Christy Briles and students exhibiting their bee hive
Professor Christy Briles, PhD, and her students exhibit one of their beehives.

What is Environmental Science?

April 25, 2023

Extreme droughts, massive forest fires, fierce heat waves, and widespread flooding. It seems like life-threatening weather events are constantly in the news headlines. Whatever the situation, scientists and scholars say we are witnessing unparalleled societal and ecological shifts that require prompt and competent solutions. At CU Denver, the department of Geography and Environmental Sciences (GES) is devoted to understanding and finding actionable answers to these fundamental challenges.  

Environmental science is an interdisciplinary field that studies the interactions between humans and the environment. These interactions encompass the physical, biological, and social sciences. It aims to understand the natural systems of the Earth, the impacts of human activities on these systems, and the development of sustainable solutions to environmental problems.  

Taking action on the climate crisis: What is CU Denver doing to enact change? Dive into the array of climate research happening at the university.

Students within GES take “a place-based, holistic approach to understanding how cultural, political, social, economic, physical, and natural processes combine and interact to shape and re-shape landscapes, cities, regions, and nations over time,” says Peter Anthamatten, PhD, associate professor of Geography and Environmental Sciences. Students explore environmental, social, and geospatial sciences, while learning methods to analyze and evaluate our rapidly changing world. This degree helps equip students with problem-solving skills to effectively unravel pressing issues.  

Geography and Environmental Sciences at CU Denver 

GES offers a BA in Geography that allows for several specializations, including Urban Studies and Planning, Environmental Science, Environment, Society, and Sustainability, and General Geography. Students can also choose from three minor options: Environmental Science, Geography, and Urban & Regional Planning.  

If you’re a student who wants to study and get involved with environmental sustainability, that’s at the core of what we’re about. 

—Peter Anthamatten, PhD, Associate Professor, Geography and Environmental Sciences 

For students who wish to further their studies, the department offers a MA in Applied Geography & Geospatial Science. Students focus areas in Environmental Health, Climate Change, Cities, Food Systems, Sustainable Development, Environmental Management and Policy, and Environmental Change.  

Students can also opt for a MS in Environmental Sciences with eight specialization options. Graduate students to work closely with faculty members on cutting-edge research projects. Research opportunities span all facets of geographic and environmental sciences. 

If you spend significant time in environmental sciences, you have to really get a handle on all the different components of various sciences, biology, chemistry, physics, and math. 

—Christy Briles, PhD, Associate Professor, Geography and Environmental Sciences 

Outside of the traditional degree paths, students looking for additional expertise can opt for a range of certificates. GES provides certifications in Environmental Science Education​, Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial Applications (FOSS4G), Geographic Information Science, and Sustainable Urban Agriculture

Student Experience and Organizations 

GES provides students with a diverse and engaging learning environment that includes classroom instruction, extensive hands-on fieldwork, and research opportunities. The department touts a variety of courses that explore topics such as urban planning, GIS and remote sensing, environmental management and policy, climate systems, water systems sustainability, and much more.  

The department also provides access to a slew of labs, facilities, and equipment, including ​the Facility for Advanced Spatial Technology (FAST lab), the Geospatial Analysis and Mapping Laboratory (GAM Lab), the Geo-visualization and Community Engagement Laboratory, the GES Urban Farm Field Research Station, the Paleoecology, Palynology and Climate Change Lab, and the Environmental Science Research Laboratories. 

We try to work with the community, get people involved, and put a real focus on professional development, so that our graduates know more than just theory, they’ve got all these skills and are ready to hit the ground and start to work to save us. 

—Peter Anthamatten, PhD, Associate Professor, Geography and Environmental Sciences 

Additionally, the Every Day Geographical Experiences (EDGE) student club provides a friendly education hub that allows students to network, foster community, take field trips, and explore leadership opportunities. 

Professor Katharine Kelsey, PhD, leads a disciussion in her Climate Change: Causes, Impacts and Solutions course

Career Opportunities in GES 

The 10-year, 2020 CU Alumni Outcomes Summary reports that 62% of CU Denver graduates in Geography are employed in the field and 82% reside in Colorado. For Environmental Sciences graduates, the survey includes data that 71% of these CU Denver alumni hold positions within the field and 73% reside in the state. 

Graduates from both fields are strongly represented in government agencies (state and local). CU Denver alumni of geography and environmental science are employed by organizations that include the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanography and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), and the State of Colorado. Alumni also land positions at corporations, particularly engineering and geospatial firms. Recent firms include Digital Globe, Maxar Technologies Inc., TRC Companies, Inc., Apex Companies LLC, En Engineering LLC, etc. 

Graduates of the department’s programs are well-prepared for careers spanning across the private and public sectors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for geographers was $85,220. Environmental scientists and specialists are listed at $76,530. Using CU Alumni data for GES combined with data from BLS, below are other common positions for graduates: 

Environmental Engineers | Average Salary: $96,820 

Utilizing their knowledge of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry, environmental engineers devise effective solutions to environmental challenges. Their scope of work includes enhancing recycling, waste management, public health, and controlling water and air pollution. Additionally, they tackle broader issues such as climate change, environmental sustainability, and unsafe drinking water on a global scale. 

Urban and Regional Planners | Average Salary: $78,500 

The role of urban and regional planners involves creating plans and programs for land use. These plans aid in the development of communities, help adapt population growth, and rejuvenate physical structures in towns, cities, counties, and metropolitan areas. 

Environmental Science Technicians | Average Salary: $47,370 

Environmental science technicians monitor and investigate pollution and contamination sources. The monitoring largely focuses on pollution that has an outsized impact on public health.

GIS Technicians | Average Salary: $46,910 

Surveying and mapping technicians are responsible for gathering information and producing maps of the Earth’s terrain. While surveying technicians go to various locations to obtain land measurements, mapping technicians employ geographic data to create maps. Both roles provide support to surveyors, cartographers, and photogrammetrists. 

Peter Anthamatten, PhD 

Peter Anthamatten, PhD, is the department chair and an associate professor for Geography and Environmental Studies at CU Denver. The primary focus of Peter’s works centers on the geography of health, or the study of how places and locations affect human health. He began his career exploring patterns of malnutrition in impoverished regions. However, most of his work since arriving at CU Denver in 2008 has revolved around the links between the built environment and children’s physical activity behavior. Peter also researches geographic education and teaching spatial thinking skills to elementary-aged children.  

Christy Briles

Christy Briles, PhD  

Born and raised in Colorado, Christy Briles, PhD, is an associate professor for Geography and Environmental Studies at CU Denver. She specializes as a biogeographer and paleoecologist. In short this means she uses environmental proxies (pollen, charcoal, and geochemistry) to understand how biotic (humans and animals) and abiotic factors (climate, fire, and geology) influence species and ecosystems at different scales of both space and time. She leads the CU Denver Bee Project along with several research initiatives. Promoting and strengthening earth system science in academia and the community is a main tenet of her efforts. Outside of academia, Christy works extensively within the community and educates on a range of environmental topics.  

Students with an interest in geography and environmental science are encouraged to learn more about GES opportunities at CU Denver.


Contact us to learn more about how much programs cost, how to apply, and when you can start any of CU Denver’s GES programs.