Dean’s Update: Delivering High Quality Teaching Across All Of Our Programs

Dean’s Update
by Jeffrey Vincent, Stanback Dean

Students are at the center of what we do at the Nicholas School—and it’s a big, complicated center.

Professional master’s students in our Master of Environmental Management (MEM) and Master of Forestry (MF) programs comprise the largest share of our student body, but we also have robust undergraduate and PhD programs. We offer three undergraduate majors (AB  in Environmental Science & Policy, BS in Environmental Science, BS or AB in Earth & Ocean Sciences), a concentration in Marine Science Conservation, and several minors and certificates. We offer six PhD programs, including three in collaboration with other schools at Duke.

And for working professionals, we offer a rich and expanding set of executive education courses in addition to the distance-learning-based Duke Environmental Leadership (DEL) MEM program.

This large number of educational programs makes coordination essential. We need to deliver high-quality teaching across all these programs while supporting our faculty members’ important work as researchers and practitioners, which generates the knowledge and skills taught in
our courses.

In response to this coordination need, this year we’re preparing our first-ever school-wide teaching plan. I’ve asked the leaders of our various educational programs to determine if we are offering the right courses in our programs and assigning teaching responsibilities to the right faculty.

One intended outcome of this planning effort is to ensure that all of our faculty regularly teach core courses—required courses or popular electives—at the undergraduate or master’s level. Our PhD students work closely with our faculty given the research focus of doctoral programs, but our many undergraduate and master’s students also need to learn directly from our world-class faculty researchers.

Guided by our new strategic plan, Working Together to Advance Environmental Education and Research, we are strengthening our educational programs in many other ways too. To foster a stronger sense of community among our PhD students, we held a schoolwide PhD symposium on Feb. 9—another first for the school. Duke University Provost Sally Kornbluth opened the symposium, which shined a spotlight on the vital contributions that PhD students make to our research mission.

In yet another first, this year we are conducting a university-wide survey of Duke undergraduates to learn more about perceptions of our programs and courses. The number of students who select our majors has roughly doubled over the past decade. This growth is gratifying, but I’d like to see more Duke undergraduates from other majors, especially large
ones such as economics, public policy, engineering and biology, enroll in our courses. Graduates of these majors frequently become leaders in the private and public sectors, and they need to understand environmental challenges and how to address them. We are designing the survey to help us understand how to reach more Duke undergrads.

In our master’s programs, we are acting on suggestions from alumni and employers to enhance the development of students’ professional skills (e.g., project management, teamwork, communications). Also prompted by our alums, and funded to a large degree by them, we have launched a search for an executive-in-residence to lead a new natural resources finance program. This program responds to the rising need for natural resource and conservation professionals who combine skills in investment analysis with knowledge of resource science and policy.

Moving forward, we will continue to explore and implement new ways to ensure high-quality teaching in our myriad of educational programs, whether in the classroom, the lab, in the field or at sea. This issue of Dukenvironment profiles two examples: In our cover story, we follow our students to Northampton County in northeastern North Carolina, where faculty member Sari Palmroth has created a partnership to help African-American forest landowners benefit more from their timber resources and keep the land in their families. .

We also feature one of our most popular teachers (and leading researchers), Betsy Albright, who constantly brings new ideas into the classroom to engage our students and help them develop the skills, including rigorous statistical tools, that are the foundation of the work they do.

Be sure to check out these stories and more.