Online Master of Natural Resources in Global Sustainability

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The Online Master of Natural Resources is a 30-credit, virtual, and flexible degree program that prepares students for careers in environmental sustainability. The program combines online coursework and participation in a 10-day, face-to-face Global Study (an international trip) that takes the place of the typical professional graduate degree capstone project. This interdisciplinary program instills the conceptual and critical thinking skills necessary for lifelong learning and career development. MNR graduates are prepared to succeed on a truly global stage as natural resource, environmental, and sustainability professionals.

Expand your professional network

Many of our students are working professionals who are used to the modern workspace, with distributed and virtual teams. Adept at forming professional alliances at a distance, they apply the same approach to the online graduate program. In turn, the program is designed to offer students many opportunities to network, both electronically and in person. In fact, students often say that they have more interaction with other students and faculty in the Online MNR than they had in their campus-based undergraduate program.

Plan of Study

The Online MNR program Plan of Study (POS) consists of both required core courses and electives. We offer courses on a wide range of topics related to global sustainability.

Core Courses

This course is designed to support a Global Study scheduled for the same semester. Its purpose is to build competencies in sustainability professionals to think globally about sustainability challenges and their career, to situate their own professional work in a global context, to better understand sustainability situations and tools for examining them, and to practice team/collaborative project management and problem solving skills.

Areas of focus: 

  • The global Anthropocene
  • Sustainability case analysis
  • Leadership
  • Cultural competencies

Communication is a discipline that’s important for every field and function, but particularly critical for sustainability professionals, who work with countless stakeholders across a variety of sectors. This course introduces the field of environmental communication, including historical contexts, public participation, media, risk communication, and conflict management. 

Students will also explore their own communication strengths and opportunities through the lenses of: 

  • Personal awareness
  • Interpersonal connection
  • Building trust
  • Influence and persuasion
  • Framing a message
  • Creating a shared context and vision

This course examines the science, policy and practice of sustainability and sustainable development in a global context. We will study the history, current status, and future prospects of sustainability and sustainable development from economic, social, and ecological perspectives. 

In the past several decades, sustainability and sustainable development have gained status in political, scientific, business, religious, and cultural institutions, and are now guiding principles that frame and shape public policy and private practice at multiple scales. While these concepts are well-established in many communities and cultures worldwide, they have only recently emerged as prominent features in the mainstream of contemporary popular culture throughout global society. This interdisciplinary course encourages students to consider how they can engage science, policy, professional, and civic institutions in constructing sustainability.

In this course, students review key theories and dive deeply into the strategies that practicing sustainability professionals need to know to be successful in their work. We explore social science approaches to influencing and explaining human behavior, and work on applied projects focused on interventions to address sustainability challenges.

A big part of why sustainability issues are so complex is because they are all interconnected and cannot be solved in a vacuum. To be effective, sustainability professionals need be systems thinkers first. 

This course introduces students to: 

  • Basic competencies, language, and confidence needed to engage with other experts in collaborative problem-solving processes of pressing global sustainability challenges
  • Focus on sustainability systems represented in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (water, climate, agriculture, energy, poverty, urbanization, global material flows, biodiversity)
  • System properties and other leverage points for influencing change
  • Collaborative problem-solving skills needed to work on multidisciplinary teams
  • Double-loop learning and reframing problems and questions

General Sustainability

How do politics and policy shape food and agricultural systems from “farm to fork,” including production, regulation, distribution, sale, and consumption? How is food connected to conservation and sustainability? What is the relationship between domestic agricultural systems, foreign policy, and international aid and trade? Why has there been an explosion in local, organic, and free trade movements? 

This course will explore the structure of a globalized food landscape, with a focus on public and private decision-makers from government and industry to relief and development organizations. We will analyze the economic, ecological, and social dimensions of food and farming policy on contemporary urban and rural issues, such as climate change, land use and livelihoods, biotechnology, national security and political instability, trade and subsidies, and human health.

This course offers a critical examination of the ethical dimensions of the embedded social, economic, and cultural constructs that shape both the causes and consequences of environmental problems. There is often a desire to oversimplify both the roots of current environmental crises as well as the possible responses; however, these issues are incredibly complex, in moral as well as in economic, political, and biological terms. This course puts the tension in context by examining diverse challenges through a philosophical lens. 

