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School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment

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The School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment (SEOE), a unit within the College of Arts and Sciences, encompasses research and education in geology and geophysics, marine sciences, and environment. Our focal academic areas span the range from the natural and social sciences to the environmental humanities.

Unification of these areas under one umbrella encourages synergistic interactions and collaborations in both research and teaching. The Belle Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences is also housed within the SEOE, and provides unique facilities and resources.  

Take a Virtual Tour of the undergraduate programs in the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment (SEOE) at the University of South Carolina (USC).


Structure and Impact

The SEOE’s structure provides our students with an opportunity to pursue a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary degree programs. These include a highly-ranked marine sciences program, one of the few undergraduate majors in geophysics in the country and both B.S. and B.A. degrees in the environmental arena. Collectively, the SEOE has a significant impact on students, research and development and the well-being of people in South Carolina and beyond, as illustrated in our impact statement [pdf] produced for the College of Arts and Sciences.


Our Future

As we look to the future, the SEOE is committed to:

  • becoming a nationally recognized leader and focal point within the University for innovative and integrative research across the broad spectrum of Earth’s environments and human interactions with those environments;
  • engaging students at all levels in research opportunities that enrich their educational experience;
  • equipping our students with the interdisciplinary background and critical thinking skills needed to address the pressing environmental challenges of modern society;
  • raising awareness and understanding of the dynamic interactions between society and Earth’s environment, particularly through outreach activities that engage a broad range of public and private sectors.


Our Strength

The greatest strength of the SEOE is the high quality of its faculty and their commitment to both teaching and scholarship. In close collaboration with their students, SEOE faculty are engaged in cutting edge research in South Carolina and across the globe. This focus is on addressing fundamental issues facing society and is of high priority both nationally and internationally.


Our History

The academic programs and degrees and the research institutes now housed within the School of the Earth, Ocean & Environment have a long and inter-related history. The SEOE itself was first authorized by the Board of Trustees in 2010, and served as an umbrella organization for five entities: the Department of Earth & Ocean Sciences, the Environment & Sustainability Program, the Marine Sciences Program, the Earth Sciences and Resources Institute, and the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine & Coastal Sciences. In December 2015, the Board of Trustees approved the designation of the SEOE as a tenuring unit, leading to the consolidation of our academic programs, while retaining the individual degrees and curricula.

Each part of SEOE has a long and illustrious history, presented here in the order of their establishment: geology and geophysics, the Baruch Institute, Marine Sciences, and Environment & Sustainability.

The University of South Carolina has a long tradition in geology and geophysics. Courses in Geology were a part of the curriculum as early as 1819; geology exams from 1857 and 1869 are held in the USC Digital Archives. A Master of Science in Geology was first offered in the early 1950s, with the PhD program added in 1968.

A 1970 self-study of the Department of Geology identified two departmental strengths. The first was "Environmental Research," or the study of geological environments, especially sedimentary and coastal processes. This emphasis area meshed well with the fledgling Marine Sciences program and created the symbiotic relationship between those two areas that continues to this day.

The second area was "Materials Research", the study of physical and chemical behavior at high temperatures and pressures. The department also included a program in geology and geophysics Education. This eventually led to the establishment of the Center for Science Education at USC, a program that gained state and national prominence through the leadership of geology faculty.

In 1970, growth was recommended both in a new area, geophysics, and in the "Environmental" group by adding faculty who could interact with more ecologically-oriented faculty in other departments. During the 1970's, there was an increased emphasis on petroleum-related research and training, and the establishment of ESRI-SC (Earth Science and Resources Institute at the University of South Carolina), which for decades was the premier research institute at USC.

A second growth spurt occurred in the department in the 1980’s, when the faculty increased to 27. This expansion resulted in a considerable increase in the level of external funding and the size of the graduate program, and led to the department's emphasis on and international reputation for petroleum-related research and training. During this period, a BS degree in Geophysics was established, which remains one of the few such degree programs in the US. The MERM (Masters of Earth Resource Management) also was established in 1987 to support the needs of students studying with faculty associated with ESRI.

