Problem-Solvers : UC Irvine School of Social Ecology Applies Research to Real-Life Issues


What seemed like a risky idea 25 years ago looked like a pretty solid choice this year to UC Irvine student Sarah Catron.

Transferring from a community college, the 21-year-old from Anaheim knew she wanted to major in psychology at a UC school, but found program after program falling short of her needs. Then she heard about UC Irvine's School of Social Ecology--a multidisciplinary program spawned by the activism of the 1960s and early '70s that encompasses law, environmental analysis, urban planning and psychology.

Not confined to the "ivory tower," social ecology students are required to branch out into the community and intern at such places as health clinics, homeless shelters and even law, architectural or environmental consulting firms. Faculty members have drawn wide praise for helping to clean the environment in a region of the former Soviet Union racked by war, and for their research into issues like gang violence and white-collar crime.

"I looked at a lot of other schools like UCLA and they were just too research-driven," said Catron, who is considering becoming a therapist or school counselor. "But I really liked UCI's program. It was more hands-on and people-oriented."

Catron is one of about 2,000 undergraduates who have made social ecology the third-most popular undergraduate major on campus, behind biological sciences and social sciences. It's a far cry from the 35 students who signed up for the upstart program 25 years ago this month. Like many students, Catron was attracted to the school's ambitious philosophy--that researchers from diverse backgrounds can solve some of society's most vexing problems.

"The program was founded on the idea that knowledge should be socially responsive," said Daniel Stokols, dean of the School of Social Ecology. "So we stress the importance of not only developing basic theory and research but also applying that research to community problem-solving."

Today, social ecology programs are rare on U.S. campuses. A few schools, including Cornell University and the University of Texas, offer degrees in human ecology, but their departments have a less scientific slant, Stokols said.

Some observers believe that UC Irvine's program should be widely imitated.

"UCI's social ecology program has been translating theory into action for 25 years," said Irwin Altman, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Utah, who spoke at a 25th anniversary event on campus earlier this month. "The school has been ahead of its time. . . . It has been a model and beacon."

The department originated amid the growth of the environmental movement and the social turmoil associated with Vietnam War protests. Students then were demanding that education be more relevant to society.

Against this backdrop, psychology professor Arnold Binder, an advocate of multidisciplinary programs, successfully persuaded UC Irvine's administration to create the department. Binder, who still teaches social ecology courses, was out of the country and unavailable for comment.

Initially, such a nontraditional foundation for an academic school at a major university drew harsh skepticism, recalled UC Irvine faculty members. Critics at the time complained that the new department was trendy, ill-conceived and too broad to be relevant.

"People didn't know what to make of us," Stokols said. "They didn't know if we were the Sierra Club, Greenpeace or environmental activists. I think most thought we were a bunch of tree-huggers."

What quelled early criticism, and has earned accolades since, is the school's success in turning theory into practice. Since its creation, the school's 6,000 graduates have worked more than 1 million hours on community projects.

Meanwhile, faculty members have distinguished themselves by advocating solutions to a range of global and local troubles that include the need for worldwide cooperation in environmental protection and for wellness programs in the workplace. Among recent projects, the school is developing a microbe that would quickly break down toxic materials in water and soils, thus reducing the need for incineration--a costly process that produces environmentally undesirable toxic ash.

And one of the most dramatic examples of the school's activism can be found half a world away--near the Caucasus mountains of the former Soviet Union. Over the past decade, a delegation from Irvine's School of Social Ecology has traveled dozens of times to the region, where the Abkhazians and the Georgians fought a bloody 14-month war in 1992-93.

The team is using a common goal of cleaning up the environment as a way to build confidence between the bitter enemies, clinging to a tenuous cease-fire agreement. The researchers are helping the nations clean the polluted waters of the Black Sea and rebuild their sewer and water infrastructure, which was destroyed by the war.

"They are divided by language, religion and ethnicity, and their civilian infrastructure has been destroyed by war," said John Whiteley, professor of social ecology, who has been to the former Soviet Union 39 times since May 1987. "But science can be a catalyst for peace."

Students credit the school's active role in current events as a chief reason for enrolling in it. UC Irvine senior Ethan Avineri originally wanted to study biological sciences, but switched to social ecology his sophomore year.

"It's more applicable to what really goes on," Avineri said. "I was interested in the environment, but I wanted its impact on humans too. I want to be able to make a difference."

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