Some schools' majors fall off the beaten path


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As a child, Zachary Flynn marveled at fish and other things aquatic, so it's no surprise that years later, he's majoring in marine biology in college.

What is surprising is where he chose to enroll: Waynesburg University, a school of 1,500 undergraduates whose landlocked campus in Greene County is hundreds of miles from the coast.

Sure, he occasionally gets ribbed for not choosing a place closer to a boatyard or a beach.

"My dad has the best one," said Mr. Flynn, 19, a sophomore from Murrysville. "He'll say 'Waynesburg University. That's right near Waynesburg Ocean.' "

But he likes studying at a school that is an hour or so from his home, and he knows that, under an arrangement with Florida Institute of Technology, he gets to spend his senior year in Florida, exploring the ocean. Mr. Flynn said he's well positioned to pursue a career working in a salt water aquarium or, perhaps, performing environmental management.

"I wanted to stay in an area that felt familiar," he said. "I like the small school atmosphere."

Ask undergraduates to name their major, and often the reply comes from the same list of familiar-sounding options. But sometimes the answer is enough to cause you to do a double-take, either because the topic is so unusual or -- in the case of Mr. Flynn -- the location so unexpected.

A student attending Southern Illinois University at Carbondale can do undergraduate as well as master's study in -- we're serious here -- blacksmithing. No, you won't be asked to shoe any horses, said Rick Smith, an associate professor of metalsmithing and blacksmithing who oversees the program.

The major, a part of the school of art and design, teaches such skills as jewelry making and architectural ironwork. It counts among its graduates jewelers and those who do artistic work such as holloware.

"We do get a few farriers who come to us after they've been shoeing horses for a while. They'll come to us to try and expand their capabilities," he said.

Sometimes you can guess by its title what a major involves, like horse science, one of the largest majors offered by the University of Wisconsin River Falls campus and its College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

Others take a bit more explaining.

There's the degree in EcoGastronomy at the University of New Hampshire. The school describes it as the study of art and appreciation of food as related to agriculture and the environment. It is a dual degree, meaning it must be taken with a primary major.

Frostburg State University in Western Maryland offers a major in ethnobotany. Students in the interdisciplinary program will "integrate science and culture as a way of understanding human reliance on plants and the environment," according to the school's Web site.

It says the program prepares graduates to be, among other things, herbalists, environmental consultants and professionals in environmental community health.

And there is the College of the Atlantic in Maine, which offers degrees in a single subject -- human ecology.

Want to do a little advanced study in glass science engineering? Alfred University, a school in upstate New York with an emphasis on glass and ceramics education, says it's one of three places in the world (England and Russia are the others) that offer a doctoral program in the field. It also offers a master's in the subject.

The program's graduates work in academia, national labs and industry, taking on problems in materials science and engineering.

At Kansas State University, students can work toward a bachelor of science degree in bakery science and management. The hands-on study includes work in a pilot-scale bakery, pasta-making laboratory and other facilities to test ingredients, dough and finished products, the school says.

Getting a tan would seem to be practically a requirement for the associate degree program in adventure sports management offered by Garret College, a community college in Western Maryland. Some of the graduates become guides, run their own adventure sports businesses or become outdoor counselors and mentors.

With areas of focus including sea kayaking, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, telemark and cross-country skiing, and business, those in the program are used to getting good-natured jabs, even from faculty on the campus.

"They'll say, 'What are they doing? Just going out and having fun?' It's not like that at all," said Sharon Elsey, a secretary with the program. "These kids are working really hard eight hours a day in the field."

At first glance, it would seem unlikely that a degree program in rail transportation would find its way to Michigan Technological University. After all, says the school, there isn't a railroad within nearly 100 miles of the campus in Houghton, Mich.

But the program, part of the school's department of civil and environmental engineering, is popular. That partly may be because of the required summer trip to Finland, where railroading is a central part of daily life.

Ever spend an afternoon at the bowling alley and come away thinking this could be your calling? Vincennes University in Indiana offers an associate degree in bowling industry management and technology, in which aspects of operating a bowling center are studied, including sales and marketing.


Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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