Topics include:

  • Overconsumption
  • Pollution
  • Resource conflicts
  • Carrying capacity
  • Food production
  • Climate change
  • Environmental disaster 

A special emphasis on responsibility and accountability will be used as a framework for analysis, asking questions about how to consider future generations, human/non-human relationships, and the impact of particular world-views on our ability to create a sustainable and secure future. Critical questions about implications for justice and equality will be included in the discussion. Finally, the course will assess both mainstream and alternative political methods of addressing environmental issues.

Those of us who are passionate about the environment and sustainability issues often think first about solving problems in far corners of the globe. Examining our own neighborhoods, cities, and regions can provide insights into the challenges of sustainability on a global scale. Each student will investigate the place where she or he lives and use the information gathered to develop a case study illustrating an important aspect of sustainability. 

This class provides opportunities to: 

  • Learn from and draw upon insights from the perspectives and experiences of fellow students 
  • Practice creative thinking and writing skills 
  • Hone research skills as we analyze the communities’ connections and interactions with natural resource systems, such as water, food and agriculture, climate, and energy

Governance and Management

Faced with limited resources to confront growing challenges, conservation organizations must show that their efforts are strategic, systematic, and results-oriented. This course provides students with the skills and knowledge to design and implement effective conservation projects and to generate clear evidence of their progress toward achieving conservation results. 

The course provides training in adaptive management (AM), including planning, monitoring, implementing, analyzing, learning from, and adapting conservation projects—essential knowledge and skills for current and emerging conservation practitioners. Graduate students in conservation-focused programs require experiential learning in the practical and applied processes (i.e. adaptive management) and skills (e.g. developing goals and objectives, budget drafting, and leadership) that are essential for achieving conservation results.

Do you want to achieve greater clarity in decision-making to achieve your values? This course will explore choices at the individual, group, and societal levels, including their impact on the environment. The objective is to produce better decision-makers and decision-influencers, equipped with insights into new ways of thinking about choices, rooted in decision analysis. Through practical activities, it highlights techniques to avoid pitfalls and enhance transparency on what is desired and how to best achieve it.

International environmental law has been perhaps the most dynamic sector of international law over the past thirty years, growing from a handful of agreements, focused primarily on pollution of the marine environment and the conservation of migratory birds and marine mammals, to over 700 agreements today. These agreements address a multitude of serious environmental issues, including:

  • Depletion of the ozone layer
  • Climate change
  • Regulation of trade in endangered species
  • Prevention of transboundary air pollution

Additionally, there has been steadily increasing impetus for expanding the purview of international environmental law, including causes of action for transboundary environmental harm and recognition of the rights of future generations to a healthy environment. This course will seek to provide an overview of the status of international environmental law today, including: 

  • Sources of international law
  • Mechanisms to assess and facilitate implementation of and compliance with international environmental law
  • Assessment of effectiveness of international environmental law 
  • Methods to enhance its effectiveness

Students in this course learn the leadership tools needed for practicing sustainability professionals, from individual to organizational to network levels:  

  • Leadership theory for wicked problems; facilitating direction, alignment, commitment
  • Leadership practices at four levels of social organization: individual, team, organization, network
  • Individual-level tools include personality traits, conflict and influence style, integrity, trust 
  • Team tools include principles, feedback, project management, active listening 
  • Organization tools include strategic planning, indicators, organizational change 
  • Network-level tools include boundary spanning, cross-sector collaboration, partnering

Boundaries are created by humans to define ownership, sovereignty, and jurisdiction, as well as to confer rights, responsibilities, and accountability at all levels—individual, local, regional, national, and international. However, natural resource systems do not conform to and are not contained by political, cultural, and economic boundaries, causing conflicts of varying scale. 

This course examines transboundary resource management through diverse lenses: global markets; state power; transnational communication and transportation systems; logistics and supply systems; resource royalties; and increasingly sophisticated and complicated international and transnational legal structures. Students will improve critical and creative thinking skills, as well as gain a more nuanced understanding of cultural, social, geographic, and political contexts.

Business and Economy

In this course, students are introduced to business and corporate sustainability theory and best practices for environmental sustainability professionals. We explore a broad range of topics, including: 

  • Business motivations for sustainability
  • Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability programs and practices
  • Markets and demand for green goods and sustainable brands
  • Global trends in markets and demographics
  • Supply chain management for climate and other sustainability challenges
  • Sustainable dimensions of investing, reporting, employee recruitment and retention, insurance, and risk management
  • Circular economy policy and theory

This course offers a comprehensive overview of the accounting, evaluation, compliance, and reporting systems and practices needed by sustainability professionals. 

