Environmental Sciences Major: Ecosystems Option (B.S.)

Environmental Sciences Major: Ecosystems Option (B.S.)
Wil Wollheim and students out in the field during an environmental science class

What is the ecosystems option in environmental sciences?

Environmental sciences is an interdisciplinary field concerned with the interaction of biological, chemical, and physical processes that shape our natural environment. In the ecosystems option, students focus on the interactions between living and non-living things within a variety of ecosystems, including forests, fields, streams, rivers, and lakes, as well as urban environments. The impacts of humans on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and solutions to environmental problems are emphasized.

Why study ecosystems at UNH?

UNH is a recognized leader in environmental sciences research related to ecosystems. Students benefit from the significant depth and breadth of faculty expertise in the areas of biogeochemical cycling, environmental chemistry, ecosystem science, global change,hydrology, plant ecology, soil science and water resource management. Students have access to numerous undergraduate internships and opportunities to work in faculty research labs at an early stage. A wide range of ecosystems from mountains to the sea and all in between are available within a relatively short distance from campus for field trips and undergraduate research experiences. Students graduate with a comprehensive skil lset that prepares them for work at government agencies, environmental consulting firms, and environmental and university research labs, or for continued studies in master’s and doctoral programs.

Potential career areas

  • Advocacy and regulatory affairs
  • Local, state and federal environmental agencies
  • Education and outreach
  • Environmental consulting
  • Environmental monitoring
  • Environmental organizations
  • Research

Co-director, Water Systems Analysis Group
Phone: (603) 862-5022
Office: Natural Resources & the Environment, James Hall Rm 276, Durham, NH 03824

Academic Program Manager
Phone: (603) 862-3933
Office: Natural Resources & the Environment, James Hall Rm 114, Durham, NH 03824
  • UNH student Haley Sanborn
    Hands-on experiences in the field are making the difference for this environmental science major
    Haley Sanborn is an environmental sciences: ecosystems major from Seabrook, New Hampshire. She is also a published author. (More on that below.) Prior to the official start of her…
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  • UNH student Maggie Krein in the lab
    Understanding Impacts of Microplastic Pollution on Soil
    Maggie Krein is an environmental sciences: ecosystems major and double minor in wildlife and conservation biology and sustainable energy. She is from Chester, New Hampshire.
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  • Torin Scalora at the UNH Undergraduate Research Conference
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    Meet Torin Scalora-Riley, an Armed Forces veteran studying ways to mitigate climate change impacts. He is majoring in environmental science with a minor in outdoor adventure recreation. Aside from his academic pursuits, Torin is planning to climb Mount Rainier in Washington in June 2023 to raise money for the American Lung Association and raise awareness of…
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  • EcoQuest
    Hands-on environmental studies for U.S. students
    Ecology, sustainability, and environmental science were the focus of a special visit by EcoQuest’s international students to the Ramsar wetland at Pūkorokoro Miranda on 28 October 2022.
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  • UNH student Megan Wimsatt
    A strong foundation to address the impacts of climate change
    Megan Wimsatt is an environmental sciences: ecosytems major who has received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) to conduct research under the guidance of Ruth Varner, professor of biogeochemistry in both the UNH College of Engineering and Physical Sciences and at the Earth Systems…
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Curriculum & Requirements

The College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) and the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (CEPS) jointly offer a bachelor of science degree in environmental sciences. Environmental science is an interdisciplinary field concerned with the interaction of biological, chemical, and physical processes that shape the environment, and control the response of natural systems to human activities. Students graduating with a degree in environmental sciences will have an understanding of these interacting processes, experience working in interdisciplinary teams to apply this understanding, and the ability to communicate effectively with both scientific and lay audiences.  While in this program, students will acquire significant experience with field, laboratory and analytical methods appropriate for employment in professional environmental science positions as well as a basic understanding of environmental policy. The University of New Hampshire is a recognized leader in environmental sciences research, and the environmental sciences program capitalizes on faculty expertise in this area. Program faculty emphasize teaching and research in the areas of biogeochemical cycling, environmental chemistry, ecosystem science, global change, hydrology, plant ecology, soil science, and water resource management among many other fields.

Employment opportunities include environmental consulting firms; educational facilities (e.g., science centers), environmental monitoring laboratories (e.g., water treatment plants, the Environmental Protection Agency), government agencies (e.g., the U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resource Conservation Service), university and government research laboratories, and nongovernment environmental organizations. The environmental sciences program also constitutes an excellent preparation for graduate programs in several areas relating to the environment.

The Program has four options, and specific course requirements for the major vary by option. The ecosystems and soils and watersheds options are both managed by the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment in COLSA, and the geosystems and hydrology options are both managed by Earth Sciences in CEPS. 

