A 21st Century Program for 21st Century Challenges


The Online Masters of Natural Resources (MNR) program celebrates its one-year anniversary of going fully online with an added International Field Experience (IFE) requirement. Virginia Tech began offering Natural Resource courses in 1994 and the MNR graduate degree in 2003 out of the National Capital Region, but in looking at what natural resource management meant in light of 21st century challenges, the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) decided it was time to redefine and restructure the original program.

By 2050, an estimated 9 billion people will inhabit Earth. Water quality, food security, and climate change are just a few of the global environmental issues that will have profound impacts on our future. Remaining cognizant of the importance of sustainable development, including the management of natural systems and services, as these issues are addressed worldwide is where Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources (MNR) degree comes in.

The program is offered out of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), founded in 2012 and headquartered in Arlington, VA. Although this interdisciplinary degree became available in multiple formats beginning in 2011, with Executive and Global options, the original MNR program was still primarily an in-person classroom-oriented program until this past year. Now, today’s professionals and students are being equipped with the knowledge and leadership skills needed to confront global environmental challenges head-on!

2013-11-08 06.23.39A Virtual Classroom for Working Professionals

With the Online MNR program delivered in an online format, the virtual instruction allows students the flexibility to complete a natural resources graduate degree from a top-ranked university at anytime and from anywhere in the world.

The 30-credit, non-thesis program is designed to allow students to begin during the semester of their choice, and complete the program in as little as 12 months or over a longer period of time, as suits their individual scheduling needs. Unlike traditional seat-based programs, location is not a limitation for either instruction or cost — all students pay the same flat-rate regardless of where they live.

Many students are surprised to discover that online courses are often more dynamic and participatory than the familiar brick-and-mortar classroom, and that asynchronous delivery and participation allows more time to process information and respond, resulting in more thoughtful discussions than are likely to occur during a 50-minute class period.

“The courses are designed in a way that allow you to feel like you are in an actual classroom, only it is online. This is very beneficial to working professionals and others who want an interactive learning experience but need flexibility in terms of working and obtaining a degree,” stated Braden Yardley, alumni of MNR Class of 2014 and Resource Manager of Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Students are still expected to meet deadlines and work collaboratively—but within a weekly or modularized framework, they can decide for themselves when it’s most convenient to view lectures, participate in class discussions, or add their contributions to team assignments.

Furthermore, delivering the degree from an online platform allows CLiGS to tap into a diverse and knowledgeable network of environmental and sustainability professionals to deliver courses, as faculty can teach remotely from anywhere in the world. “Shifting content delivery away from traditional, in-person, lecture-based teaching opens up all sorts of innovative possibilities for learning and has the potential to capitalize on the incredible wealth of information and expertise around the world,” said Dr. Kieran Lindsey, CLiGS Associate Director of Online Programs.

The curriculum is designed to provide students with a depth of knowledge in current natural resource and sustainable development issues and approaches. The core courses combined with a wide selection of electives allow students to actively customize their own curriculum and explore personal academic interests.

IMG_2020Sustainability in a Shifting Landscape

An important distinction of the Virginia Tech MNR degree is its progressive curriculum, focused on identifying and responding to emerging environmental issues across a changing global landscape. Whereas most natural resources graduate programs focus primarily on managing specific natural resources, the Virginia Tech degree has a more expansive approach that incorporates and addresses the connections between social, environmental, and economic systems.

“Natural resources graduate programs around the US have traditionally focused on managing natural resources such as forests or wildlife. Our program instead focuses on blending important scientific content with the ‘soft skills’ that environmental sustainability requires in an era of global climate change, threats to water quantity and quality, and transboundary resource challenges,” stated Dr. Michael Mortimer, Director of CLiGS. This is essential for cultivating leaders who will grapple with complex, multidisciplinary challenges, now and in the future.

Experiential Program

There is a strong emphasis on experiential learning, where students are empowered to think for themselves and approach issues in innovative ways. “Theory is an important component of graduate education, but nothing drives home the concepts one learns in class like seeing, hearing — experiencing — events on the ground, in-person, as part of a collaborative team,” noted Dr. Lindsey.

Using case studies and work-related problems as homework assignments also reinforces what has been presented in class. Many students report using the information and skills learned in class on the job, even before graduating.

Master of Natural Resources students visiting Van Gujar tribe near Rajaji National Park in India.Global Emphasis

Another unique feature of the program is a required 10-day International Field Experience (IFE) component. Tomorrow’s sustainability challenges are global, not local, and 21st Century professionals are expected to be able to work across traditional, cultural, and geographic boundaries. They need to understand and work with people and situations that are different than what they are used to, and be able to step into new contexts and apply important cultural competencies to effectively communicate, problem-solve, and develop working relationships with partners.

This is exactly what the IFE provides students. By engaging with international stakeholders, they broaden their professional networks, forge partnerships, and build relationships. They develop a cultural awareness they would not receive in a standard graduate program, and they cultivate the leadership capacity to manage resources across political, cultural, and geographic boundaries.

Furthermore, the IFE immerses students in the real world of sustainable development and reinforces the importance of developing innovative sustainability strategies. Students experience first-hand rapidly evolving economies and the sustainable development challenges that coincide with urbanization.

An MNR for the 21st Century

The MNR program, as reimagined by CLiGS, is cutting-edge and a trendsetter for the field. “We are not limited by what has been the traditional emphasis or goals of the natural resources field. Success demands an ability to work across boundaries to create innovative solutions to new problems,” stated Dr. Mortimer.

Those who want to blaze new trails and address unmet or previously unidentified environmental issues need a different kind of program – that’s the kind of student Virginia Tech’s Online MNR program is built for.