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Fall semester JBS opens program to wide audience

By Albert Reiss

Section: Features

November 6, 2015

Every year during course selection, we as Brandeisians go through the monotonous process of finding the classes that meet our academic needs. With the intense pressure of fulfilling major requirements, we are often pigeonholed into taking courses that satisfy a major requirement and may not interest us. But not anymore, because this year Brandeis has introduced a Justice Brandeis Semester (JBS) titled Environmental Health and Justice. Unlike traditional classes that rely on a lecture style framework, Environmental Health and Justice uses experiential learning. It facilitates learning about “environmental health issues, particularly how they disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities,” said Jay Feinstein ’17.

JBS are nothing new for Brandeis. However, the Environmental Health and Justice JBS is currently being offered this fall semester, in contrast to most, which are normally offered in the summer. Professor Laura Goldin (ENVS), the head of the program, wanted to provide the opportunity for students who might not be able to afford paying for summer classes. Many students are also unable to participate in summer JBS programs because of other commitments. Annie Fortnow ’17, a current student in the course, said that “Taking the JBS during the school year allows students to pursue internships or other opportunities during the summer.”

Many of the students in the program have a strong interest in environmental issues, but have not had the opportunity to experience these concepts first-hand. Feinstein commented that his enthusiasm for the JBS stems from the fact that “it puts everything that I’ve learned in the classroom throughout college into a real world context. Instead of seeing something on paper, I see it face-on. I think that’s really special.” Environmental issues affect all of us on a daily basis, so any opportunity for students to engage with nature is both valuable and illuminating for those in the program.

Even more than acquiring a greater appreciation for environmental issues, the Environmental Health and Justice JBS offers students a unique learning experience. Fortnow said, “JBS allows students to learn in the field through working with different people dedicated to their topic of interest. It also lets students gain experience that will stick with them through life by way of working directly with outside organizations and conducting a research study.”

Most importantly, the format of the Environmental Health and Justice JBS is uniquely structured so as to maximize students’ studies in the field. “For the first part of the semester, we worked with different community organizations to get a broad sense of the topic … for the second part of the semester, we worked on an environmental health study about a critical issue in nearby communities,” says Fortnow. This unique arrangement makes it easier for students to study the areas of Environmental Health and Justice that pique their interest.

The course features an overnight trip, which for many students is the highlight of the JBS. Through the JBS program, Feinstein was afforded the opportunity to go to Harlan County, Kentucky to see the effects of coal mining techniques, like mountaintop removal mining.

Programs such as the Environmental Health and Justice JBS are few and far between. The true value of the course is measured by the engagement that its distinct format allows. Fortnow said, “I did not expect to become so emotionally invested in environmental justice before embarking on the JBS. I also did not expect to bond so much with my peers.”

Through this program, students enjoy learning about the pivotal role the environment plays in our daily lives. Feinstein said, “I want to do everything that I can to help these communities, and I believe the first step is learning about them.”

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