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What is Environmental Science?

Graphic treatment of a hand holding the earth on a blue background

Understanding the Numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

Ten years after the first Earth Day in 1970, environmental activist Senator Gaylord Nelson wrote a letter about the importance of the environment to the American people and the world.

“So long as the human species inhabits the Earth,” he wrote in the letter, “proper management of its resources will be the most fundamental issue we face. Our very survival will depend on whether or not we are able to preserve, protect and defend our environment.”

Thanks to activists like Gaylord and so many others, more educational studies and legal statutes were put into place to make our world cleaner and resources sustainable. The field of environmental science was expanded from these efforts, as well as the associated education that helps our communities and businesses understand how to help the environment. The more we learn about our environment, the better we can protect it for the future generations.

What's the Simple Definition of Environmental Science?

Jill Nugent, an instructor of science at SNHU“Environmental science is an interdisciplinary field that integrates scientific methods and disciplines to understand and address real world environmental challenges,” said Jill Nugent, an instructor of science at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Nugent authors a recurring citizen science column for the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) and is founder and director of The Great Outdoor Classroom Project. She said some of the disciplines integrated into environmental science include:

  • Earth sciences
  • Life sciences
  • Physical sciences
  • Social sciences

“If you want to make a difference for the health of the planet, it is an excellent field to immerse in and study,” she said.

Why is Environmental Science Important?

Dr. Kelly Thrippleton-Hunter, adjunct instructor at SNHU“The focus of environmental science is to learn how the natural world works, understand how we interact with our natural world and determine how we can address environmental issues to preserve that natural world around us,” said Dr. Kelly Thrippleton-Hunter.

And she knows that firsthand. In addition to her role as an adjunct instructor at SNHU, Thrippleton-Hunter is a health risk assessor for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

“Understanding how the natural world works and how we interact with and impact that natural world can help us determine the most efficient and appropriate ways we can reduce those impacts or develop solutions to address those environmental problems,” she said.

In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created. With it came the Clear Air Act of 1970, restrictions on lead-based paint, focus on national air quality, the Clean Water Act, studies on pesticides and more, according to the EPA.

Now, continuing this research and sustainable education are crucial to keeping our ecosystems in balance, reversing damage we’ve done and preventing future destruction.

“Environmental science is important to all of us because we have no ‘Planet B’ to inhabit,” said Nugent.

Environmental Science Careers

Outline of hands holding a small tree sprouting out of them“An environmental science degree is so versatile that the sky would be the limit to what someone could do with it,” said Thrippleton-Hunter.

She said you might think that the field of environmental science is only for those who intend to become environmental scientists, but that isn't your only option.

“There are also other careers in environmental science,” Thrippleton-Hunter said, “like environmental consulting, sustainability, environmental justice, environmental or urban planning, landscape architecture, environmental health, community engagement and policy analysis.”

Educational entities like schools, zoos, nature centers and museums are places those entering environmental studies careers could find a home, but this path also extends to other sectors – including government agencies on local, state and federal levels.

  • Business and Government – Professionals who study sustainability and environmental compliance, such as in an MBA program, examine the effects an organization's practices have on the environment and find solutions they can implement to be more sustainable.

  • Research  Environmental science researchers examine environmental issues using the scientific method, monitor these issues over time and collaborate to determine solutions. SNHU's environmental science degree offers concentrations in "Data Analytics and Science" and "Natural Resources and Conservation," both of which could offer you a path to pursue a career in environmental science research.

  • Education – Environmental scientists work with everyone from politicians and journalists to health professionals and members of the community to educate and help people understand the importance of environmental sustainability, as well as how to help the environment.

“For those that enjoy nature and being outdoors, they could pursue environmental scientist or technician careers, careers as park rangers or game wardens,” Thrippleton-Hunter said. “There are so many options.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most jobs for environmental scientists and specialists require at least a bachelor's degree. Growth in the field is faster than average, BLS reports, and in 2022 the median pay for these roles was $76,480.*

Find Your Program

Why Should You Study Environmental Science?

Nugent described environmental education as encompassing the practice of engaging individuals, organizations and communities to learn more about the environment by both informing them and inspiring them to act.

Whether a conservationist, ecologist or geospatial technologist, the information these environmental scientists collect helps to raise awareness of environmental problems and define the steps needed to improve our relationship with our world.

“Environmental studies can take place from a multitude of perspectives including science, social science, business and economics,” Nugent said.

▸ Benefits of an Environmental Science Degree

Tyra Davey, associate dean of science at Southern New Hampshire UniversitySome schools, like SNHU, offer a bachelor's in environmental science. Tyra Davey, an associate dean of science at SNHU who holds a bachelor's in meteorology and a master's in atmospheric science, recommended SNHU's program for anyone looking to enter the field.

“Many students who complete the environmental science degree at SNHU go on to work as environmental scientists for government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, their state Department of Environmental Protection and the National Park Service,” Davey said.

She noted that students in this program will learn a variety of skills, including:

  • Analysis
  • Communication
  • Data collection
  • Lab and field experience
  • Research

According to Nugent, SNHU's program includes opportunities for hands-on experience, internships, real world projects and more. She recommended asking your academic advisor about science STEM experiential learning and internship opportunities.

Alyssa Mcmenemy, bachelor's in environmental science with a concentration in natural resources and conservation and a minor in criminal justiceThe program also includes options for a concentration, a minor — or both. “My degree is a bachelor's in environmental science with a concentration in natural resources and conservation and a minor in criminal justice,” said Alyssa Mcmenemy '23.

After working as a dancer teacher, Mcmenemy decided to change careers and earn a degree from SNHU with plans to become a conservation officer. “I was so happy that I could prove to myself that I could actually do it,” she said.

Environmental Education in Action

Although environmental education and a field such as business may seem worlds apart, businesses can save money by educating their workers and implementing new policies focused on environment sustainability. The EPA presented a small newspaper’s practices for waste prevention as an example of how sustainability helps businesses.

An outline of two pine trees and a cloud

By selling paper waste for packaging material, reusing ink cartridges multiple times before buying new ones and finding innovative ways to use film-developing chemicals and other materials that would have gone to waste, the newspaper was able to reduce costs. 

The EPA’s big selling point for sustainable education being put into practice by businesses is simple: “The bottom line is that preventing waste will save you money," their small business waste prevention guide said.

Nugent also noted that businesses can promote environmental sustainability by making it a part of their mission and business strategy.

“Today, there are unlimited opportunities for businesses to promote environmental suitability through consumer and employee engagement, by developing innovative energy-efficient products from renewable resources and cultivating a culture of sustainable practices across the brand,” she said.

And you can make an impact as an individual, too.

“With a passion for the field combined with proactive engagement, you can make a positive difference for the health of our planet,” said Nugent.

Discover more about SNHU’s environmental science degree: Find out what courses you’ll take, skills you’ll learn and how to request information about the program.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Ashley Wallis is an Army veteran and writer with a BA in English Language and Literature from SNHU. She is currently living in the Denver area.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.