Environmental studies: The real world through many lenses

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 (see box above). 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.

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