Inflation Reduction Act became law. In March 2023, they were invited to brief the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on what they had learned.

  • Two students stand and smile next to table. On the table are papers and a doll house.

    The MetroWest Energy Justice Collaborative, an independent study course in our department, worked with Niri Kumar, the energy advocate for Wellesley’s neighboring towns of Natick and Framingham, in fall 2023. Students studied energy justice in class and worked on these issues through community-based projects.

  • Professor Beth DeSombre sits and drives a boat with a student standing next to her.

    How can we make global shipping greener? One place to start is the world’s ports. Students working with Professor Beth DeSombre have researched sustainability measures at the busiest ports around the world with the help of a multiyear grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

  • Two students kneel on the ground in the woods, examining plants. A student in the background is standing and holding a silver device.

    Sometimes a plant species can dominate one landscape yet be hard to find in a similar place nearby. Students in Professor Alden Griffith’s lab research the mechanisms of plant population dynamics, with a particular focus on invasive species and the influence of local environmental conditions. This work integrates measurements from the field and laboratory, the development of quantitative models, and greenhouse experiments.

  • Professor Dan Brabander kneels in a garden bed next to four students who are kneeling and examining a scanner.

    Students working with Professor Dan Brabander explore the intersection of geosciences and public health with a focus on legacy metal (e.g. lead and arsenic) mobility in the environment. Environmental justice communities are often disproportionately affected by these toxic elements in soil and dust. Professor Brabander’s lab works with community partners to co-discover research questions that lead to sustainable and transformative interventions for impacted communities.


  • Study abroad

    Through our partner institutions, students can enroll in environmentally focused programs in Panama, Costa Rica, Kenya, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

  • Study off campus

    Students can cross-register for environmental studies classes at MIT, Olin College of Engineering, Babson College, and the Marine Studies Consortium.

  • Student organizations

    Several student-run organizations focus on climate change, food justice, sustainability, and outdoor activities.

Beyond Wellesley

Beyond Wellesley

Many of our graduates become scholars, scientists, activists, health care workers, policy-makers, and artists. They work in the nonprofit sector, conduct research, and teach. Recent employers include the Office of the Attorney General for Massachusetts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Maxeon Solar Technologies, and nonprofit organizations such as the Conservation Law Foundation, the Acadia Institute of Oceanography, and Cultural Survival. Students have continued their studies at graduate programs including the Yale School of the Environment, the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke, the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Stanford Law School.

Department of Environmental Studies

Science Center
106 Central Street
Wellesley, MA 02481
Alden Griffith
Department Chair
Kayli Hattley
Academic Administrator