Degree Requirements

Minimum Credit Requirement: 128 credits
Minimum Residency Requirement: 32 credits must be taken at UNH
Minimum GPA: 2.0 required for conferral*
Core Curriculum Required: Discovery & Writing Program Requirements
Foreign Language Requirement: No

All Major, Option and Elective Requirements as indicated.
*Major GPA requirements as indicated.

Major Requirements

Scope of the Major (Introduction - 3 Courses)9
NR 400
Professional Perspectives in Natural Resources
NR 403
Introduction to Environmental Science
NR 435
Contemporary Conservation Issues and Environmental Awareness
or NR 437
Principles of Sustainability
The Scientific Basis (Foundation - 7 Courses)28
Biology I:
BIOL 412
Introductory Biology: Evolution, Biodiversity and Ecology
Biology II:
BIOL 411
Introductory Biology: Molecular and Cellular
or NR 439
Environmental Biology
Chemistry I:
CHEM 403
General Chemistry I
or CHEM 405
Chemical Principles for Engineers
or CHEM 411
Introductory Chemistry for Life Sciences
Chemistry II:
NR 561
Chemistry of the Environment
or CHEM 404
General Chemistry II
PHYS 401
Introduction to Physics I
or PHYS 407
General Physics I
Calculus for Life Sciences
or MATH 425
Calculus I
BIOL 528
Applied Biostatistics I
or EREC 525
Statistical Methods and Applications
Earth and its Systems (Core - 6 Courses)24
Earth Science:
ESCI 401
Dynamic Earth
or ESCI 402
Earth History
or ESCI 409
Geology and the Environment
Aquatic Science:
NR 504
Freshwater Resources
NR 501
Studio Soils
ESCI 514
Introduction to Climate
or GEOG 473
Elements of Weather
or GEOG 670
Climate and Society
NR 527
Forest Ecology
or NR 660
Ecology and Biogeography of New Zealand
or BIOL 541W
or MEFB 530
Evolution and Marine Diversity
or MEFB 674
Ecology and Marine Environment
Human Dimensions:
NR 602
Natural Resources and Environmental Policy
or NR 662
Environmental Policy, Planning and Sustainability in New Zealand
or NR 507
Introduction to our Energy System and Sustainable Energy
or NR 784
Sustainable Living - Global Perspectives
or MEFB 702
Sustainable Marine Fisheries
Environmental Toolkit (Methods - 2 Courses)7-8
Select two courses from the following:
ESCI 534
Techniques in Environmental Sciences
NR 658
Introduction to Geographic Information Systems
or ESCI 777
GIS for Earth & Environmental Sciences
or FORT 581
Applied Geospatial Techniques
NR 757
Remote Sensing of the Environment
or ESCI 778
Remote Sensing Earth & Environmental Sciences
NR 713
Quantitative Ecology
MEFB 500
Coastal Habitat Field Research Methods
Ecosystem Integration (Advanced Topics - 4 Courses)16
Population and Community Ecology:
NR #765
Community Ecology
or NR 734
Tropical Ecology
or NR 706
Soil Ecology
or NR 660
Ecology and Biogeography of New Zealand
or NR 640
Wildlife Population Ecology
or NR 642
Introduction to Biogeography
or NR 603
Landscape Ecology
or BIOL 720
Plant-Animal Interactions
NR 730
Terrestrial Ecosystems
or NR 751
Aquatic Ecosystems
or NR 661
Restoration Ecology and Ecosystem Management in New Zealand
or MEFB 508
Marine Ecosystem Research and Management
NR 744
or NR 761
Environmental Soil Chemistry
or NR 703
Watershed Water Quality Management
or ESCI 642
Biogeosciences in the Earth System
Environmental Problem Solving:
ESCI 654
Fate and Transport in the Environment
or NR 707
Environmental Modeling
or EREC #760
Ecological-Economic Modeling for Decision Making
or NR 749
Forest Inventory and Modeling
or NR 743
Addressing Arctic Challenges
Integration and Research (The Capstone Experience) 1-2
NR 663
Applied Directed Research in New Zealand
or NR 786
Leadership for Sustainability
or NR 795
or NR 799
Honors Senior Thesis
Capstone: NR 663 (EcoQuestif Senior Year)(WI), or NR 786, or NR 795, or NR 799, or approved research experience, or approved internship. Every student must complete a capstone experience senior year, or during the summer before senior year,if at least 90 credit hours have been completed.
NR 791 –Preparation for Capstone (1 credit, pass/no credit) is offered every spring. While not required for graduation, it is recommended for second semester juniors who need guidance in terms of developing a capstone project and completing the Capstone Contract.
a. A Contract form provided by the Program must be completed and signed by the student, the adviser, the program coordinator, and the capstone mentor (faculty or off-campus) before the capstone experience,by the end of Junior Year.
b. A signed Capstone Experience Evaluation form must be handed in to your advisor by the end of Senior year in order to graduate.
Individualizing Your Education (Electives)
One goal of this program is to allow students the opportunity to pursue minors, dual majors, research and study abroad opportunities, while still completing the degree in four years of full-time enrollment. To this end, the program requires a total of 85 credit hours. The University Discovery program includes 5 areas (20 credit hours) not covered by this major. These include English 401, Fine and Performing Arts, Humanities, Historical Perspectives, World Cultures (NOTE: The World Cultures category can be met by certain study abroad programs, including EcoQuest). Combined, Major and Discovery requirements total 105 credit hours. With a total of 128 credit hours required by the University for graduation, this leaves 23 credit hours that can be put towards minors, dual majors, study abroad, Directed Research, etc.
Total Credits84-85

