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Environmental Studies Field Semester: no mere walk in the park for Brandeis students

By bensacks

Section: Features

March 7, 2008

The trips taken by last semester’s first Environmental Field Semester participants involved visiting a lot of farms and parks, but that’s where the similarities to a first grade field trip end.

Introduced last semester by Professors Laura Goldin, Brian Donahue and Dan Perlman, the Environmental Field Semester was designed to educate students about the environment through hands-on experience with real world issues as opposed to the usual classroom learning style.

Rather than taking four, separate courses in a semester, approximately 12 students are selected to instead participate in one 16-credit intensive field experience. Students learn everything about a particular piece of undeveloped land, from its biology and ecology to its history and previous legal controversies. “It’s somewhat like a study abroad program, except based at Brandeis,” said Professor Laura Goldin of the American Studies department.

For last fall’s course, students were given full access to a piece of land called the Case Estates, a 62 acre area that unlike most land around Boston, is currently covered by trees, wetland and meadows rather than buildings and parking garages. The Case Estates, home to the Arnold Arboretum, was almost sold by Harvard University to a developer in 2006 for $22.5 million before the township of Weston, MA pled that the land should be maintained as an environmental learning center. Harvard agreed to sell the land to Weston instead for the same amount of money and Weston immediately hired consulting firms to assess the value of the land. Among other issues, land inspectors found toxic levels of lead arsenate deposits on the land, which Harvard agreed to clean up. The deal finally went through in 2007.

Enter the Brandeis students of the Environmental Field Semester, who studied the land in almost every imaginable way, from its ecology to its potential as an environmental education center and produced 50 page final reports on recommended courses of action. The class was divided into four groups.

One group researched the Case Estate’s history. Students researched every single transaction for every piece of land on the property, how it was developed, what it was used for, and its status today.

Another group took an ecological inventory of the trees, shrubbery, and other characteristics of the Case Estates, no easy task. “When it came to the project, [the professors] gave us the project and left it completely up to my partner and myself. It wasn’t easy, we had to come up with something meaningful,” explained Zack Slavin ’09.

A third group was committed to determining the most effective method for removing all of the lead arsenate contaminating the Estates, while the final group took information from the other groups, put the Estates into the context of the region’s open space and suggested a course of action for using the land as a conservation center.

“I loved it because it was real, said Courtney Lewis ’10. “We were doing real research on a real project where real people had stakes in it. It had relevance to the world outside of academia.”

Of course, delving into the real world requires real time requirements. “We had field trips like every day, 9-5 two to five days a week. I had to quit Kung Fu because I didn’t know when I’d be on campus,” Lewis said. “It was us putting the project together, Slavin noted. “We had to figure out what was valuable to the land.

Oftentimes, students were working together with the professors as colleagues to learn about a particular aspect of the land. Professors Donahue and Perlman worked with students to create a complex, detailed aerial map of the Estates with a program called Geographic Information System (GIS), software with which one can take existing maps of an area and layer them to combine all available information into one map and analyze it. Integrating 21st century techonology with 19th century-style fieldwork, students and professors were able to learn about geographical changes previously undocumented. “All the students became experts in something. I learned from the students based on their research work,” said Professor Perlman of the Biology Department.

If the students weren’t sure exactly what to do, they could take comfort in knowing that the professors didn’t either, but were dedicated to helping them as much as possible and then some.

“Whenever you’re doing this kind of experiential learning work you’re always taking risks…you don’t know what the answer will be beforehand and that’s the beauty of this. You take each challenge as it comes. It’s the real world,” said Professor Goldin. Slavin agreed. “The professors did a great job considering that it was their first time. They gave us too much work at times, but they realized that and changed it later in the course.” Donahue noted that the course took up much of his life during the fall semester, forcing him to leave other tasks unfinished.

Yet despite the crazy amounts of work that students and professors alike put in, the program was a hit. “Nothing went terribly wrong. The logistics were hard, getting everyone where we needed to go…but we just had a great bunch, everyone came together in really nice ways. They worked more than was necessary to “get things done,” Donahue, of the American Studies department said.

Added Perlman, “We were blessed to have an incredibly good group of students who were amazingly flexible and understanding.” “It was a gem of an experience,” according to Goldin. “You’re doing everything together and spending 24/7 with these students in a way, you really get to know one another.” “In comparison, it makes [a normal] semester just a little boring,” Lewis noted sarcastically. “I can’t believe that I was able to do something so unique…to learn by doing instead of reading.”

So successful was the program that the students were offered jobs on one of the farms that they visited during the experience. Not bad for a program that, as Goldin noted, “has no known precedent.” “It’s a novel program…we’re not aware of any universities that have done this before,” she said. In fact, “two students at Wellesley wanted to apply to the program. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s considerable interest [in the program] as the word gets out.”

The application process is already closed for the Fall 2008 semester but the professors intend for the Environmental Field Semester to become a regular offering. Students are selected based on interest and commitment.

Finding enthusiastic students for programs like this one should be a breeze. As Slavin put it, “the best thing is the total immersion. All you have to do for the whole semester is think about the environment.”

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