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Major and Minor in Global Environmental Change and Sustainability (GECS)

You may also be interested in our other undergraduate degrees in Earth and Planetary Sciences.


The interdisciplinary, interdepartmental GECS major and minor introduce students to both the science of the Earth and its living and nonliving systems and how humans interact with Earth and its natural systems. GECS is also solution-focused on how humans can use powerful tools, such as policy and communication to help those systems. The goals are to advance awareness of the magnitude and consequences of these issues and to train the next generation of problem-solvers to address the effects of global environmental change. Students' backgrounds are typically specialized within traditional disciplines; a primary purpose of this major is to develop the ability of students to venture beyond the confines of those disciplines. Students will be exposed to theory, research, and the practical applications of both throughout their coursework.

Curriculum for Major 

The GECS core requirements provide all majors with a solid background in the study of both the environmental science and social science of our changing world. After completing the core requirements, students will choose either the Environmental Science or Social Science concentration for more in-depth study in their area of greater interest. While allowing students to concentrate, however, both concentrations will continue to require some courses in both environmental science and social science; the proportion will depend on the concentration.

A key component of the GECS major is the senior capstone experience consisting of projects, research, internships, and field trips that give students "hands on" experience. These projects could be coordinated with other activities at JHU, including those of the Hopkins Office of Sustainability, and could also lead to greater outreach activities.

To further enhance the students’ perspective of the global nature of the issues and differences in world views of different cultures, the major will cultivate and nurture relationships with international institutions to provide a variety of culturally and academically challenging opportunities abroad to augment the JHU experience.

Learning Goals:

  1. Interdisciplinarity.  The ability to study, synthesize and integrate interdisciplinary knowledge and research methodologies when evaluating or seeking solutions to environmental problems.   
  2. Knowledge.  Students will be well-grounded in a broad set of disciplines within the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities that are relevant to Global Environmental Change & Sustainability.  These may include, but are not limited to, ecology, biology, environmental law and policy, environmental economics, natural resource management, environmental ethics, geography, political science, chemistry, engineering, anthropology, sociology, physics, communication science, mathematics and statistics, and psychology.  Individual students may find themselves drawn toward either environmental science or social science approaches to addressing environmental problems.  Whereas all students will develop knowledge and skills in both fields, the program is structured to allow students to focus on either approach.
  3. Critical thinking skills.  The ability to analyze, interpret and synthesize information and ideas from diverse sources, to evaluate the relevance and validity of information, empirical evidence and theoretical arguments, and to solve challenging problems and arrive at well-reasoned conclusions.
  4. Research.  The ability to develop a research topic, articulate a thesis, employ relevant quantitative and qualitative research methods, understand the strengths and limitations of various research designs, evaluate and interpret the results, document and effectively use sources, and communicate the conclusions.
  5. Communication.  The ability to express facts, ideas, opinions and beliefs in a variety of written and oral formats, to organize and present evidence-based scientific ideas, to communicate scientific understanding to both scientific and general audiences, and to write and speak clearly, precisely and cohesively.
  6. Hands-on experience.  Through the Capstone experience, students will complete hands-on projects involving original research, internships, service projects and field trips.  In the process, they will synthesize and integrate the knowledge and skills obtained through their coursework into a coherent framework and project, in preparation for life after graduation.

Course Requirements:

Requirements for the major include a total of 23 courses (78 credits) if the Science Concentration is chosen, or 24 courses (75 credits) if the Social Science Conentration is chosen. Although this is a substantial number of courses, GECS majors are exempt from the University’s distribution requirements, thus making the total course load more manageable. Courses can be selected from a diversity of offerings available from different departments. GECS majors take a "core" of 12 foundational courses listed inTable 1. Core courses are offered through Earth & Planetary Sciences, Mathematics, Economics, Chemistry, Engineering, Psychology, Sociology, and Political Science. For electives, the major draws upon additional pertinent course offerings from these departments as well as from Anthropology, Biology, Physics, and History. Economics, Sociology, and Political Science are especially relevant to global environmental change and sustainability, both in their contributions to the problems we face and in their potential contributions to solutions to achieving sustainability. JHU is fortunate to have many courses from these disciplines with vitally relevant content. As such, these three disciplines contribute the majority of the Social Science Elective courses.

