|Students in the Watershed-based Integrated Field Semester explored environmentally challenged areas like the Chesapeake Bay. Above, students studied the importance of mud and detritus in a marsh ecosystem near Smith Island.
From Carlisle to New Orleans, it’s a roughly 1,120-mile trip—that’s 17 hours if you’re traveling by car. On Oct. 30, 15 environmental science and studies majors and two professors climbed into Dickinson vans and headed to the paradoxically named “Big Easy,” eager to learn new perspectives, see environmental tragedy firsthand and understand why the solutions were so complex.
The three-week trip to Louisiana was the culmination of last fall’s Luce semester, a new, field-based curriculum dedicated to exploring the United States’ most pressing environmental crises, along with their cultural contexts.
Luce-semester students take the equivalent of a four-course load in one intensive course, the Watershed-based Integrated Field Semester, explains Candie Wilderman, professor of environmental science. She was one of last semester’s three instructors for the program, along with Professor of Environmental Studies and Geography Michael Heiman and Lauren Imgrund, director of the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM).
The activities were funded by a five-year, $460,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, an organization that supports environmental and public-policy programs, among other interdisciplinary projects, in higher education.
For Luce students, learning isn’t about lectures—it’s about laboratory work in the classroom, travel and immersion beyond the limestone walls.
“A lot of undergraduates go to class, see pictures and hear lectures, and then they’re supposed to be affected by it all,” says Meghan Klasic ’06. “We got to be in the front-row seats. We had environmental issues thrown right in our faces.”
By the second week of the semester, the Luce students were already off to the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, where they spent two days sampling acid-mine drainage. Then, there was a weeklong trip to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast region, including Smith Island, where they studied coastal erosion and the plight of the local fishermen. They also spent one day each at Shermans Creek in Perry County, York County’s Glatfelter paper mill, and a local poultry facility—all before the sojourn to Louisiana.
The faculty members chose projects on local environmental challenges and those that affected the country’s two largest estuarine systems—the Chesapeake Bay area and the lower Mississippi River basin. Both regions have long been threatened by human activities, which have resulted in a severe loss of biodiversity, commercial fisheries and land—along with prevalent health problems among the local
The disappearance of Louisiana’s wetlands and barrier islands, says Wilderman, was a major focus of the course, as the tragedy has caused the collapse of the state’s fishing industry and a widespread economic crisis. The opportunity to visit southern Louisiana for three weeks, meeting with environmental experts, activists and local residents, was a perfect fulfillment of the course plan.
“We spent a lot of time in the course studying [coastal wetland loss] and learning about proposed solutions,” she says.
The Luce instructors were so excited about the trip that they spent more than a year organizing it. But the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the southern coastline in late August, almost forced the group to cancel its plans.
“Remarkably, we pulled the trip together,” Heiman says. “We eventually managed to get in contact with research centers, activists, resource managers, industry representatives and academics, who gave more than we could imagine.”
The Luce crew arrived in Louisiana on Nov. 3, settling in the Blue Moon Hostel—a guesthouse near downtown Lafayette, La., with live Cajun music on weekends and regular community events.
“It all fit with our goal to be really broad, to not just focus on the science but learn about the people, the blues, the music, the dancing,” says Julia Hyman ’06. “It takes all of these things to fully understand the science.”
“I wanted the students to realize that you can’t just propose solutions without thinking about the people affected,” Heiman says. “After Mississippi, Louisiana is the second-poorest state in the country. The state cannot be asked alone to rebuild itself.”
The students spoke to scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, a group that conducts research and educational programs in marine science; toured toxic-waste sites along the coast; sought opinions from oil-company representatives and the residents who suffered from respiratory problems; and attended the Louisiana Environmental Action Conference—among other pursuits.
The trip proved even more powerful than anticipated: observing 20-foot piles of toxic debris, hopelessly flooded neighborhoods and stranded fishing boats, the Luce students realized just how immediate the region’s crises were—and how previous attention to these crises could have lessened the impact of the hurricane.
“By humans trying to tame the Mississippi River and cutting off the sediment supply, the cycle that builds up the wetlands has disappeared,” explains Wilderman. “This is a reason that the storm surges from hurricanes are so devastating. But the hurricane has raised the general public’s awareness of how important it is to protect the wetlands and barrier islands.”
“What’s sad is that people knew about this before,” Klasic says. “It could have been prevented. We have all the data, but we don’t do anything until [a crisis] happens.”
In fact, environmental experts and activists have been predicting a disaster in Louisiana for years. Last summer, even before Hurricane Katrina, Luce students read Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast, a grim tale of the state’s disappearing wetlands, diminishing culture and devastating floods.
“This book was [the Luce semester’s] summer reading, and then on the first day of classes, Katrina hit,” remembers Heiman. “For the students, it was an unbelievable experience. We read about impending doom, and it was happening in front of our eyes. Sometimes tragedy can turn into valuable learning experiences.”
The Luce students shared their insights with fellow Dickinsonians during the 2006 Public Affairs Symposium series, Living on a Risky Planet, in February—and are still eager to talk about the course with their peers.
Now, another group of students is being introduced to the Luce semester. A new member of the instructional team is Assistant Professor of Anthropology James Ellison, who brings to the program expertise in cultural studies and social-science methodology.
“Through Professor Ellison and working with the American studies, sociology and anthropology departments, we hope to bring more students majoring in those disciplines into the program,” explains Heiman. “This was something originally intended with the grant—that the first year we would have mostly environmental studies and science majors, and in subsequent years the experience would be broadened across the curriculum.”
While the Luce semester grows and changes, the students who first participated in the program know the lessons will remain valuable.
“There’s no exact solution to any one problem, but it’s important to hold on to hope,” says Klasic. “If you’re not a hopeful environmentalist, then you’re not an environmentalist.”
For more information and to read a blog of student experiences on the Luce semester, visit: www.dickinson.edu/departments/envst/lucewebpages/lucehome.html.