In 1995, as ESRI migrated toward environmental research, it separated from the department. At the same time, the MERM degree was transferred to the School of the Environment and was broadened to the MEERM degree (Masters of Earth and Environmental Resource Management).

Another period of hiring and revisiting priorities began in 1995 with the establishment of three emphasis areas, Environmental geology and geophysics, Evolution of Orogenic Systems, and Global Climate Change. Through a major investment by the College of Arts & Sciences, we upgraded our geochemical facilities with state-of-the-art instrumentation in support of geological, marine and environmental science research. The association with Marine Sciences remained strong throughout this period, with half of the faculty jointly appointed in the Marine Sciences program.

Throughout its history, the department has gone by several names. The original Department of Geology was transformed to a Department of Geological Sciences in the 1980s and then to the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences in 2009. These name changes corresponded both to trends in the field and to attempts to represent the diversity of the interests of our faculty. With the formation of the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment, our faculty join our colleagues in Marine and Environmental disciplines to formalize in administrative structure what has existed for many years: a large and diverse group of faculty doing research and training students in a very broad sphere of disciplines related to the natural earth. From this bigger stage, the strengths for which the Department of Geology/Geological Sciences/Earth & Ocean Sciences have been known for 200 years will continue to thrive.

The Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences is the nexus for coastal and estuarine research at the University of South Carolina. Our mission is to conduct research and support education that will improve the management of marine and coastal resources and advance basic science for the well-being of people and their environment.

Established in 1969 through the joint efforts of the Belle W. Baruch Foundation and the University of South Carolina, the Baruch Institute is internationally recognized for its contributions of scientific knowledge. Using a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the complexity of coastal and marine environments, we bring together researchers in the sciences and in disciplines such as geography, economics, environmental health, policy, and statistics.

We have headquarters and laboratory facilities on the University’s main campus in Columbia and a field laboratory located on Hobcaw Barony, a privately held wildlife reserve near Georgetown, SC. The 16,000-acre Barony is dedicated in perpetuity for conservation and research, and is owned by the Belle W. Baruch Foundation. Through a long-term agreement with the Foundation, the University oversees research and education activities in the marsh-estuarine area. Additionally, the SC Algal Ecology Laboratory, Charleston, SC, is operated as a unique partnership between the Baruch Institute and the Marine Resources Division of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Our primary research site, North Inlet Estuary, offers the unique opportunity to study essentially pristine major coastal habitats. Comprehensive long-term (35+ years) and other datasets provide context for new studies, and changes observed in our studies can be interpreted as natural processes free of local human disturbance. This increasingly rare opportunity enables scientists to compare North Inlet to other more developed estuaries and assess impacts associated with human activities. Scientists provide information to resource managers who set goals for establishing a healthy balance between maintaining the ecological integrity of these systems and satisfying economic interests. The Institute’s researchers and Associates also are involved in studies of other systems, locally and throughout the world.

Research must be a partner of education, and in conjunction with many USC departments and education programs, hundreds of students have completed independent projects, Masters theses, and Ph.D. dissertations based on research conducted at our field laboratory. We welcome visiting researchers and classes, and offer educational programs for a range of constituencies, including university and secondary school faculty and students, government regulatory personnel, environmentalists, and the general public.

The Marine Science academic program in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC (USC-Columbia) is an interdisciplinary educational program offering curricula which lead to the Bachelor of Science, Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Marine Science.

A key feature of the program from its inception has been a combination of experience across the disciplines that broadly constitute Marine Science and involvement in research. Currently there are ~ 300 undergraduate majors and ~ 30 graduate students in our program.

Established in 1972 by Dr. F. John Vernberg, we are among the oldest, most respected and vibrant marine science degree programs in the country. Our first doctoral and masters students graduated in 1973 and our first undergraduate Marine Science degree was awarded in 1974.

We now have more than 1200 undergraduate and 150 graduate alumni who have positions throughout academia, government, and industry. Our internationally-recognized faculty span a wide range of disciplines and include Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Geochemical Society. Their diversity of talents results in a curriculum that is cutting edge and interdisciplinary; drawing upon subject matter from Geology, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, Engineering, Law, Medicine and Environmental Health, and the Social Sciences into pioneering studies of the ocean.

