Double Duty: Three New Dual Degrees Prepare Students for a Changing and Challenging World

By Maggie Haslam / Nov 19, 2020 / Updated Nov 20, 2020

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Students drafting plans in the Bostwick House.
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The vernacular architecture class uses the Bostwick House as a studio for drafting plans. Photo courtesy of Dennis Pogue.

Could a person’s health be determined by a stretch of concrete?

Study after study has found that simply having access to sidewalks correlates to lower rates of depression, blood pressure and obesity. That connection also demonstrates how two seemingly different disciplines—urban planning and public health—are intrinsically linked.

Now, a new graduate degree offered between the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (MAPP) and School of Public Health will prepare students to forge healthier communities as emerging professionals. It’s one of three new dual degree programs launching in Fall 2021 to mesh different disciplines such as information systems technology, American studies and historic preservation to tackle the “grand challenges” facing the world.

“Issues of gentrification, climate change, the health disparities laid bare by COVID and the racial inequities brought to fore by Brianna Taylor and George Floyd require many experts at the table and, increasingly, knowledgeable practitioners who can bridge the disciplines they represent,” said Donald Linebaugh, interim dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

MAPP’s interdisciplinary dual degree programs address the increasingly complex challenges facing communities worldwide, including affordable housing, stormwater surges, urban blight, human health and the preservation of the built and natural environments.

In addition to the dual urban planning/public health degree, a new Master of Urban Planning and Information Systems Technology and a new Master of American Studies and Historic Preservation will bring MAPP’s number of dual degrees to 15, the most offered at UMD and the most at any school in the country that specializes in the built environment.

The urban planning/public health dual degree offers eight tracks, allowing students to focus on research, planning and preventative work on issues like flooding or infectious disease spread, or on solutions that foster healthier urban environments, like more green space and transit options.

“The key is to be able to think from both sides,” said Assistant Professor of Public Health Jennifer Roberts, who points to a centuries-long interdependence between the two disciplines, from curbing disease to providing safe drinking water. “COVID has certainly put that front and center. Most of the time, we both want the same thing but we don’t talk the same language. The folks coming out of this degree will be bilingual.”

The dual degree in urban planning and information management, a partnership between MAPP and the College of Information Studies, will prepare students to devise “smart cities”—automated, tech-driven and sustainable communities of the future. Students will graduate with expertise in collecting and analyzing real-time data, opening doors to career paths from developing automated urban environments to designing software.

“Pure data scientists are focused on the tools and the tech,” said Professor Casey Dawkins, director of the Urban Planning Program. “They are really good at coding, but they often don’t have the questions. Bridging data science with the understanding of urban challenges uniquely positions our students to identify and solve them.”

­Professor Mary Sies, who holds a joint faculty position in American studies and historic preservation, said the programs’ new dual degree is the result of a focus by the Historic Preservation Program on social justice and “inclusive” preservation. Preservationists, Sies said, have a history of coming into communities with good intentions, but inadvertently contributing to marginalization and gentrification. A preservationist’s toolkit, combined with a broader knowledge of public humanities and cultural landscapes found in American studies, prepare students to engage communities of color and approach issues surrounding culture resources, such as museums and historic sites.

“They’ll be better equipped to deal with the range of issues that they’ll see in the communities they are working with,” she said. “And we feel it could be a national model of training students in a more just and equitable model of preservation.”

Kirsten Crase, who earned a graduate certificate in historic preservation and a doctorate in American studies at Maryland, used skills gleaned from both programs in her dissertation on marginalization in the southeast D.C. community of Congress Heights and the Eastern Kentucky hometown of her father in Appalachia.

“There is no singular American experience,” she explained. “My coursework in American studies gave me a deeper theoretical idea of these nuanced histories, marginalization and power dynamics, and how that might shape the interactions and the responses you might get. It helped me be up front about my lack of knowledge going in and gain the trust necessary to tell their stories.”

Students pursuing dual degrees benefit from the collaboration of the participating departments in project work, lectures, coursework and advising, and on average, can complete them a year shorter than if pursued separately. They can also be a boon for students in their employment search.  

“The job market continues to evolve to meet the demands of today’s challenges, and that’s definitely impacted employer expectations,” said Kristen Tepper, MAPP’s director of career services. “They are looking for the whole package so, if our graduates can bring multiple skills to the table, they’ve got a leg up.