The Environmental Classroom

By Katherine M. Parisky, PhD (Originally published in Brandeis Catalyst)

Brandeis faculty members take the classroom to the waterways, planning boards, and farms to teach students about the state of the environment.

What does it take to be a student environmentalist these days? A lot more than being able to talk about global warming and reducing your carbon footprint. You’ll have to get your hands dirty, inspect a sewage system up close, research historical land records, and even make a case before a local planning board.

For an intense fifteen weeks each semester, students and two or three professors immerse themselves in studying local environmental issues from diverse perspectives—ecological, legal, and historical—and even develop solutions. This year’s class continues the work of last year’s group, learning about the Waltham sewer system, participating in sustainable farming, examining land-use records going back two centuries, developing conservation and stewardship proposals for the town of nearby Weston, presenting their research findings on a land parcel at a town meeting, and studying the history of the Charles River. One day, the group canoes to “class.” On another, they make lunch from vegetables they farm locally.

No ivory tower
The only program of its kind nationwide, the Environmental Field Semester (EFS) is the brainchild of three Brandeis professors: Brian Donahue, an environmental historian; Laura Goldin, director of the environmental studies internship program; and Dan Perlman, conservation biologist and chair of environmental studies.
Perhaps Goldin sums up their collective approach to environmental education best: “There should be no ivory tower during my students’ Brandeis education.”

The immersion program combines experiential learning, cross-disciplinary study, and rigorous intellectual inquiry and debate, with its team problem solving, adventure, and countless bonding opportunities. With hands-on fieldwork, students also benefit from learning the diverse perspectives of farmers, career environmentalists, government, and community leaders.

Perlman says the excitement and intensity of the field semester “are similar to a study-abroad program but with all the benefits and resources of being based here at the university.”

Joshua Daskin ’09, agrees, “The semester has felt like a study abroad program, graduate school, and summer camp all mixed into one. We’ve learned a lot already.”

On the second day of the fall 2007 semester, “the group basically canoed to the classroom,” says Lindsey Sarquilla ’10, who grew up in California. Students paddled to the Newton/Weston town line, then walked to the sixty-two-acre Case Estates in Weston. Harvard University owns the Case Estates but is selling the parcel to Weston for more than $20 million. Beginning on that sunny day, the students, divided into five teams, set out to research and document the land’s history and use. Sarquilla’s “history” team later visited the Arnold Arboretum archives in Boston’s Jamaica Plain area, probing records to uncover the Case Estates’ wide-ranging land-use history.

“We could see in handwritten documents who had actually bought and sold the land and for what use from 1750 to the present,” she says.

A second team researched documentation on the orchards, woods, and vineyards that were heavily sprayed with lead arsenate (an insecticide commonly used against insect pests) in the days when the land was known as Hillcrest Farm. The students researched the health effects and relevant legal issues, expressing concern about the methods of soil sample extraction and testing with a Weston town selectman, who agreed with their recommendations.

Other students began an ecological inventory of the Case Estates, while a stewardship team analyzed the potential future use of the land and its historic buildings. Meanwhile, the planning team outlined for town leaders a conservation plan focusing on educational opportunities for elementary-age students and open space for the town.

Toward the end of the semester, the teams formally presented their findings to a large audience that included Weston residents and the Brandeis community. The students documented their research findings in lengthy research papers as well as in concise glossy summaries that will be posted on the environmental studies program’s Web site.

But learning about land management is just one facet of the immersion experience. Throughout the semester the students regularly visit several Massachusetts farms, including Land’s Sake in Weston, cofounded by Donahue. Community and educational outreach through farming provides many life-changing moments for the students, who begin to appreciate the complex and conflicting pressures of short-term financial stability and long-term environmental responsibility.

Students get their hands dirty
“The farms made the biggest impact on me,” explains Chris Del Vecchio ’09. “I am actually considering a career in education now, though I came to college to study international relations and global studies. There must have been about twelve times this semester that I was learning something new and said ‘I want to do this’ as a career.”

“It’s one thing to just be a visitor, or tourist, on the farm, but my students get their hands dirty,” said Donahue. “They know the land more; all the bits and pieces fit together in a different way.”

Any immersion into environmentalism worth its salt would have to explore that sometimes thorny fact of urban life, sewage systems, and storm-water runoff. Last fall, the EFS students got a crash course in Waltham sewer systems from city and Environmental Protection Agency officials. With a new understanding of how the city manages residue runoff from entering storm drains that in turn feed the Charles River, EFS students set out to help educate the next generation about environmentalism: local first graders.

Though the issues they explore defy simple solutions, the EFS students emerge from the semester with just the kind of understanding, optimism, and commitment that can make real environmental change possible.

Says Del Vecchio, “The eleven of us from the immersion group are so positive about the future; we see what is wrong and we are motivated to go out and fix it.”

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