Furthermore, our faculty provide research opportunities across all aspects of marine science. The acclaim of our students and faculty, coupled with increasing enrollments, resulted in the formalization and incorporation of our program into one of the central components the School of the Earth, Ocean, and Environment in 2016.

The School of the Environment (SOE) (the predecessor of the Environment and Sustainability Program) was established as a true interdisciplinary program in 1995 to provide a focus for enrichment, coordination, and expansion of environmental activities across the University. The SOE was established as “virtual” college whose Dean reported to the Provost. Professor F.J. Vernberg, in the year before his retirement, was the founding Dean. Carolina Distinguished Professor Bruce Coull followed as Dean from 1996-2006, until his retirement. Faculty in colleges and institutes as divergent as business, engineering, law, liberal arts, public health, journalism, physical and natural sciences, computational science, and social science were invited to apply for affiliated membership in the SOE.

In 1995, the Masters of Earth Resources Management (MERM) degree program was broadened to form the Masters of Earth and Environmental Resources Management (MEERM) and moved to the SOE. In 1999, the joint Dual MEERM/Juris Doctor (JD) degree with the USC School of Law was approved. A university-wide undergraduate Environmental Studies minor was established in 1996, and in 2009, the BS in Environmental Science was approved, followed by the BA in Environmental Studies in 2012. Currently there are ~ 175 undergraduate majors and ~ 27 graduate students across these degrees.

When Professor Coull was appointed Dean in 1996, he was charged “to facilitate things environmental” and to build a program. Soon thereafter the SOE was awarded a planning grant of $193,000 for the highly successful the Sustainable Universities Initiative (SUI), followed by an award totaling nearly $4 million over 5 years from the V. Kahn Rasmussen Foundation. This was USC’s largest private foundation grant at the time. The SOE grew from a three-person staff with about 80 virtual faculty in 1997 to a 35 person staff (of which only 5.25 FTE employees were supported by state/university funds) with 158 virtual faculty and new jointly appointed faculty in 2006.

During these first 10 years, major units of the SOE included: the Sustainable Universities Initiative, a multi-university program coordinated by the SOE to make all students aware of their impact on the earth and to help universities reduce their environmental footprint; the Center for Water Research and Policy, which integrated the expertise, facilities and resources of the many water researchers on campus; and the Industrial Ecology and Environmental Management programs that work with industry on pollution prevention and developing environmental management systems. The SOE also joined with the Center for Humans & Nature to create the ACE River Basin video; and initiated multiple research trips to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. In 2001, the Earth Sciences and Resources Institute-SC, which solves environmental problems using geophysics, modeling, GIS and database development, was transferred from the Vice President for Research to the SOE.

From its inception, the SOE provided focus and creative support for many campus environmental activities, including Earth Day events, sponsorship of environmental sections of freshman English, support of an environmental manager for university housing, and establishment of a campus-wide Environmental Advisory (to the President) Committee (EAC), which transitioned to the President’s Sustainability Council in 2014. The successful creative and programmatic efforts of the SOE, SUI and EAC provided an essential foundation for the University’s commitment to sustainability, formalized when the USC President signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) in 2007.

In 2006, during the merger of the College of Science and Mathematics and the College of Liberal Arts to form the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), the SOE was integrated into the CAS, and Prof. Madilyn Fletcher was appointed as the first Director of the SOE. In 2010 the SOE became part of the new School of the Earth, Ocean & Environment within the CAS, and in 2011 was renamed the Environment and Sustainability Program. After joining the CAS, the number of jointly appointed tenure-track faculty increased from three (with Law, Economics, and Biological Sciences) to six in 2016 (all within the CAS). A large number of affiliate faculty continue to support the program’s mission and goals in education and sustainability. The increasingly recognized critical importance of the environment and sustainability to human well-being, and the inter-disciplinary nature of environmental studies, is reflected in the incorporation of the Environment and Sustainability program as a central component of the SEOE.


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