Environmental studies: The real world through many lenses

Knee deep in the real world

What may be the most “liberal arts” program on campus is also the one most likely to be called by the wrong name.

It’s not “environmental science.” It’s environmental studies (ES). And few programs match its academic scope: the social sciences, including public policy; the humanities, including film studies; and, yes, the natural sciences.

If you want to be an ES major, you’ll have to dive into them all, even the ones you’re not good at or interested in — yet. That’s because the interdisciplinary approach is “the hallmark of our department,” said Prof. John Commito. And it has been since the beginning. As the 1990s began, rising interest prompted the College to establish an ES program and offer a minor. Many students went further, creating individual majors through the Interdisciplinary Studies Program. By 1995, a regular ES major was in place. As the new century dawned, ES graduated to full departmental status.

Some 20 years after the initial ES minor, interest continues to grow. In fact, ES’s popularity is also a predicament, with the equivalent of less than six fulltime faculty serving the eighth-largest major on campus. ES also includes what Prof. Sarah Principato called “a tremendous number of service courses for non-majors. At least a fourth of the students on campus take an ES course.”

Despite such challenges, an outside review of the department by faculty from other top liberal arts colleges lauded what Principato called a remarkably “harmonious atmosphere for students.” Students and profs often lunch together in the ES office area. Moreover, Commito said, “they’ve been to our homes. We’ve been to theirs. We know their parents, boyfriends, girlfriends. We’ve been to their weddings.”

Research is central

But don’t mistake the collegiality for a lack of rigor: Principato noted that the reviewers praised the department as “one of the best examples of the teacher-scholar model.” The research experience is at the center of it all, Commito said. “I’ve published lots of papers with students, and presented together at conferences. We all have. We’ve blurred the line between teaching and research. It’s a continuum.”

And the continuum extends far beyond the lab. Field trips and longer off-campus research stays reflect the breadth of the faculty’s expertise.

Principato, a geologist, has partnered with students for years to probe the glacial history of Iceland. She also takes students on field trips around Pennsylvania, studying how geology influenced the Civil War and how anthracite strip-mining affected northeast Pennsylvania.

Commito and his students plunge into marine ecosystems from Maine to North Carolina. They also study tombstones in the local Evergreen Cemetery to understand life expectancies over the centuries. Commito, an authority on mussels and seafloor ecology, has earned Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year honors in both Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Prof. Monica Ogra takes classes into Washington, D.C. to study sustainable development and the roles of governmental agencies and NGOs. Her students investigate micro-finance as an anti-poverty tool by becoming lenders themselves. “Every class has experiential content that gets us out of the classroom,” said Ogra, who studies links between the environment, development, wildlife conservation, and gender issues. With a doctorate in geography and master’s in cultural anthropology, she also teaches in the Globalization Studies Program.

Prof. Salma Monani, who studies how cultural media shape and are shaped by environmental issues, took students to the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival in Ithaca, N.Y. This semester, her film class is going to D.C. to visit past ES major and award-winning filmmaker Brian Kelly ’10. In Monani’s food seminars, students connect with local social service agencies to learn about farming and food justice issues. One of her courses is Environmental Writing.

Prof. Rutherford “Rud” Platt and his students use satellite imagery to assess environmental changes from urbanization, bark-beetle infestations, floods, and deforestation. Platt’s students are working with College officials to develop a detailed campus sustainability plan. His current National Science Foundation sponsored work focuses on modeling wildfire hazard and land use change in the western U.S.

Prof. Randy Wilson taught last year in Great Britain, including a seminar focused on London’s efforts to become a sustainable city. He takes students to D.C. to interact with policymakers, and to Colorado, where he studies public land management and sustainable rural development. His seminar on sustainable communities has won honors from Adams County and the State of Pennsylvania. He co-chairs the campus Sustainability Committee and advises the Painted Turtle Farm, the student-run organic garden. This year, a Fulbright Fellowship takes him to Austria’s University of Vienna.

The faculty’s wide reach enables the department to offer both a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science, which focus different lenses on the intertwining of culture, politics, and science that is environmental studies.

Real-world issues

“It’s really a broad posture on life,” Commito said. “We have one of the highest percentages on campus of study abroad. We have past majors in law school and graduate programs in many different disciplines, like urban planning, film, chemical oceanography, and civil engineering. Our students are really a special breed. They have to take on all three areas – social sciences, sciences, and the humanities. They can’t just play to their strengths. They’re forced to take courses in areas where they’re weak and develop strengths they didn’t know they had.”

“Our students are really able to make the connection to real world issues,” Monani said, pointing to numerous winners of Fulbright fellowships, Goldwater scholarships, and other honors, and to the great work of alumni and current students.

ES alums make it clear that they would not be where they are today without their Gettysburg College mentors.

Julie Markus ’09, one of three Goldwater Scholars produced by the department, earned her master’s in geology at Ohio State University, and plans a career in glaciology or hydrology. “After taking Sarah Principato’s Earth System Science class, I became fascinated with polar studies and glaciology, which I ultimately focused on in my graduate studies,” said Markus, an ES major and Spanish minor. “I learned from research experiences and ES class field trips that I loved field work. I think that there is no substitute for going out and seeing objects and concepts you are learning about in the class room and participating in hands-on research.”

Goldwater Scholar Natasha Gownaris ’09, an ES and biology double major, did undergraduate thesis research on mussel beds in Maine with Commito as her advisor. “He epitomizes the idea of being a mentor rather than just an advisor,” said Gownaris, a Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “There are times I will call him for advice on my graduate work,” which examines the effects of climate change and hydroelectric power development on fish in Lake Turkana, Kenya.

Brittany Jones ’12 is the third Goldwater Scholar. The ES major and biology minor, who traveled to Iceland and Maine with ES faculty, also received the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship and plans graduate study in marine ecology.

“I don’t know of any other major that offered its students so many courses with field trip and fieldwork opportunities,” said Kristin Igusky Meek ’06, an ES major and biology minor who completed graduate work at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “One of the best experiences of my college career was traveling Iceland with Sarah Principato and Tess Barton ’06,“ said Meek, who works at the World Resources Institute to help states and federal agencies develop greenhouse gas reduction programs. “The Iceland trip solidified my decision to pursue a career focusing on climate change issues.”

“Faculty emphasized connections between class topics and the real world by organizing multiple field trips to places such as the EPA, a state forest, or a dairy farm focused on creating energy with methane,” said Ben Grupe ‘03, an ES and biology double major who is working on his Ph.D. in oceanography at UC San Diego. “The ES program is well designed to produce graduates with a strong environmental ethic, a respect for different points of view, and a drive to improve the world.”

Story by Jim Hale and Nikki Rhoads
Contact: Nikki Rhoads, assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803

Posted: Fri, 20 Jan 2012

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