ESC Prerequisites & Course Requirements

Start planning early to get the most out of your Ecosystem Science & Conservation program experience. Contact our Admissions Office (prospective students) or see Student Advising (admitted and current students) for more information.


These are the courses you’ll need to complete before you start your degree program. See our Statement of Prerequisite Coursework for details. 

Prerequisites for All MEM Students

  1. Some previous training in the natural sciences or the social sciences related to the student’s area of interest.
  2. At least one semester of college calculus.
  3. A college statistics course that includes descriptive statistics, probability distributions, hypothesis testing, confidence intervals, correlation, simple linear regression, and simple ANOVAs.

Additional Prerequisites for ESC Students

  1. A college course in Principles of Ecology.
  2. Microeconomics is not required for the ESC program but it is required for Resource & Environmental Economics (ENVIRON 520), a course taken by many ESC students.


Based on your interests and career goals, we’ll design an ESC curriculum just for you. You’ll pick a topic area and your advisor will help you determine the technical skills you need to work effectively in that area. This “topic x toolkit” structure guides your program and course selection.

The MEM degree requires a minimum of 48 credit hours. A typical ESC curriculum consists of the following components: 

  • Four courses/tutorials required for all MEM students (6-8 credit hours)
  • Three Core Courses for your selected topic area (9 credit hours minimum)
  • Four Tools Courses for your selected toolkit (12 credit hours minimum)
  • Three Specialized Elective Courses to complement your curriculum (9 credit hours minimum)
  • Master’s Project (4-6 credit hours)
  • Additional electives to meet the 48-credit hour minimum for degree completion 

Requirements for All MEM Students
All MEM students must take the following courses:

  • ENVIRON 896 Professional Communications (1/2 credit hour)
  • ENVIRON 897 Writing a Master’s Project (1/2 credit hour)
  • ENVIRON 898.03 MP Seminar (1 credit hour to be awarded at the end of 4 semesters)
  • ENVIRON 899 Master’s Project (4 to 6 credit hours)
  • Successful completion of online Introductory Master’s Project Tutorials

ESC Core Courses
Each student must select a topic area (also known as a concentration) and take at least three Core Courses that complement the chosen topic area (9 credit hours minimum). Two of these courses must be in the natural sciences and one must be in the social sciences. See example Core Courses.

Concentrations are flexible and subjective; the litmus test for a feasible topic is that it implies a coherent body of knowledge and a reasonably well-bounded arena for practical applications. There are several approaches you can use to select your concentration:

  • Select a focal ecosystem. The Nicholas School has particular expertise in forests, wetlands, rivers and streams, the tropics, and coastal/marine systems. 
  • Select an ecosystem functional unit. These units, such as watersheds or landscapes, are valuable for for integration and planning in many applications today. 
  • Select a scale of conservation activity. The Nicholas School has particular expertise in conservation planning at the level of functional landscapes, reserve systems, focal species, land use, and sustainable development. 

ESC Tools Courses
Your toolkit (also known as your approach) provides the technical skills you’ll need to work effectively in your selected topical area. Each student must complete at least four Tools Courses (12 credit hours minimum). Of these, one must be a statistics course, two must be from a single approach, and one must be from a different but complementary approach. See example Tools Courses

Your advisor can help you build a toolkit suited to your interests and past experience. The litmus test for a toolkit is that it is logically coherent and provides a practical set of skills for applications within that concentration. Example toolkit themes include:

  1. Field methods
  2. Geospatial analyses (geographic information systems, remote sensing, and spatial analysis)
  3. Community-based and participatory approaches (including qualitative analysis of surveys or interviews)
  4. Assessments based on models (statistical or simulation)

Specialized Elective Courses
The purpose of specialized elective courses is to support your Master’s Project and advance your career goals. Each student must select at least three electives (9 credit hours minimum) including one natural science courses, one social science course, and one additional course (unrestricted). These courses should complement the rest of your curriculum and may be selected from the Core Courses and Tools Courses listed below, or from among many others suggested on our Advising page

Master’s Project
Each MEM student must complete a Master’s Project. This project provides an opportunity to integrate your coursework and showcase your ability to use what you have learned at the Nicholas School to design and carry out a well-formulated and defensible analysis of a management-related problem. The Master’s Project may be done individually or in a group and typically culminates in a paper and presentation in the program’s final semester. The Master’s Project fulfills 4-6 credit hours. 

