UMass Responds to Rising Demand

03/28/2010
By From the Boston Globe

By John Laidler

University of Massachusetts Lowell will help meet a growing need for trained people to work in the field of environmental health through a degree program it is introducing this fall.
 
The state’s Board of Higher Education on March 16 approved a proposal by the university’s School of Health and Environment to offer a bachelor of science degree in environmental health.

The vote gives UMass Lowell the distinction of being the only institution in the Northeast offering the degree, according to the university.

“We are very enthusiastic,’’ said Shortie McKinney, dean of the School of Health and Environment. “We are delighted we made it through this step. I’m confident this is going to be a very popular major. . . I think it’s going to resonate with students coming out of high school because it emphasizes some of the common issues of today ߞ; greening and sustainability ߞ; along with health, so it’s a great combination.’’

Students in the program will study the effects of the environment on human health and of human activities on the environment, and ways to address those impacts. Environmental health professionals work as inspectors, health and safety specialists, and researchers and analysts at local, state, and federal environmental and public health agencies. They also work for industry, consulting firms, and nonprofits.

McKinney said the school’s decision to offer the degree was spurred in part by the rising demand for people trained and educated in the field.

As evidence, UMass officials cite statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that as many as half of current professionals in the field will retire within the next 10 years.

“Health departments are having quite a chal lenge meeting their needs in the workforce in environmental health and dealing with all the various issues out there, for example water quality and food safety,’’ McKinney said.

And as the only place to pursue an undergraduate degree in the field, UMass Lowell is poised to draw students interested in the field, she said.

“I think this will be an attractive option for young people coming to the university because this is an area where the jobs are, and that’s not always true in every field,’’ McKinney said.

Another impetus for the school to offer the degree is the “increasing acknowledgment that damage to the environment affects human health,’’ said Joel Tickner, associate professor of environmental health at the school.

He said that was evident in such areas as climate change, the spread of communicable diseases, the rising incidence of food-borne illnesses, and the increase of environmentally related chronic diseases.

“So we increasingly need trained professionals who can understand the interconnections between the global environment and local impacts, who can understand the political, scientific, and economic context of environmental problems and solutions,’’ said Tickner, who spearheaded development of the degree program.

Since 2004, community health majors at the school could concentrate in environmental health, Tickner said. But with the new initiative, they can now get a degree in the subject. And he said the school will be pursuing national accreditation of the program, which would give graduates a valuable credential in applying for jobs.

Larry A. Ramdin, Reading’s health services administrator and president of the Massachusetts Environmental Health Association, said he is “extremely excited’’ that UMass Lowell will be offering the new degree program, and that his counterparts in other municipal health departments share that enthusiasm.

“It’s going to develop a lot of needed skill sets in the environmental health practitioner work force,’’ he said.

Ramdin said many of the people entering the field now have degrees other than environmental health.

As a result, they “have to be trained in basic environmental health principles to bring them up to a level where they can work in the field’’ without having to shadow an experienced professional.

“You have to train them on the fly because the work doesn’t stop,’’ he said. “It’s not the ideal situation.’’

But that level of training will not be needed for students receiving the new UMass Lowell degree, he said, because those graduates will have the skill sets needed to transition quickly to their new jobs.

The degree program will begin with 10 to 15 students and grow to about 60 over four years, according to the university. It will be open to both first-year students and those transferring from other programs at the university or other institutions.

McKinney said the program will be taught by existing faculty members at the school, which also plans to hire an additional faculty member. The school will also be seeking funding from the university in the coming years to pay for additional laboratory facilities.