William & Mary: W&M launches new interdisciplinary major aimed at solving complex global conservation challenges

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A new major in integrative conservation will be offered to William & Mary undergraduates starting this fall through a new degree program within interdisciplinary studies.

The curriculum will provide a mix of research, paid internships and teaching, all geared toward developing integrative approaches to conversation that balance conservation of wildlife and ecosystems with human well-being. The emphasis is on research that is co-designed with local communities and partnering conservation organizations and agencies.

Human society is dependent on a thriving, living planet — for food, clean air and water, building materials, pharmaceuticals and so much more. Unfortunately, the planet is in a human-caused biodiversity crisis and losing life at an unprecedented rate, said IIC Communications Program Manager Anita Hagy Ferguson. Integrative conservation helps students create practical solutions that benefit the planet and people.

“Biodiversity conservation is an exceptionally complex effort that must attend to the psychological, cultural, behavioral, social and systemic aspects of our world,” she said. “The new major is designed to advance the interdisciplinary learning, creativity, synthesis, and collaboration needed to make biodiversity conservation solutions effective and long-lasting.”


Bibiana Mirones ‘23 identifies grass species to aid in the development of a community plant guide. (Photo by Jordan Bryant ’23)
The new program will be operated by the Institute for Integrative Conservation (IIC), which launched in January 2020 as a new model for interdisciplinary education within the university. The university has offered a minor in integrative conservation since the fall of 2021.

The major is career-focused and impact-driven, designed to allow students to work across disciplines to address complex global conservation challenges, explained John Swaddle, IIC faculty director and Class of 1938 Professor in W&M’s Department of Biology.

“This new degree is novel in that it is operating in an entrepreneurial space,” said Swaddle. “Within the spine of the curriculum is the imperative to not only study the problems, but work on the solutions.

“The major in integrative conservation provides students with the interdisciplinary training they need to engage a diversity of perspectives and solutions when addressing complex global conservation challenges.”

In addition to coursework, the students will be required to apply their knowledge to a research project on a contemporary conservation issue. Students will also be required to intern with one of the IIC’s nonprofit, industry or governmental partners to earn workforce experience in biodiversity conservation.

“We can’t afford to only focus on scholarship,” Swaddle said. “We are in an unprecedented biodiversity crisis. We need boots on the ground. We have so much work to do and not enough people to do it.”

He explained the IIC is also educating their conservation partners by demonstrating that undergraduates are capable of tackling urgent projects and priorities.

“They know as well as I do that we don’t have the time for people to go out and get Ph.D.s before starting their careers. We need a multidisciplinary workforce right now,” Swaddle said.

The alignment of pedagogy with workforce development and employment also reinforces a cornerstone initiative within William & Mary’s strategic plan, Swaddle added. The university has identified careers as a key focus, “preparing lifelong learners equipped to navigate rapid change and thrive from their first job to their last.”

William & Mary was recently ranked the nation’s top public university for internships.

“Our approach will help students understand, through real-world experience, the interrelatedness of ongoing threats to biodiversity and solutions that help humanity and all life on the planet thrive,” Swaddle said.

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