Additional Electives
Students typically must take several additional elective courses to fulfill the minimum 48-credit hour requirement for degree completion. We suggest additional specializing electives, although alternative plans (for example, foreign languages) are acceptable. Several seminar courses are also popular with ESC students.


Courses supporting the ESC program are taught within the Nicholas School, at several other departments at Duke, and at UNC-Chapel Hill and NCSU. This list of example courses is not exhaustive; see our Advising page for an up-do-date list of available courses.

Core Courses
Students choose at least three Core Courses for a total of 9 credit hours minimum. Two should be in the natural sciences (one of which must be in the selected topic area and which together must total 6 credit hours minimum), and one should be in the social sciences.

Natural Sciences
Suggested courses for an ecosystems concentration:

  • ENVIRON 503 Forest Ecosystems (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 517 Tropical Ecology (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 744 Ecology and Conservation of Streams and Rivers (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 812 Wetlands Ecology/Management (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 721L Soil Resources (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 564 Biogeochemistry (3 credit hours)

Suggested courses for a watershed management concentration:

  • ENVIRON 734L Watershed Hydrology (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 621 Water Resources Planning and Management (3 credit hours)
  • EOS 723 Landscape Hydrology (3 credit hours)

Suggested courses for a functional landscapes concentration:

  • ENVIRON 714 Landscape Ecology (3 credit hours)

Suggested courses for a conservation concentration:

  • ENVIRON 703 Conservation Biology; Theory and Practice (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 575L Biodiversity Science and Applications (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 678 Population Ecology for a Changing Planet (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 714 Landscape Ecology (3 credit hours)
  • EVANTH 184 Primate Conservation (3 credit hours - note that undergraduate courses are tallied in “units” and 1 unit=3 credits.)
  • UNC/BIOL 661 Plant Ecology (4 credit hours)
  • UNC/GEOG 444 Landscape Biogeography (3 credit hours)

Social Sciences
Choose a social science course that will provide an overview and context for the concentration. The most appropriate choices include:

  • ENVIRON 520 & 521 Resource and Environmental Economics I & II (3 credit hours total)
  • ENVIRON 577 Environmental Politics (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 835 Environmental Law (3 credit hours)

Tools Courses Students choose at least four Tools Courses for a total of 12 credit hours minimum. Choose one general statistics course (advanced, if introductory level course already met in prerequisites), two courses from a single approach, and one additional course from a different but complementary approach. 

Basic Statistics

  • ENVIRON 710 Applied Data Analysis for Environmental Science (3 credit hours)

Other similar courses (e.g., at NCSU or UNC) may be substituted with the advisor’s consent.

Geospatial Analysis
(Note: While some of these are 4-credit hour courses, only 3 credit hours count per course in meeting the tools distributional requirement):

  • ENVIRON 559 Fundamentals of Geospatial Analysis (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 724 Landscape Analysis and Management (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 761 Geospatial Analysis for Conservation & Mgmt (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 765 Geospatial Analysis for Marine and Coastal Mgmt (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 787 GIS for Water Quality and Quantity Assessment (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 857L Satellite Remote Sensing for Environmental Analysis (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 859 Advanced Geospatial Analysis (3 credit hours)

Community-based, participatory

  • ENVIRON 557 Social Science Surveys (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 556 Environmental Conflict Resolution (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 579S Collective Action (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 590.67 Participatory Methods (2 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 755 Community-based Environmental Management (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 758 Applied Qualitative Research Methods (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 832 Environmental Decision Analysis (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 869: Environmental Law Clinic (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 887A Theory and Methods for Policy Analysis of the Commons (3 credit hours, Beaufort)

Field Ecology

  • ENVIRON 701 Forest Measurements (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 706 Wildlife Surveys (3 credit hours)
  • EVANTH 344L Primate Field Biology (3 credit hours - note that undergraduate courses are tallied in “units” and 1 unit=3 credits.)

Various natural-history courses (ornithology, entomology, etc. at Duke, UNC, and NCSU)


  • ENVIRON 590.38 Species Distribution Modeling
  • ENVIRON 724 Landscape Analysis and Management (4 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 655L/BIOLOGY 655L Bayesian Inference for Environmental Models (3 credit hours)
  • UNC/ENVR 470 Risk Assessment (3 credit hours)
  • ENVIRON 769 Hydrology Modeling (3 credit hours)

Advanced regression or other advanced statistics courses as appropriate.