Student-Designed Concentration

The Student-Designed (SD) Concentration within the E&S major allows students to pursue a specific intellectual/professional goal not encompassed by the structured concentrations (EBAE, EH, EPG, LAWR and SBEE). These structured concentrations were carefully designed by E&S faculty to serve the breadth of interests for most students in the major, and they are organized around learning goals that position students to develop expertise and professional success in core environmental fields.

If a student finds that the 5 existing structured concentrations do not match their educational objectives, they can work with their advisor to propose an alternative course of study comprised of a minimum of 8 courses (24 credits) focused around a specified intellectual/professional goal.

Student-Designed Concentration proposals will only be considered if the student follows the submission timeline and eligibility requirements. Proposals will be carefully evaluated, and only those that feature clear and compelling objectives, justifications, and planning will be accepted.

Please review the example SD themes and tips for writing a strong SD proposal below.

Proposal Submission Timeline

Students interested in designing their own concentration in the E&S major will draft a ~500 word proposal that specifies their educational objectives and provides a rationale for their Student-Designed Concentration. This proposal needs to list a minimum of 8 directly relevant courses (including links to Course Descriptions). Students are expected to incorporate feedback from their Faculty Advisor (and others with whom they choose to consult) into their final proposal.

For students who entered Cornell as a first-year E&S major in Fall 2022, new SD plans will not be accepted after sophomore year.

Starting in Fall 2023, external and internal transfers and Arts & Sciences students declaring their major in sophomore year will be required to submit a SD plan in the first semester of their junior year.


To be eligible to submit a SD proposal, students must have completed or be enrolled in:

  • 1 Core Foundation class (NTRES/ENVS 1101 or NTRES/ENVS 1201) and

  • 3 Additional Disciplinary Core Requirements from the following:

    • Social Science (NTRES 2201)

    • Biology (BIOEE 1610 or BIOEE 1780)

    • Chemistry/Physics (CHEM 1560/2070 or EAS 1600)

    • Environmental Humanities (see Core list)

    • Environmental Economics (AEM 1500 or AEM 2500)

This ensures that the SD Proposal is written after exposure to multiple disciplinary approaches to environment and sustainability. Students will be asked to submit the E&S Degree Progress Checklist with their application showing what core and concentration requirements have been completed and in what semester they will complete future core and concentration classes.

Course Requirements for Student-Designed Concentration

  • Courses should reflect a specific environment or sustainability theme or interrelated pair of themes.
  • Minimum of 8 courses (24 credits) beyond the E&S core requirements.
  • At least 18 credits (6 out of 8 courses) must be at the 3000-level or above.
  • A course may only be used once to meet either an E&S core or concentration requirement.
  • Independent study courses, internship credits, and research credits are not eligible for the SD concentration.

Writing Your Proposal

Approval of a student-designed concentration is contingent upon a proposal explaining in detail the educational and career goals that motivate your plan and why these goals are better met by a student-designed concentration than by any of the E&S structured concentrations.

The ~500 word, double-spaced proposal should include:

  • Student Name
  • Title/Theme for the plan of study
  • Identify your educational and career goals that motivate the proposed plan of study, and why these goals are better met by a student-designed plan over any of the structured concentrations.
  • How each proposed course, by consulting course learning outcomes (provide link to course in the Class Roster or Courses of Study), contributes to a coherent curriculum that advances your educational and professional goals in the Environment and Sustainability major. Emphasize how the classes build your depth of understanding and relate to each other rather than reiterating course descriptions.

Accepted E&S SD Concentration proposals should be understood as “living documents.” As a student makes their way through their self-designed plan, their knowledge in this field of study — and their understanding of their personal objectives — will grow. Changes to the list of courses that comprise the SD Concentration are allowed with approval of the Faculty Advisor and submission of an updated plan to the E&S program mailbox (copy advisor).

Example Themes & Proposal Writing Tips

  • Ecological Agriculture
  • Environmental Health
  • Environmental Informatics
  • Environmental Microbiology
  • Sustainable Agriculture
  • Sustainable Energy
  • Water Resource Management
  • Food Justice
  • Work with your faculty advisor and other mentors to develop your SD proposal.  Advising is part of their job, and they have information and experience that can help you.  

  • Make your SD curriculum focused and in-depth. Your SD concentration must be motivated by a clear and compelling intellectual/professional objective(s). In your proposal, be sure to specify your ambitions and explain how the courses you select advance you down this path. SD plans with broad, unfocused objectives and course selections will be sent back with encouragement to gain more clarity and to resubmit. 

  • Don’t include low-level introductory classes. There can be exceptions, but the intent of the E&S concentration is to build deeper expertise in an aspect of sustainability involving one or more disciplinary, societal, or environmental focal areas. You already have the core curriculum as a foundation, so introductory classes generally are not needed in the SD plan. Instead, for your topic of interest, include a sequence of classes that build skills, theoretical framing and applications. 3000 and 4000 level classes should comprise the majority of a SD plan. 

  • Keep it sustainability focused. Given the abundance of sustainability-focused classes at Cornell, many SD concentrations include only classes with this interdisciplinary lens. However, it is not a requirement for all your classes. If you are pursuing knowledge in a relatively narrow sector/topic and few sustainability-focused classes exists, develop a curricular plan that builds expertise in this domain and in sustainability concepts, methods,  and problem-solving approaches that you can apply to your area of interest. 

  • If it looks like EBAE, and smells like EBAE, then your SD plan is not distinct enough to warrant departure from the faculty-designed EBAE curriculum. The same applies to all the existing E&S concentrations. 

  • Don’t treat the SD proposal as a plan set in stone. As you take classes you will have greater awareness of how your interests can lead to career paths and greater insight about your SD topic – it is okay to make adjustments to your SD curriculum in consultation with your advisor (2 course limit). Also, sometimes adjustments become necessary if a proposed class becomes unavailable. Your Petition to Graduate (an administrative process you will complete in your penultimate semester that assesses your progress toward all graduation requirements) will include a review of your SD concentration. 

  • Make sure your SD proposal is feasible. Do this by using the Google Sheet degree planning tool to map out the timing of your proposed classes and make sure there are not conflicts within a semester (based on posted class schedules). 

  • Make your SD proposal resilient to unexpected changes in class availability. Do this by including a list of alternate classes that could contribute to your learning goals. 

  • Put your SD plan in context. Your proposed concentration courses are the backbone of your plan, but also think about and describe connections between your SD concentration and any minors, faculty-lead research opportunities, internships, extra-curricular activities and honors research that you are pursuing or plan to pursue.