This interdisciplinary program equips students with higher-order learning skills as well as more practical, applied preparation for a variety of careers in sustainable development. The program’s goal is to produce trainees with not only the fundamental and theoretical understanding expected from more traditional graduate degree recipients, but also the highly marketable, professional skills of someone graduating from an applied field of study.

Learning Outcomes

Graduates will be able to:

  • analyze problems, conduct research, and make policy recommendations on topics related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), and anticipate the social, economic, political, technological, human health, and environmental impacts of their proposed interventions;
  • communicate science effectively and responsively with diverse audiences, from technical peers to potential employers, policymakers and the public, as well as communicate across modern forms of media intended for public engagement and dissemination of advances toward sustainable development goals; and
  • demonstrate qualities essential to thrive across a range of careers, including interpersonal skills (e.g., collaboration, teamwork, and cultural competence), problem-solving abilities (e.g., inquiry, critical thinking, and creativity) and professional strengths (e.g., work ethic, responsible conduct, management, and leadership).

The interdisciplinary Master of Science program in sustainable development requires a total of 30 s.h. of graduate credit to earn the degree without thesis. Students may choose to earn the degree with thesis. All students must maintain a cumulative g.p.a. of at least 2.75.

With the approval of their faculty advisors, students develop a study plan that satisfies the requirements of their chosen curriculum. All students must successfully complete the core courses and take two analytical and methods courses plus elective coursework that is focused around one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).

The thesis option requires completion of a project with a program partner (e.g., a community, nongovernmental organization (NGO), public agency, or private sector partner) and culminates in a required project portfolio.

The M.S. with a major in sustainable development requires the following coursework.

Core Courses

All of these:
SDG:4000/GEOG:4000The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: A Blueprint for a Sustainable Future3
SDG:5100Building Future Leaders in Sustainable Development3
CEE:5225/GRAD:5225/SDG:5225Communicating Data Through Stories3
URP:6209/SDG:6000Sustainable Communities Lab I3

Analytical and Methods Courses

Students choose two courses (at least 6 s.h.) offered by supporting programs. The courses provide students with training in analytical competencies necessary for sustainable development, including spatial analysis, statistics, informatics, data management, and decision analysis.

Two of these:
CEE:5310/IGPI:5311Informatics for Sustainable Systems3
CEE:5460Water Quality and Flow3
GEOG:3050/IGPI:3050Geospatial Programming3
GEOG:3500/IGPI:3500Introduction to Environmental Remote Sensing3
GEOG:3520/IGPI:3520GIS for Environmental Studies3
GEOG:3540/IGPI:3540Geographic Visualization3
GEOG:4150/GHS:4150/IGPI:4150Health and Environment: GIS Applications3
GEOG:4520/IGPI:4520GIS for Environmental Studies: Applications3
GEOG:4580/IGPI:4581Introduction to Geographic Databases3
URP:6200/PBAF:6200Analytic Methods I3
URP:6225/PBAF:6225Applied GIS for Planning and Policy Making3
URP:6227Spatial Analysis in Planning and Policy Making3
URP:6258/PBAF:6258Systems and Scenario Thinking3


Students complete at least 12 s.h. in elective coursework structured around the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Students are required to focus on one SDG and complete four courses in that specialization area to provide depth in one area.

Affordable and Clean Energy

CBE:5405Green Chemical and Energy Technologies3
CEE:5410Politics and Economics of the Food, Energy, Water Nexus3
CHEM:4760Radiochemistry: Energy, Medicine, and the Environment3
GEOG:3780/GHS:3780/HIST:3240U.S. Energy Policy in Global Context3
ISE:4550Wind Power Management3

Clean Water and Sanitation

CEE:4150/CBE:4420Environmental Chemistry3
CEE:4385International Perspectives in Water Sciences and Management3
CEE:5350Watershed Hydrology and Ecosystem Processes3
CEE:5440Foundations of Environmental Chemistry and Microbiology3
CEE:5460Water Quality and Flow3
OEH:4240Global Environmental Health3