 Many students enroll in the EcoQuest program (a study abroad opportunity in New Zealand), which satisfies the policy requirement, and capstone requirement if taken senior year.

NR 791 Preparation for Capstone - is offered every spring. While not required for graduation, it is recommended for second semester juniors who need guidance in terms of developing a capstone project and completing the Capstone Contract. 

Key Learning Objectives: The primary Learning Outcome for the Environmental Science Program will be that students will master the content offered in the courses specified in the curriculum as assessed by performance on exams, labs and written assignments. This will include an understanding of the physical, chemical and biological processes central to the function of environmental systems, the mathematical concepts required to understand, explain and predict those processes, and the ability to determine the significance of results, both in terms of statistical probability and impact on the larger world.

The learning process leading to this mastery will require that students will have:

  • Knowledge of how physical, chemical, and biological factors interact with human activities to shape the environment;
  • Proficiency with environmental techniques including field, lab, GIS, or modeling;
  • The ability to solve environmental problems;
  • The ability to communicate orally or in writing about environmental dynamics.

Explore Program Details

Key Learning Objectives:

The primary Learning Outcome for the Environmental Science Program will be that students will master the content offered in the courses specified in the curriculum as assessed by performance on exams, labs and written assignments.  This will include an understanding of the physical, chemical and biological processes central to the function of environmental systems, the mathematical concepts required to understand, explain and predict those processes, and the ability to determine the significance of results, both in terms of statistical probability and impact on the larger world.

The learning process leading to this mastery will require that students can:

  • Evaluate the quality of information sources and the validity of scientific theories and data presented in those sources
  • Describe and explain the interactions among physical, biological, chemical, and human components of the environment, especially in terms of feedbacks embedded in environmental system that often control their trajectory
  • Formulate tests of environmental questions, acquire data, and apply scientific methods to answer these questions; 
  • Establish protocols for collecting, transcribing, storing and analyzing data collected during field, laboratory or modeling experiments
  • Master mathematical, statistical, and study design knowledge and skills, and use state-of-the-art software, hardware, and analytical techniques relevant to environmental conservation and sustainability:
  • Communicate effectively to peers within the environmental community and with audiences outside of the discipline.

Why study Environmental Science at UNH?

The Environmental Science program at UNH is geared towards teaching students how to understand how various types of ecosystems work, how people are influencing these ecosystems, and how to solve major environmental problems of the day. Students are trained by professors who are internationally recognized for their research in forests, soils, streams, agroecosystems, urban ecosystems and watersheds, using cutting edge technologies. UNH is ideally located near mountains, coasts, fields, and cities, offering opportunities to visit and work in forests, streams, rivers, lakes, estuaries, agroecosystems, and urban ecosystems. We emphasize interdisciplinarity, not just within the environmental science major but across other study areas, including geology, climate, policy, environmental engineering, spatial science, and social science. Such interdisciplinarity is critical for solving problems and for achieving sustainability.

What types of jobs or careers do most Environmental Science majors pursue?

There are four career paths that most of our majors move along once they graduate with an Environmental Science degree: consulting firms, government agencies from local to the federal level, non-profit organizations, and graduate school. Recent graduates have gotten jobs with New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, the US Geological Survey, Triumvirate Environmental, Normandeau Associates, the National Ecological Observing Network, City of Portsmouth Public Works Department, the Appalachian Mountain Club, AECOM, Loureiro Engineering Associates, and Energy Source LLC, among others. Examples of where are students recently attended graduate school include the University of North Carolina, Northern Arizona State University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Colorado, Utah State University, the University of Nebraska, Colorado State University, and UNH.