Topics include: 

  • Governance by disclosure through accountability and transparency
  • Climate, water, and human rights
  • Labels, certification, standards, and roundtables
  • Reporting for businesses and government organizations
  • International and sectoral differences in sustainability reporting platforms and practices

This course focuses on two main themes: 

  • Individual and institutional purchasing and procurement practices
  • Improving efficiency and reducing risk in supply chains 

Around the world, individuals and communities are experimenting with satisfying their needs more sustainably across key lifestyle domains, including food, transportation, housing, consumer goods, and leisure. Likewise, businesses are managing their supply chains to improve resource efficiency and reduce risk. How do these individual initiatives and campaigns scale-up and contribute to more sustainable systems of production and consumption at regional and global scales? Who are the key stakeholders and what are the strategies they are using to achieve sustainable development goals?

What is a circular economy? It is a vision of an economic system that looks beyond the conventional linear model of take-make-waste to a future that is restorative and regenerative of resources. A circular economy requires decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources in order to eliminate waste, improve efficiencies, and reduce risks. In addition, a circular economy seeks to redefine growth by focusing on building natural, social, and economic capital. 

Transitioning to a circular economy is a systematic shift that entails market and governance transformations to build long-term resilience, produce new business opportunities, and create shared value at local to global scales. Many businesses, governments, and civil society organizations are actively engaged in designing and building circular economies. This course focuses on innovative best practices and cross-sector strategies for influencing change. 

Climate and Energy Systems

This course enables students to develop adaptation plans at varying geographic and temporal scales built around an understanding of the key components of vulnerability: the sensitivity, exposure, and adaptive capacity of natural and human systems. These key drivers of climate vulnerability will be used, along with socio-political and policy analysis, to develop adaptation plans that are informed by science, policy, and societal considerations. 

Throughout the course, we will tackle the importance of characterizing and incorporating uncertainty (epistemic, stochastic, and response uncertainty) into our adaptation planning, and we will explore risk informed decision making under conditions of uncertainty. We will also examine our understanding of the limits of adaptation and how adaptation opportunities will be constrained under various climate change scenarios.

This course focuses on institutional responses to climate change at the international, national, and sub-national levels, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, and U.S. climate policymaking under the Clean Air Act and state and regional initiatives. Both mitigation and adaptation approaches will be addressed, as well as climate geoengineering.

As average global temperatures continue to rise, it is imperative to not only understand the science behind climate change, but also its potential ramifications and impacts. Using scientific research, this course begins by exploring the why, how, and when behind climate change. Contemporary readings will be used to spark discussion and debate surrounding the potential implications of climate change, with topics ranging from natural disasters to human health. The course will culminate in a “Congressional Briefing” students will prepare, synthesizing their knowledge of the subject as well as proposing a political solution.

Infrastructure describes the basic systems and structures that support markets, governance, communication, lifestyle, and every other aspect of society. Infrastructure comprises two main types of systems: 

  1. Physical or “hard” systems such as transportation, energy, water / sanitation, and one that is often left out of the planning mix—ecological systems
  2. So-called “soft” infrastructure systems—the less tangible systems such as laws, regulations, markets, research and education, etc. that ultimately affect the design, construction, management, and governance of these systems 

In an era experiencing profound change including rapid urbanization, changing climatic conditions, as well as shifting poles of power, the vulnerabilities of existing infrastructure systems are becoming more apparent. Cities, often in partnership with private interests, are at the vanguard of an infrastructure revolution. Through rethinking systems and their management and impacts, cities are leading the way toward a more resilient and sustainable future through infrastructure development that advances:

  • Ecosystem services
  • Energy efficiency
  • Renewable resource use
  • Enhanced and efficient water and sanitation systems
  • Novel waste management strategies
  • Governance, market, and management support systems 

In this course, we will explore these infrastructure innovations and how professions are shifting to design, support, implement, and manage a new landscape.

Water and Marine Systems

Approximately three billion people, or nearly half of the world’s population, live within 200 kilometers of a coastline; a percentage projected to increase dramatically in the near future. Coastal areas represent complex socio-ecological systems that provide valuable ecosystem services to people and the planet, but these ecosystems are under increasing stress with growing coastal urbanization and other anthropocentric impacts and demands. 

Coastal management is concerned with protecting, conserving, and managing coasts and coastal resources, and requires an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and negotiating often-competing interests. In this course, we will be exploring the socio-ecological systems that comprise coastal areas or zones, as well as the pressures affecting their health and resilience. We will then examine some strategies being developed around the world to manage coastal areas for social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

This course will focus on financing and alternative project delivery in the water sector. Topics will range from technical aspects of the Clean and Drinking Water sectors, regulatory and legislative issues, funding and financing challenges and innovations in the water sector, and public-private partnerships. 

