Above photo courtesy of current CONS student Liz Shotman. 

In the Spring semester of each year, the CONS program offers Problem Solving in Conservation and Development, the "capstone" course for the CONS degree. Course objectives include teaching students to think across disciplines, work in teams and bridge the gap between academia and solving complex problems relating to conservation and use of environmental resources.

Previous projects have created species management plans, modeled effects of climate change, provided policy analysis, conducted financial analyses, evaluated park management, developed business plans for sustainable enterprises, and created environmental education materials. The Problem Solving teams have worked with a number of agencies and organizations including IMF-World Bank, TNC, WWF, Maryland DNR, National Park Service, Defenders of Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maryland Department of Agriculture.

For each issue, students define the problem; interview the professional(s) for whom they will be working; interview other content experts and stakeholders; conduct extensive research; calculate costs and benefits of potential solutions, perhaps using computer models; identify the optimal solution to the problem; prepare and deliver a written document appropriate to the situation; and deliver a short, formal oral presentation to the professionals participating in the exercise.

How to Sponsor a Problem Solving Project

If you or your organization are interested in having a Consulting Team work with you on a project during the spring semester, please email the CONS Program Director, Karen Lips, at klips@umd.edu, a 1-2 page project summary by November 1, that briefly explains the concept, your needs, scope of work, expected deliverables, required student competencies (GIS, statistics, financial analysis, modeling etc.), and available resources.  Please specify if your project includes a Sustainable Business component.

We will choose 6 projects by mid November and Dr. Lips will contact clients for a preliminary interview (60 min) to discuss the scope of the project and compile background materials.  The spring semester begins on January 23, 2013 and if selected, you can expect to meet with the team for the first time in early February. Together you and the Team will determine your level of involvement, deliverables, scheduling, and communication modes.  You will receive a mid-term progress report, a final written report, and a Final Presentation. 

Connecting Environmental Science & Business 

There is a growing demand for multidisciplinary training in sustainability from Business and Environmental Science majors as well as from business practitioners as a response to the growing pressure on businesses to address concerns related to energy use, climate change, biodiversity loss, and other environmental issues.

We created a course that married the business skills learned in the MBA program with the environmental knowledge of sustainability developed in the CONS program to produce students with critical thinking skills, creative problem-solving abilities, and the ability to communicate across fields.

In teams of 4 to 6 students, MBA students from the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business collaborate with MS students from the Program in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development (CONS) to solve complex problems or research new initiatives in Environmental Sustainability. Teams confront issues in traditional business areas (e.g., finance, marketing, strategy, management and organization, human resources, and information technology) as well concerns related to environmental impact and sustainability (e.g., environmental impact, carbon trading, recycling, waste production, green supply chains).

Our unique approach encourages students to work in partnership across disciplines, a process which produces a fuller understanding of the beliefs and values held by multiple stakeholders and which we expect will stimulate novel insights and solutions. Teams will devise innovative solutions that address emerging legal, financial, and ethical challenges needed for triple bottom line evaluation.

Course Objectives

The projects are one-semester consulting engagements with clients who have contracted with the CONS Program and Robert H. Smith School of Business for delivery of services. These engagements afford CONS students and MBAs the opportunity to hone a number of skills in a "living case" environment.  In addition to applying knowledge gained in CONS and MBA courses, students should bring to bear knowledge and skills from past work experience and prior education. Students are expected to spend an average of 100 hours over the semester on the project.  With an average team size of four students plus one faculty advisor, approximately 500 hours of consulting time is dedicated to our clients on each project.

While working in cross-functional teams, students will accomplish the following:

  • Define the project goals, deliverables, timelines, and processes with input from the client and faculty advisor.
  • Conduct appropriate investigation and analysis to add value and maximize client satisfaction while maintaining the highest standards of ethical and professional conduct.
  • Deliver oral and written reports to the client at times and places mutually agreed upon

This course has two important dimensions. You are representing the University of Maryland and the highest degree of professionalism is expected. You will get out of this project as much as you put into it.

Course Results 

Do teams gain a fuller understanding of the beliefs and value held by multiple stakeholders?

"At the beginning of the semester, I would have assessed our problem only from the viewpoint of a farmer. By working with business students, I had to assess the program more objectively and monetize conservation activities and impacts."

"I feel much better prepared to communicate science to a broad audience. This class forces students to develop not just academically but also professionally. I learned new content within the field, new skills for data analysis and presentation of our findings, and also how to most effectively portray this information to others."

Do teams gain new skill sets, insights, or knowledge from working on a multi-disciplinary team?

"They think differently. Our initial internal prioritization is very different. And we have assumptions about each other, whether we know it or not."

"Primarily the difference in thought process.  Outside perspective into the scheme of things helps one ideate more efficiently and also think of out of the box solutions."

Do multi-disciplinary teams produce different types of solutions?

"Working in cross functional teams has helped me understand the problem both in a macro and micro context."

"I learned to step out of my comfort zone and work in business-related areas that required me to think and analyze in new ways."

"While I am no “scientist”, I think this project taught me how to base business decisions on scientific findings, and it certainly made me more literate in the topic of sustainable development."

Evidence that the course achieves its objectives includes strong praise from off-campus participants, offers of employment and internships to students in the course, frequent incorporation of student suggestions into the decision-making process and a long list of organizations that would like to participate in the program in the future.

Previous Topics 

Recent issues addressed by the problem solving course include: 

  • Improving Sustainability: Life Cycle Analysis of Electronic Products (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
  • Future Power generation to fuel a growing company (International Finance Corporation)
  • Local Governments' Green Purchasing Policies Build Sustainable Communities (Environmental Finance Center)
  • Establishing a Restoration Economy on the Gulf Coast after the BP Oil Spill (The Nature Conservancy)
  • Creating Opportunities for Farmers: Nutrient Trading in Maryland (Maryland Department of Agriculture & Potomac Conservancy)
  • Private-Public Partnerships for Land Protection (USFWS Wildlife Refuge System)
  • Socio-economic Valuation of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta (Asociación Calidris);
  • Planning for Perpetuity: Private Land Conservation in the Chesapeake Bay (Defenders of Wildlife);
  • Sustainability and Business Planning: Generating Income through Ecotourism (Project Amazonas);
  • How green purchasing policies can help local governments create sustainable communities: A scoping study for the cities of Greenbelt and College Park (Environmental Finance Center);
  • Should U.S. zoos be allowed to import pandas from China? (Management Authority, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service);
  • The allocation of striped bass quotas between recreational and commercial fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay (Maryland Department of Natural Resources);
  • Determining ecological criteria for sustainable forest management in the tropics (U.S. AID)
  • Changing the world market for medicinal products derived from rhinoceroses (The International Rhino Fund);
  • Should the University of Maryland purchase land to establish a biological reserve in the Brazilian Amazon? (UMCP College of Life Sciences and Office of the President);
  • A review and revision of a middle-school biodiversity curriculum developed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF);
  • Investigation of three states' compliance with the CITES requirements for regulation of ginseng trade (TRAFFIC);
  • Review and recommendations for assessment criteria for the Parks in Peril program (The Nature Conservancy);
  • An investigation of Species Survival Plans (Chair of the AZA Reintroduction Advisory Group);

A management plan for the locally rare (and potentially threatened) butternut tree (George Washington Memorial Parkway).