How big is the Environmental Science major?

We have between 70 and 80 total majors in any given year, with seven core faculty.

How many students are typically in Environmental Science classes?

Once you reach the core environmental science courses during junior and senior year, typical class sizes are about 20 students. These include labs that take you outside, mostly led by the faculty themselves. Early introductory environmental science courses during freshman year tend to be larger, but are still mostly less than 50 students.

How often do Environmental Science majors get to go in the field? In what sorts of ecosystems?

Often! We have ready access to ecosystems on campus (College Woods, Oyster River, College Brook), just off campus (e.g., forest and fields at Thompson Farm, the UNH Organic Dairy, Lamprey River, Great Bay Estuary) and around the state for field trips (e.g., Hubbard Brook and Bartlett Experimental Forest in the White Mountains, Plum Island Wildlife Refuge, and Harvard Forest in Massachusetts). Courses emphasize field experiences, including measurements, experiments, monitoring, and independent research projects.

Are there opportunities to work closely with faculty?

Yes! Each of our faculty works closely with undergraduates both in terms of academics and research. Each student is assigned a faculty advisor who helps guide the student through their academic program based on their career and subject interests. Students typically have the same advisor for all four years of their program. Faculty often hire undergraduates initially to work in their labs to help out on research projects. Many undergraduates eventually conduct independent research projects that they lead themselves in collaboration with their faculty mentor. They then have the opportunity to present their research findings at our annual Undergraduate Research Conference. Many undergraduates also participate directly in the faculty’s weekly lab meetings.

Are there opportunities to study abroad within the Environmental Science major?

Our department hosts one of the premier Study Abroad Programs at UNH, which also attracts students from other universities around the country: the EcoQuest program in New Zealand. You have a choice of going to study the environment of New Zealand during Spring, Summer, or Fall semesters. The academic program is completely integrated into the major, so a semester abroad checks off a semester worth of environmental science classes.

Can first-year students do research?

Yes! We encourage students to reach out to faculty in their field of interest as soon as they get to campus. First-year students take NR 400 (Perspectives in Environmental Science) in the Fall as soon as they get on campus to learn directly from faculty about their research. Students can learn about research areas that interest them most and are encouraged to reach out to those faculty members.

Can students get paid for the time that they spend doing research?

Many of our faculty have externally funded research, which includes funds to support undergraduates to help with research. So yes, funding is often available to pay students to work in labs and to conduct research. The University also has a program (the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) that supports student research by providing a stipend and funds to cover research costs. Students can apply to do work in a lab on campus or to conduct independent field research around the U.S. or internationally.

What kind of internship opportunities are available for students to get experience in their area of interest?

UNH has a number of paid summer or semester research fellowships through the Hamel Center for Undergraduate research. These provide stipends, as well as supply funding, that supports undergraduates to conduct research over a ten-week period. These are competitively awarded based on a proposal, often written in collaboration with faculty, postdoctoral researcher, or graduate student mentors. Our faculty also obtain Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) fellowships from the National Science Foundation on research projects. Because faculty are also part of wider national and international research networks such as the Long Term Ecological Research network, National Estuarine Research Reserve program, Critical Zone Observation network, and National Ecological Observing Network, they are often made aware of and write recommendations for internship opportunities available in ecosystems around the world, ranging from the tropics to the arctic, and everywhere in between.

Other than office hours, are professors open and accessible?

Professors are generally available to meet with any student regarding courses, research, or career questions at least by appointment, and many have open-door policies. Students doing research in a professor's lab are encouraged to participate in weekly lab meetings.

Is it possible to add a double major, dual major or minor and still graduate on time?

The Environmental Science major provides an unusual level of flexibility because of the number of free credits that it makes available to students. After taking the required general (Discovery Program) and major (Environmental Science) courses, there are between 19 and 23 free credits (depending on whether you are in the Ecosystems or Soil and Watersheds option). This provides a lot of flexibility for a minor (typically 20 credits) or to achieve a double or dual major. Our philosophy in making these credits available is that Environmental Science is inherently interdisciplinary, interacting with the economy, politics, society, journalism, or the arts. The ability to work with and integrate these other fields can, therefore, be very helpful if not critical.

Rigorous academic pursuit and hands-on learning from the mountains to the sea. Full immersion learning at a diversity of sites in the North and South Islands.


Xi Sigma Pi is facilitated through the UNH NREN department. Its goal is to unite likeminded individuals through service and fraternal spirit through a shared enjoyment of the environment. In addition, members receive recognition for their service by earning a cord to wear during graduation. Opportunities to take up leadership roles and give back to the NREN department are abundant.

XI SIGMA PI NREN Honor Society

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