Oakton College leading the way in environmental education and sustainability

In its quest to create just and thriving communities, Oakton College, with campuses in Des Plaines and Skokie, has emerged as a leader in environmental education and sustainability.

Anchored by its Environmental Studies Concentration curriculum, Oakton is preparing students to address complex environmental issues, locally and globally. Oakton’s 100 acres of biodiverse woodlands, wetlands, and prairies enhance learning opportunities and serve as a valuable community resource.

Oakton's 16-semester-hour Environmental Studies Concentration, led by faculty co-coordinators Marian Staats and Tess Lesniak, prepares students to pursue careers in diverse fields, including environmental law and policy, conservation biology, environmental journalism, and urban planning. Courses like introduction to environmental science and environmental ethics help students gain a deep understanding of sustainability and the interconnectedness of various environmental issues.

“We believe that by fostering a holistic understanding of environmental challenges and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration, our students will emerge as leaders in creating a more sustainable and equitable world,” said Oakton College President Joianne Smith at a recent event spotlighting Oakton’s Environmental Studies Concentration.

Along with rigorous classroom instruction, Oakton’s campuses are living laboratories that help students gain valuable hands-on experience. The Des Plaines campus is home to nearly 100 acres of rare ecosystems, including a historic sugar maple grove, oak woodlands, savannas, prairies, wetlands, Lake Oakton, and the Des Plaines River. The Skokie campus’ traditional residential landscaping includes inspiring gardens demonstrating how to incorporate native plants into one’s own yard.

Oakton’s full-time naturalist Amanda Krause is passionate about inspiring the next generation of environmental leaders, particularly those who have felt historically excluded from outdoor pursuits.

Krause employs Oakton students as assistants and welcomes volunteers, classes, scouts, and community groups to experience various aspects of ecological fieldwork. Groups engage in activities like tapping sugar maples to make maple syrup, identifying trees and plants, scouting for invasive species, and seed collecting.

“Nature is for everyone,” Krause said. “We all know by now that nature is good for our mental and physical health. But more and more studies show that as little as a 20-minute nature experience actually helps students to perform better academically.”

Oakton also leads by example through its many sustainability initiatives. Sustainability specialist Charmaine John spearheads various projects and initiatives to make Oakton’s campuses greener. For example, Oakton’s community gardens and community apiary provide sustainable agriculture and community engagement opportunities. Additionally, initiatives like Earth Month and Campus Sustainability Month celebrations organized in collaboration with the Environmental Studies Concentration provide myriad ways for everyone to get involved.

Students play a crucial role in Oakton's sustainability efforts through student-led clubs like the Environmental Club and Students for Social Justice. These clubs organize community cleanup events, promote awareness of environmental injustices and advocate for sustainable practices on campus. The Environmental Club is leading efforts to gain arboretum certification for a central area of the Des Plaines campus, which will serve as a resource for community members. Completion is expected in fall 2024.

For more information about Oakton College’s Environmental Studies Concentration and sustainability efforts, visit For inquiries into potential partnerships or volunteer opportunities, email

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.