Stanford has long been a leader in cutting-edge research and innovative teaching on energy, the planet’s resources, and environmental sustainability. Driven by a pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit and historic dedication to public service, Stanford is well positioned to seek solutions that create a more livable planet and educate generations of scientific and policy leaders equal to that challenge. Central to Stanford’s approach to sustainability research and curricula is the idea that solutions to the world’s environmental problems will require an interdisciplinary effort. Today, dozens of laboratories, research centers, and student organizations at Stanford are working to solve the most urgent challenges facing humanity, from food security and clean water to global warming and clean energy. Across campus, Stanford’s schools incorporate sustainability into research and academic programs. All seven schools offer a wide range of environmental and sustainability-related courses and research opportunities, with over 750 sustainability-related graduate and undergraduate courses offered across campus.
Stanford’s academic focus on the Earth and its resources dates back to the founding of the university in 1891. The first professor hired – John Casper Branner – and the first recipient of a Stanford doctorate were both geologists. In the early 20th century, Stanford built on that foundation, pursuing use-inspired research in areas such as energy and natural resources, and serving as a pioneer in the scientific study of groundwater. Also among the first cohort of faculty was Charles David Marx, the first chairman (1912–1915) of the California State Water Commission, who helped frame the water laws of this state.
Over the years, innovative research continued, with a focus on energy resources, biological conservation, and global environmental change. In 1962, Rolf Eliassen and Perry McCarty started the first broad, interdisciplinary environmental engineering program in the country. In 1973, the university created the 1,200-acre Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve above the campus; the preserve continues to serve as a living laboratory for ecosystem and climate research. In addition, several academic programs launched decades ago are still going strong, including the Energy Modeling Forum, founded in 1977, and the Center for Conservation Biology, established in 1984.
Development of an Interdisciplinary Approach
In the 1990s, a group of visionary faculty members began to recognize that addressing key global sustainability challenges, such as climate change and universal access to clean energy, water, and food for a growing population, would require the collaboration of experts from many disciplines. At the heart of this evolution was, and remains, the belief that sustainability challenges cannot be addressed by individual disciplines working alone, but must draw on every discipline and field across campus and beyond. During this period, the interdisciplinary Earth Systems bachelor's of science and coterminal master’s programs were launched within the School of Earth Sciences. The Center for Environmental Science and Policy was also created within the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies, bringing together faculty from a range of disciplines to focus on challenges at the interface of environment and development.
As the Stanford community grew in size and experience with interdisciplinary research, faculty called for graduate programs for interdisciplinary students. In 2001, the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) was founded within the School of Earth Sciences. The program was proposed by faculty from across the university and established on their behalf. Likewise, cross-cutting research efforts continued to flourish. In 2002 the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), an industry partnership that supports innovative research on game-changing energy technologies, was formed. To date, GCEP has funded 80 research programs at Stanford and 26 other institutions in 10 countries. GCEP has had a transformative effect across campus, unleashing long-term faculty interest in energy and providing new opportunities for students in the energy field.
In 2006, President Hennessy initiated the Stanford Challenge, a campus-wide effort aimed at seeking solutions to the world’s most pressing problems and educating students for leadership in the 21st century. Learn more about the results in the Stanford Magazine article on Stanford Magazine.The following year he launched the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment to serve as the initiative’s central organizing force. Envisioned as a hub for Stanford’s environmental researchers, the institute brings together experts from across the university’s seven schools to pursue interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented research addressing the planet’s most complex environmental challenges while preparing the next generation of environmental leaders. Centers and programs within the Woods Institute include the Center for Ocean Solutions, the Center on Food Security and the Environment (joint with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies), and Water in the West (joint with the Bill Lane Center for the American West). See the Woods Institute recent Annual Report to learn more about their work to catalyze research, advance decision-making and foster environmental leadership.
In 2009, President Hennessy announced the creation of the Precourt Institute for Energy (PIE) and the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. In 2011, the Stanford Law School and the Graduate School of Business jointly established the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. Today, PIE serves as the campus-wide hub of energy research and education, providing support to more than a dozen energy research centers and programs, including the TomKat Center, the Steyer-Taylor Center, and the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, which predated PIE. In addition, two new interdisciplinary departments – Environmental Earth System Science and Energy Resources Engineering – were created in the School of Earth Sciences, complementing the efforts of many disciplinary departments across the university.