Sen. Dick Durbin shares his insights, opinions on environmental issues with NIU students

NIU Today

A classroom of NIU students who share a passion for the environment had an opportunity Wednesday to open a dialogue about climate, clean energy and green jobs with one of Washington, D.C.’s movers and shakers: U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

The students interacted via videoconference with the Democratic senator as he discussed a wide range of environmental issues with them. They also had the opportunity to ask him questions about a variety of topics ranging from climate change and renewable energy to green jobs and the role of government regulation in protecting the environment.

NIU student Sharon Osterby, a junior from Cary who transferred to NIU seeking to major in environmental science, said she was excited to speak to a federal lawmaker who shares her concerns.

Osterby asked Durbin how federal lawmakers, despite having limited funds, would combat invasive species such as the emerald ash borer. The insect has infested and killed millions of ash trees in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and New York.

Durbin told the students that, even though federal funds are tight, he and his colleagues will do all they can to help municipalities detect the Asian-born insect before it devastates more trees.

The senator applauded Osterby and her classmates for their interest in the environment, a critical issue in everyone’s life.

Research universities and federal laboratories play a vital role in the effort to find renewable energy sources and tackle problems such as global warming, Durbin added.

NIU frequently collaborates with Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, both located in the nearby western suburbs.

“It was Argonne National Laboratory that developed the battery for the Chevy Volt,” Durbin said. “This is one example of why this country should support the work the laboratories and universities perform.”

The NIU students are enrolled in ENVS 303, a course that focuses on how human communities and institutions respond to and serve as agents of environmental change. And many of the students also are pursuing NIU’s newly revamped environmental studies minor.

Last fall, NIU launched a new interdisciplinary environmental studies program that provides students with broad-based knowledge of key 21st century environmental issues. The university plans to initiate a major in the subject area in the fall of 2012, pending approval from the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

The ENVS 303 course is taught by a team of NIU professors, including course coordinator Kendall Thu (anthropology), Jason Hanna (philosophy), Mark Mehrer (anthropology), Eric Mogren (history) and Diana Swanson (Women’s Studies/English).

“This video conference today is important because these students are part of the generation that will have to deal with the environmental issues we leave them,” Thu said. “It’s important that they know the resources, the procedure and lawmakers who they will rely on for help.”

Wednesday’s dialogue with Durbin was sponsored by the Bard Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College in New York, through its Campus2Congress (C2C) project. During the Earth Week celebration from May 1 to May 7, the Bard Center is sponsoring similar video dialogues at other campuses nationwide. Durbin accepted NIU’s invitation to participate.

NIU’s new Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy was established in 2010 to oversee the academic programs in environmental studies. Students learn to apply foundational and theoretical knowledge from engineering, the humanities and the natural and social sciences to current environmental issues and policies.

The environmental studies minor and major will open a wide range of career options with corporations, consulting firms, conservation agencies, environmental research laboratories, government and community planning organizations and overseas non-governmental organizations.