The summer before I arrived at Barnard, I was pretty much dead set on majoring in political science. Having never excelled in science in high school, I was incredibly adverse to anything related to STEM. Nothing could convince me otherwise, it seemed. I chose political science because I was good at AP Gov and all my english professors told me I’d make a great lawyer, so it essentially was a no-brainer. Until I spent the summer before my first year road tripping across the midwest and unearthed (ha) a love for environmental science, a passion that had always been there but had never been fully realized until then. On a whim, I signed up for General Chemistry, putting myself on track for an environmental science major. A month ago I would never have believed it, but now I can confidently say I made the right choice.

Requirements for the majors and a quick synopsis of each:

Environmental Science

This is probably the most earth science-y of all of the possible environmental science majors. This is for people who are the most interested in the non-biological aspects of our world. Think petrology (study of rocks), climate physics, inorganic chemistry, etc. In terms of flexibility, this major is fairly easy to get done as many courses count for the different requirements. It also pairs well with majors such as chemistry, physics, and statistics, to name a few. Another highlight of this major is a way to get out of taking organic chemistry, which can be very nice!

  • Earth’s Environmental Systems: Climate, EESC UN2100 with lab
  • Earth’s Environmental Systems: Solid Earth, EESC UN2200 with lab
  • General Chemistry I, CHEM BC2001 with lab
  • Introduction to Organismal and Evolutionary Biology, BIOL BC1500 + Laboratory, BIOL BC1501
  • 2 other courses in chemistry, physics and/or biology
  • 2 courses in calculus, statistics, data analysis, and/or economics
  • 4 elective courses
  • Senior Research Seminar

Environmental Biology

This one’s mine :) and is unique in the way that it is technically a combined major! When you declare, you actually are assigned two major advisors: one from the environmental science department, and one from the biology department! This major, however, has the most requirements because of this fact, and the least flexibility. But for students who are very much interested in the biological aspects, this is a great major that grants you the best of both worlds: environmental science without the “harsher” STEM classes and biology without all the premed and microbiology classes. I feel this major is perfect for people who know they’re interested in environmental science but can’t really decide on what they want to specify in. I’m able to work in a lab doing sedimentary core analysis and also take ecology classes because I’m also interest in wildlife management! It’s just so all-encompassing and I’ve truly found a home here. Be prepared for a lot of labs though!

  • One year of introductory biology with lab at the 1500-level sequence
  • One lecture course in ecology
  • One lab course in ecology
  • One lecture course in organismal biology
  • One additional lecture course in biology (not including organismal biology)
  • One year of introductory environmental science with lab
  • One course in methodology
  • One additional lecture course offered in environmental science
  • One year of introductory chemistry including one semester of organic chemistry
  • One course in data handling
  • A senior thesis completed in biology or environmental science

Environment and Sustainability

This is sort of like environmental science Lite: environmental science for people who don’t want to drag themselves through the large amount of STEM classes in the other two majors. This major is most often chosen if one is more interested in the sustainable development and policy side of this field. It’s often paired well with economics, political science, architecture, and many more. It’s also the most flexible, and you can also get around taking any chemistry classes, which is a huge win. 

  • Natural Science Foundation (4-5 courses*)
  • Quantitative Assessment (2 courses)
  • Decision-making Foundation (2 courses)
  • Electives (3 courses, including 1 Natural Science and 1 Social Science)
  • Junior Research (1 course)
  • Senior Research/Thesis (2 courses)


5 courses! This is so doable! Environmental science is such an important, growing field and it will be so valuable to have this knowledge regardless of your main major. The minor allows you to take all the fun classes without worrying about that one STEM field you may feel deficient in. If you are even remotely interest in this field, I 100% recommend the minor. 

  • At least 3 of the 5 courses taken at Barnard/Columbia
  • 1 laboratory science course
  • 4 electives
    • 3 credits per course or higher
    • 3 courses at 3000 level or above
    • At least 2 courses based in the natural sciences

Class Recommendations

To preface I am only a second semester sophomore, so I’m sure there are fantastic upper level electives out there that I simply have not gotten to yet, but maybe I’ll add on to this article at another time.

Earth’s Environmental Systems: Climate, EESC UN2100: I was told this class was going to be incredibly hard by many different people, but honestly, I didn’t find it to be so at all! Yes, the labs were incredibly tedious sometimes and felt like busy work, but I feel I understand so so much about the way our world works, from ocean circulation to atmospheric circulation and their effects on other sectors of the biosphere. Who knew temperature, density, and sea surface salinity were actually so important? This course also gave us an all-encompassing understanding of climate change, both natural and anthropogenic, and only cemented my passion for solving this existential problem. Pro tip: take it with Jerry McManus and Suzana Carmago. They are the sweetest people ever, care so much about their students and are incredibly knowledgeable in their field at the same time!

Earth’s Environmental Systems: Solid Earth, EESC UN2200: EVERYONE and I mean everyone who likes being outside should take this course. Most labs are field trips to places like the AMNH, Central Park, Inwood Park, etc. There’s even a weekend field trip to either the Delaware Water Gap or Bear Mountain. My professors loved to say you would leave the class with “new eyes” meaning that you’d notice things about nature you never would have before. Now when I take hikes, I can see an outcropping and be like “oh, that’s a schist!” or “it’s a gneiss!” and I can even identify the minerals in these rocks. It’s a skill sure to impress everyone. 

Geologic Excursion to Death Valley, EESC UN1010: perfect for non-majors or people wondering if earth science is for them! A 2 credit course that ends after spring break, where you go to Death Valley! This class you have to apply for, so make sure it’s on your radar early.


There are just so many things you can do with an environmental science major. If you love a lot of things and enjoy hands-on learning, this is the major for you! I recommend taking intro classes early in your first year. (I’d recommend Solid Earth because it is the easiest intro in my opinion, and helps you figure out if you like all this rock stuff.) Also, don’t be discouraged by all the biology and chemistry prerequistes. Much of it doesn’t come back again in upper level environmental science classes, unless you want it to! And get to know your professors! My professors have been some of the most accomplished and amazing people you will ever meet, and love talking with students. Go to office hours and talk about your interests! Chances are they know people researching what you’re passionate about and can point you in the right direction. Try to start doing research early! There are always labs needing help, and it will help you determine if you like the more research-y or more policy aspects of the major. All in all, I can’t recommend this major enough!

Photo via Bwog Archives