1. Core courses: 12 core courses required for all GECS majors are listed in Table 1 below.

2. Environmental Science Concentration core courses are listed in Table 2 below. In addition to these core courses, students choosing this concentration must take an additional 2 upper-level (300 level or above) courses from Table 3: Major Electives in Earth and Environmental Science and 4 courses from Table 4: Major Electives in Social Sciences, 2 of which must be upper-level.

3. Social Science Concentration majors must take 2 courses from Table 3: Major Electives in Earth and Environmental Science, at least 1 of which must be upper-level, and 10 courses from Table 4: Major Electives in Social Sciences, at least 6 of which must be upper level.

4. Because GECS is inherently interdisciplinary, students fulfill the University’s distribution requirements by completing the requirements for the major.

5. Capstone Experience:Project, Product, Seminar

Majors are required to complete a senior Capstone Experience, consisting of a Project, Product, and Seminar, in conjunction with the Director and relevant faculty. The Capstone Project provides the academic space, time, and mentoring for the student to integrate and synthesize the knowledge and skills obtained during the previous 3 years into a coherent framework in preparation for life after graduation. Moreover, the Capstone Product should be useful for the student’s chosen post-graduation path. The Capstone Seminar provides additional time and mentoring for students to explore sustainability issues in greater depth while finetuning writing and presentation skills.

a) The Capstone Project will likely take the form of original research, internship, independent study, or a service project. and will be a demonstration of integration and synthesis of knowledge and skills obtained during the previous 3 years. Students most commonly do their Capstone Project during the summer between junior and senior years.

b) The Capstone Product will be determined from the Capstone Project in conjunction with the Director and faculty mentors. The Product should be largely completed by the beginning of spring semester of the senior year.

c) Majors will be encouraged to begin planning their capstone experience during their junior year and will be required to submit a project proposal by the end of their junior year. Subsequent milestones will be designated throughout the senior year to ensure that all majors are making satisfactory progress on their Capstone Project and Product.

d) The Capstone Seminar is taken during the spring semester of senior year. Prerequisites include current status as GECS Major, completion of all core courses, and an acceptable plan for completing all requirements for the major by end of the senior year, or approval of Director.

e) Credit for work in earlier terms using standard research, internship, or independent study courses can be applied to the capstone experience. Students wishing to build on earlier experiences should discuss this possibility with their faculty advisor.

f)  All majors will make an oral presentation about their capstone experience to involved faculty and advisors during the spring semester Capstone Seminar, and a poster presentation to their parents and/or guests at the end of their senior year.

g) Additional information about the Capstone Experience can be found here. Additional information about ongoing or planned projects which could serve as Capstone Projects is found here.

Honors Program:

Majors who complete their 4 years with a GPA of 3.5 or above in their GECS courses and receive an “A” on their Capstone Product, will receive a B.A. in GECS with Honors.

To notify the university that you are eligible for honors you must:
1) Obtain an honors checklist by either downloading it from or by picking one up in the Office of Academic Advising.

2) Complete the checklist between February 1 and March 1 of your senior year and take it to Dr. Cindy Parker for review and signature.

3) Return the signed checklist to the Office of Academic Advising by April 1. You do not need to make an appointment to return the checklist, but it must be signed by Dr. Parker or it will not be processed.

Curriculum for Minor

The GECS minor consists of seven courses Table 5. All minors are required to take two core courses: Intro to Global Environmental Change provides the necessary content about the science of the Earth and its environments and Intro to Sustainability covers a thorough overview of the interactions between humans and the Earth’s systems and how those interactions could become sustainable. Students then have a choice of one of four other science courses that further explores a  subset of interactions of humans with Earth’s living and nonliving systems, depending on the student’s area of interest. Students must choose two more courses from the list of Earth and Environmental Science Electives Table 3 and two more courses from the list of Social Science Electives Table 4. At least one course from each elective list must be upper level. A total of five Earth and Environmental Science courses provide the science basis of the minor, which is then rounded out with two relevant Social Science courses. Because students will be acquiring the methodological tools of their major discipline, this curriculum removes the science methodology required in the GECS major, while keeping the most important core content.


Printable version of GECS Program.

For more information contact:
Cindy L. Parker MD, MPH
Director, GECS Major

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