The basis of the course is an emerging platform known as the Community-Based Public-Private Partnership (CBP3) program, also known as the Community-Based Public-Private Performance Partnership (CBP4) approach, which incorporates all aspects of the topics covered in this course.

Water is a vital resource to Earth’s seven billion humans. Only 3% of the Earth’s water is potable, and it is not evenly distributed around the world. Some countries have easy access to this resource, while others have too little or too much. In this course, we’ll study the management of water resources in the U.S., Bangladesh and Kiribati, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, and Brazil. Students will be introduced to the basic issues surrounding water management, and then case studies will be used to investigate examples of water management and conflict around the world.

This course was developed as an interdisciplinary course covering: 

  • Watershed identification and mapping
  • Watershed characteristics and evaluation
  • Stormwater engineering
  • Stream corridor restoration
  • Water quality monitoring
  • Native plants and animals
  • Exotic and invasive species
  • Public education
  • Volunteer coordination and training
  • Roles and activities for teachers and students
  • Advocacy training

Water is the lifeblood of cities. Freshwater, wastewater, and environmental water systems each provide vital services, and each can cause profound problems. Citizens and industry need freshwater to live and function. Without adequate wastewater management cities quickly become unhealthy, fetid places. Imbalances in environmental water can cause degradation, drought, and fire or, conversely, catastrophic flooding. 

This course examines urban water systems as an integrated management challenge. Case studies drawn from cities in North America and global regions experiencing rapid urbanization are used to identify emerging problems and prescribe best practices.

Biodiversity and Ecosystems

Faced with limited resources to confront growing challenges, conservation organizations must show that their efforts are strategic, systematic, and results-oriented. This course provides students with the skills and knowledge to design and implement effective conservation projects and to generate clear evidence of their progress toward achieving conservation results. The course provides training in adaptive management (AM), including planning, monitoring, implementing, analyzing, learning from, and adapting conservation projects—essential knowledge and skills for current and emerging conservation practitioners. Graduate students in conservation-focused programs require experiential learning in the practical and applied processes (i.e., adaptive management) and skills (e.g. developing goals and objectives, budget drafting, and leadership) that are essential for achieving conservation results.

Conservation biologists warn that we are in the midst of a great “extinction crisis,” with millions of species threatened due to habitat destruction, climate change, and other anthropogenic factors. This course focuses on examining how we are (and should be) constructing legal regimes and effective political institutions to conserve Earth’s endangered forms of life across multiple levels:

  • Ecosystem
  • Landscape
  • Species
  • Population
  • Genetic diversity 

We will examine the U.S. legal and political responses to biodiversity loss, with a focus on the Endangered Species Act, as well as the role of international law, especially treaty regimes. We will look at how law is and isn’t succeeding in preserving life on Earth, and pay particular attention to the most effective legal practices to conserve biodiversity.

This course builds on the principles of biodiversity science across the many components of stewardship. Participants will each identify a study area (a local site or area, county, or larger region) that provides the context for investigating, documenting, analyzing, and promoting biodiversity. Accordingly, students’ projects and course products are highly variable and reflect a wide variety of professional, academic, and personal interests. Skills developed in this course can be immediately applied to real-world needs, and some participants may design their projects and products to address an existing need.

Human activities are having a cumulative effect on the natural systems upon which life depends. Future land management impacts will likely entail unprecedented change in environmental conditions. More integration of the traditional natural resources fields will be required to develop innovative approaches to sustain resource development. Conservation ecology provides insights to the many benefits and services that nature offers and explores strategies to sustain ecological integrity and plan landscapes for human use. It is an emerging interdisciplinary approach to harmonizing the interactions between people and nature at ecosystem scales.

Human-wildlife conflict resolution is a rapidly growing area within the wildlife sciences that draws upon the need for multi-disciplinary approaches to resolve complex issues associated with human domination of ecosystems. The problems people have with wild animals and the problems wild animals have with people require the use of cooperative, collaborative, and innovative approaches if they are to be resolved in ways that maximize both social and ecological benefits. 

Nowhere do the challenges in this area loom larger than in our urban and suburban environments. Within very recent times the growing conflicts between people and wild animals such as beaver, deer, coyote, and Canada geese have developed to a point where the entire paradigm of wildlife management has been changed. 

This course draws upon some of the emerging issues associated with human-wildlife conflicts, and through the use of case histories and examples explores the theory and practice of conflict resolution, as well as the practical ethics needed to navigate contemporary wildlife management.

