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reed magazine logoDecember 2010

Growing the Curriculum

The cross-pollination of Reed’s new environmental studies major

By Geoff Koch

Thirty years ago, Reed biology professor Keith Karoly was an 18-year-old freshman thinking about majoring in environmental studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Instead he picked biology, going on to earn a PhD in the field from the University of Chicago, but he's never given up on that interest.

Today Karoly is contemplating Reed's first crop of students in environmental studies (ES), a new program sprouting this fall after years of deliberation. By all indications it should be a bumper harvest four years from now. Of the 373 incoming freshmen this year, 66 said that ES would be among their top three choices as major. That's impressive, given that the new major wasn't even approved until March. When most of these incoming students visited campus as prospies, there was nothing in the catalog—just a "rumor," Karoly says, that the program was in the works.

On a warm August afternoon, the biology building was almost deserted and the hectic beginning of a new academic year seemed far away. Strains of the band Wire echoed down a second floor hallway. Soon enough, the source of the English punk music was revealed: a boom box in Karoly's lab. There, hunched over a row of tiny pots, Karoly was planting seedlings of Northwest larkspur, an endangered flower, poking the soil with a pencil, then carefully placing thimble-sized seedlings in the holes.

"We have really bright students here at Reed, and if I wanted to burden anyone with the responsibility for trying to tackle some of these very tough environmental issues, it would be Reedies," says Karoly. "And for me this is a core interest coming full circle."

At first blush, Reed's newest major seems almost impossibly late to the save-the-planet party. The nation's first ES program began 45 years ago at Middlebury College, when Karoly was just a toddler. Many of the signature moments of the environmental movement—the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Montreal Protocol banning of ozone-depleting chemicals (1987)—happened before today's freshmen were born.

But let's be honest. Reasons to worry about environmental unraveling continue to mount, right along with the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That stood at more than 388 parts per million in August, an increase of about three parts per million from the previous year, according to, which compiles data from a variety of official sources, most notably the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The number that many leading scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide: 350 parts per million.

Complexity is the hallmark of this problem, and indeed of most environmental issues. Each is a Gordian tangle of the local and global, the scientific and political, the rational and the emotional. Untangling the knots—or cutting through them—requires deep expertise and a meaningful ability to work across disciplines. Reed's new program provides both, and perhaps surprisingly, one further ingredient: hope.

Biology majors

Biology majors Ross Young ’11 and Sean Maden ’11 investigate the impact of urban development on frog evolution. Under the direction of Bob Kaplan [biology, 1983+] and Zac Perry [canyon, 2000+] Ross and Sean created an amphibian breeding pond in the canyon. Their research is funded in part by a fellowship
honoring conservationist Milt Fischer '87.

reed magazine logoDecember 2010