BOZEMAN – More than 50 students across Montana and the United States are pursuing a master’s degree in environmental sciences through an online program at Montana State University.
The fact that the program is only two years old and its enrollment is growing so quickly shows that the program is meeting a need, said program founder and director Bob Peterson, professor of entomology in MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. He thought it might take four years to reach that milestone. The program began in the fall of 2012 with 11 students.
“We sensed an unmet need. That seems to be definitely what we are tapping into,” Peterson said.
Some of the students in the program have young families and don’t want to uproot them while they earn a master’s degree, Peterson said. The students already have bachelor’s degrees, and most are working professionals. Some are high school science teachers or environmental consultants. Some serve in the military. Several work for the state or federal government.
Most of the students in the online LRES program live in the West, but others are scattered across the country, Peterson said. About half are Montana residents. The farthest away is a U.S. Marine stationed in Japan. The median age is about 35. Sixty percent of the students are women, and 40 percent are men.
“If you build it, they will come,” Peterson said. “We built it, and they came.
“Our niche here is focused on environmental sciences,” he said. “There are some graduate programs out there in natural resources management and environmental studies. Our strength is environmental sciences.”
MSU already had a master’s program in environmental sciences, so he thought it made sense to add an online version that incorporated existing courses and added a few new ones, Peterson said. The program was launched with a $48,500 grant from the MSU Office of the Provost. Approved through the “Expanding Access to MSU Through New Online Programs,” it was selected because it addressed real educational needs of a clearly defined audience, was carefully planned, had the support of an academic department and a college dean, and provided for both academic advising and assessment of program success. Successful online programs are said to usually involve several faculty members.
MSU Provost Martha Potvin said that 50 students is the goal for a viable online program at MSU. She added that it usually takes longer than two years to reach that point and said MSU wants to increase its online offerings.
“These programs provide opportunities for individuals to beef up their job skills and credentials, to take courses when they cannot be on the campus, and allow us to better reach students across the state who might not otherwise have access to a four-year education from a Montana institution,” Potvin said.
Karlene Hoo, dean of The Graduate School at MSU, said she is proud of the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences for offering the online program. She also said the department may be leading the way in showing that the need for faculty follow-up is the same whether students are taking courses online or face-to-face in a traditional classroom.
“These are students who have come to us for an education,” she said. “Our job is to do the very best we can.”
Peterson said the online program offers 15 MSU courses and the opportunity to participate in independent study and internships. Thirteen MSU faculty members teach the online courses. Students can attend “class” any time that works for them. Instead of watching lectures on video or Skype, they spend more of their time reading and participating in online discussions with other students. They don’t write a master’s thesis, but a professional paper based on research or original data. Students typically take one to two three-credit classes per semester. Depending on their course load, work ethic and what’s happening in the rest of their lives, they might be able to graduate in two years.
He’s been surprised by the sense of community that springs up during that time, Peterson said.
“They interact with each other much more than I ever thought they would,” he said. “They end up going off on side conversations and help each other a lot.”
He has also noticed that the students enrich their classes because of their life experiences and amazing dedication.
“It’s been really great to see that,” he said. “These students have added to our programs with their perspective. It’s been exciting to see. It’s rejuvenated everybody.”
Carla Rickert, who is from the Sioux Falls, S.D. area and lives in Florida for part of the year, is one of three students who have graduated so far from the master’s degree program. She said she had dreamed of finishing her graduate degree, but she didn’t see how she could do it while taking care of an elderly mother in Iowa, spending time with an adult daughter in Florida, expecting her first grandchild in Bozeman and working two-part time jobs. But her son, Ryan, is an MSU alumnus who lives with his family in Bozeman, so she investigated graduate school at MSU. She enrolled in the online program the first semester it was offered.
“I was very nervous about taking classes online (especially in a scientific field that I had not previously studied),” she said. “I had an enormous learning curve with the online format and the new materials for about a month. Then after that short adjustment period, I settled in and loved the online format for the remainder of my graduate studies.”
Attending class online meant she could respond to posts at 3 a.m. in her pajamas if that was the only time she had that day, Rickert said. She never had to miss class due to illness. She could take her coursework everywhere she needed to be.
The program was more difficult than face-to-face classes because she did more research, but she learned more than she had in face-to-face courses, Rickert said. She currently works for The Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center in Florida, where she assists with public education and outreach programs and monitoring programs for gopher tortoise and scrub jay. Both are endangered species in southwest Florida. In the future, she said she plans to apply to the Ph.D. program at MSU. She would also love to teach an online course for MSU. She wants to become more involved with environmental public education and work in the risk assessment field in some capacity.
“I have dreamed about getting my graduate degree for many years,” Rickert said. “The online LRES program gave me the opportunity to accomplish this dream, and I am forever grateful to MSU for creating this program, for the selection committee for accepting me into the program and for all my professors for helping me along my journey.”
Current student Shea Allen said he learned about MSU’s program while searching for a master’s program that emphasized land management practices and could be completed online. He is serving in the military and has lived in Japan for the past two years. Now in the reserves and in the process of moving to Washington state, he admitted that “Finding dedicated periods of time for studying and class discussions when working full time can be challenging. I have to designate blocks of time during the week to dedicate to school. The hard part is staying disciplined about only doing school work in those times.
“Living abroad also posed some unique challenges in that everything takes longer abroad than it does in the states, and admittedly my wife and I wanted to travel and experience as much of Asia as possible,” Allen said. “One method I found helpful was to use time on planes or trains to read my fellow students’ posts using ‘smart phone’ technology.”
But he really enjoys the online program, Allen said. And one component he found particularly attractive was that it offered students the opportunity to attend five- to 14-day courses on campus during the summer. He plans to use his master’s degree education to pursue a new career in an environmental or land management field, preferably in the National Park Service.
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