Climate Action

CEE:4159/CBE:4459/IGPI:4159Air Pollution Control Technology3
CEE:4180Fundamentals of Atmospheric Science3
GEOG:3331Human Dimensions of Climate3
GEOG:4470Ecological Climatology3
GEOG:5800/PBAF:5800/URP:5800Environmental Economics and Policy3

Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

GEOG:3420Sustainable and Green Building Concepts3
GEOG:5300/GHS:5300Envisioning Future Worlds: Sustainable Development and Its Alternatives3
URP:6202Land Use Planning: Law and Practice4
URP:6266/PBAF:6266Transportation and Land Use Planning3

Responsible Consumption and Production

CEE:4158/OEH:4920Solid and Hazardous Wastes3
GEOG:3070/GHS:3070Hungry Planet: Global Geographies of Food3
GEOG:4750/URP:4750Environmental Impact Analysis3
GEOG:4770/AFAM:4770/GHS:4770Environmental Justice3
GHS:3560Global Garbage and Global Health3
URP:6256/PBAF:6256Environmental Policy3

Sustainable Cities and Communities

CEE:4107/CBE:4410Sustainable Systems3
GEOG:3350Urban Ecology3
GEOG:3400Iowa Environmental Policy in Practice3
GEOG:3760/GHS:3760Hazards and Society3
GEOG:4200/SUST:4200Sustainability as a System Science3
GEOG:5300/GHS:5300Envisioning Future Worlds: Sustainable Development and Its Alternatives3
URP:6245/PBAF:6245Growth Management3

The Biosphere (Life Below Water and Life on Land)

CBE:5405Green Chemical and Energy Technologies3
CEE:5350Watershed Hydrology and Ecosystem Processes3
GEOG:3310Landscape Ecology3
GEOG:3320/EES:3260Wetlands: Function, Geography, and Management3
GEOG:3340Ecosystem Services3

Applicants must meet the admission requirements of the Graduate College; see the Manual of Rules and Regulations and the Graduate College Admission Requirements on the Graduate College website and the sustainable development admission requirements.

Prospective students must hold a baccalaureate degree or the equivalent from an accredited institution with preparation appropriate for advanced study in the field of sustainability. Students with an undergraduate degree in natural and social sciences, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics will be well prepared to thrive in this interdisciplinary degree program. The program is intentionally designed to be inclusive for students coming from different and diverse academic backgrounds given the broad range of perspectives and expertise that are needed in moving society closer toward sustainable development goals.

Application materials must include:

  • one- or two-page self-statement describing an applicant's interest in the sustainable development program, how formal and informal experiences make the applicant a good fit for the program, and how the applicant can uniquely contribute to the program; the statement should briefly discuss the career path(s) the applicant intends to pursue upon completion of the degree;
  • a résumé; and
  • three letters of recommendation.

Applicants whose first language is not English must submit official test scores to verify English proficiency. They can verify English proficiency by submitting official test scores from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), or the Duolingo English Test (DET).

Graduates can obtain employment across a variety of sectors that intersect with sustainability and sustainable development, including jobs in public service at the local, state, or federal level in all areas related to the environment (e.g., watershed management coordinators, state natural resource departments, and sustainability directors for cities across the United States, analysts and scientists at governmental agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Graduates may find employment in the private sector as consultants for industries seeking to improve the sustainability of their operations and processes (e.g., sustainable supply chain, waste management, minimization, and sustainability reporting, metric development, and management).

Graduates are better qualified for positions in the private sector including chief sustainability officer, director of sustainability, and sustainability project manager or coordinator. Opportunities also exist for careers in global development, working internationally with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other organizations that strive to advance sustainable development goals worldwide, particularly in resource-constrained areas of the developing world. In addition, degree recipients are well positioned to pursue additional graduate studies toward a Ph.D., M.B.A., or J.D. degree.