Eight of every ten Americans live in cities or towns of 50,000 people or more, and 50% of the world’s human population now lives in urban areas. What has been the impact of this transition on wildlife populations? While it’s a common assumption that cities are inhospitable to non-human animal life, we have ample evidence today to indicate that not only do some wildlife species survive in urban areas—they can thrive. One positive consequence is that people can directly enjoy and appreciate wildlife close to home, and feel a closer connection to the natural world by doing so. A negative consequence is that conflicts between people and wildlife are on the rise. Urbanization has created new challenges for wildlife management professionals, and most have little or no special training in this area. This course is organized into five learning units:

  • Urban landscapes
  • Urban ecosystems
  • Urban habitats and hazards
  • Socio-political issues
  • Special management considerations

Cities and Urban Systems

Infrastructure describes the basic systems and structures that support markets, governance, communication, lifestyle, and every other aspect of society. Infrastructure comprises two main types of systems: 

  1. Physical or “hard” systems such as transportation, energy, water/ sanitation, and one that is often left out of the planning mix—ecological systems
  2. So-called “soft” infrastructure systems—the less-tangible systems such as laws, regulations, markets, research and education, etc. that ultimately affect the design, construction, management, and governance of these systems 

In an era experiencing profound change, including rapid urbanization and changing climatic conditions as well as shifting poles of power, the vulnerabilities of existing infrastructure systems are becoming more apparent. Cities, often in partnership with private interests, are at the vanguard of an infrastructure revolution. Through rethinking systems and their management and impacts, cities are leading the way toward a more resilient and sustainable future through infrastructure development that advances:

  • Ecosystem services
  • Energy efficiency
  • Renewable resource use
  • Enhanced and efficient water and sanitation systems
  • Novel waste management strategies
  • Governance, market, and management support systems 

In this course, we will explore these infrastructure innovations and how professions are shifting to design, support, implement, and manage a new landscape.

Our planet is increasingly urban. Approximately 50% of the world’s people now live in urban areas. In many regions of the world, the rate of urbanization is declining; however, individual cities, metropolitan regions, and urban areas continue to grow (in number, extent, and population). In this context, urban ecology is an important approach to environmental science and sustainable development. People throughout the world practice urban ecology. These people are motivated by a desire to create healthy human ecosystems and livable communities in which to live, work, and play. We will study some of these people, projects, and places. 

Key questions include: 

  • What is an urban ecosystem? 
  • Are cities sustainable environments? 
  • What are civic stakeholders, local communities, and global society doing to ensure that urban and urbanizing landscapes are healthy and desirable places for today’s world?

Water is the lifeblood of cities. Freshwater, wastewater, and environmental water systems each provide vital services, and each can cause profound problems. Citizens and industry need freshwater to live and function. Without adequate wastewater management, cities quickly become unhealthy, fetid places. Imbalances in environmental water can cause degradation, drought, and fire, or conversely, catastrophic flooding. 

This course examines urban water systems as an integrated management challenge. Case studies drawn from cities in North America and global regions experiencing rapid urbanization are used to identify emerging problems and prescribe best practices.

Eight of every ten Americans live in cities or towns of 50,000 people or more, and 50% of the world’s human population now lives in urban areas. What has been the impact of this transition on wildlife populations? While it’s a common assumption that cities are inhospitable to non-human animal life, we have ample evidence today to indicate that not only do some wildlife species survive in urban areas—they can thrive. One positive consequence is that people can directly enjoy and appreciate wildlife close to home, and feel a closer connection to the natural world by doing so. A negative consequence is that conflicts between people and wildlife are on the rise. Urbanization has created new challenges for wildlife management professionals, and most have little or no special training in this area. This course is organized into five learning units:

  • Urban landscapes
  • Urban ecosystems
  • Urban habitats and hazards
  • Socio-political issues
  • Special management considerations

Visiting Graduate Students 

Students who are enrolled in a graduate degree program at another university, and who would like to take online classes offered by the Virginia Tech MNR program, can apply as a Visiting Graduate Student. Please contact Emily Talley at emtalley@vt.edu with questions and to access the application form.

Non-degree (Commonwealth Campus) Students

Students who would like to enroll in up to 12 credit hours of online courses from the Virginia Tech Online MNR curriculum, without pursuing either a graduate certificate or graduate degree, may do so by registering as non-degree. Please contact Emily Talley at emtalley@vt.edu with questions and to access the application form.

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