Education News

Educating the Next Generation of Leaders

2008-12-19

The Earth Institute works to connect leading scientists in sustainable development with Columbia University students through unique educational and research initiatives. From facilitating the development of new classes and degree programs to supporting student research and travel, the Earth Institute and its Office of Academic and Research Programs are taking great strides to foster the development of a new generation of leaders.

Below are a few highlights:

New Courses Developed

This fall, the Earth Institute, working with Columbia faculty and scholars, developed several new courses to be launched in the upcoming spring 2009 semester. “Climate Change in Africa,” taught by Professor Alessandra Giannini, will examine anthropogenic climate change, the potential for adaptation to climate change in Africa, and the environmental policy challenges facing the continent. A new workshop, designed in collaboration with the World Bank’s Climate Change Team, “Creating Strategies to Promote Development and Adaptation in Addressing Climate Change,” will focus on the World Bank’s initiatives dedicated to reducing vulnerability and adapting to climate change.

Undergraduate Special Concentration, Now in Its Second Year

The undergraduate special concentration in sustainable development, now in its second year, allows students to draw upon classes in a wide range of disciplines, including political science, anthropology, environmental science and economics. The program currently has 35 declared students, and more are expected to declare in the spring.

This coming spring, the undergraduate special concentration’s senior students will be enrolled in a client-based workshop to gain practical and professional experience in sustainable development. The workshop, entitled “The Coastal Hazard Mitigation and Biodiversity Conservation Project,” will partner the students with the Nature Conservancy on Long Island. The project will focus on creating tools and managing objectives to support information-based decision making by local governments in response to coastal hazards, sea level rise, and the services provided by coastal ecosystems in general.  The workshop students and the client will work together to help establish better methods of natural resource protection and land use management through a combination of data analysis, mapping technology and public information dissemination.

The workshop has been modeled after the workshop program that has been ongoing for many years in the M.P.A. Program in Environmental Science and Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). As such, it will be a capstone science and policy research experience for the students in that they will be working with an outside agency or “client” and engage in a cutting-edge environmental issue for that client. It is meant to be a different academic experience from the other undergraduate courses that follow the traditional lecture and exam formats. Under the faculty advisor’s guidance, the students will be working directly with the client on real-world science and policy analysis. 

Program director Kevin Griffin is working with Ruth DeFries, Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development, to develop the growing special concentration.  DeFries, Griffin and the students in the special concentration participated in several events this fall where they were able to share their enthusiasm for the program and what they hope to achieve.

M.P.A. in Development Practice Unveiled

The first global initiative to provide rigorous professional training for future leaders in the field of sustainable development was unveiled this fall at Columbia University. The program, which was recommended in a report by the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice, is a new concentration at the School of International and Public Affairs. It sets a new standard for universities hoping to design their own master's degrees along this model. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has committed $15 million to seed the creation of such master's programs in development practice at up to 12 universities worldwide over the next three years. Columbia's program at SIPA—the Master of Public Administration in Development Practice—will begin in the fall of 2009.

Connecting Students to Careers

The Earth Institute collaborates with the departments across the campus to host a variety of events that provide students interested in environmental and sustainable development careers the opportunity to learn more about trends in the field. This fall, environmental and sustainable development career workshops and panels were offered for undergraduate and graduate students from across the University. An open house in October and an all-Ivy career fair in February gave students the chance to learn more about educational opportunities at the Earth Institute and connect with organizations in the environmental field.

Seminars and Lectures

Through brown bag lunches, seminars and panel discussions, the Earth Institute connects its researchers to Columbia students and the public. Earth Institute Director Jeffrey D. Sachs gave his annual student lecture this fall, which updated attendees on the progress and challenges of the Millennium Village project; aspects of the Millennium Villages project—from health to agriculture—were also the focus of a seminar series featuring Earth Institute researchers, Pedro Sánchez and Sonia Ehrlich-Sachs.

This fall, the joint Earth Institute-SIPA practicum on environmental science and policy brought together undergraduates and graduate students for six sessions. (The course is one of the choices for a required practicum for the undergraduate special concentration in sustainable development.)  Guest speakers presented their ongoing research.  The speakers included the executive director of the Earth Institute, director deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), the director of the Urban Design Lab for Sustainable Development, an associate researcher from the Center for Rivers and Estuaries, director of the Tropical Agriculture Program, and the director of the Center for Global Health and Economic Development. The course reflects the multifaceted scope and mission of the Earth Institute at Columbia: to help achieve sustainable development primarily by exploring and expanding the knowledge surrounding environmental issues.

The Sustainable Development Seminar Series gave attendees the opportunity to hear from experts on issues of water supply, energy, climate change and ecosystems.


Research Assistantships

The Earth Institute offers research assistantships to full-time Columbia University and Barnard undergraduate students. Students gain valuable hands-on work experience and the chance to work with experts on cutting-edge research, and the Earth Institute centers and programs they work with benefit from their research assistant’s hard work, enthusiasm and energy. This fall semester, the Earth Institute offered ten positions. 

Marissa Brodney (CC ’09) worked with the Lamont Doherty Earth Institute geochemistry group this semester on a bamboo bicycle project; the project shows people how to use durable and native bamboo to create bicycles that are sustainable and can weather the rough African terrain. The project started in Ghana, and will spread to other areas if it is successful. Ryan Bubinski’s (CC’11) work in the Environmental Health Science Department and focused on gathering and analyizing a database of air pollution data from eight urban African regions in order to help assess health impacts of urban air pollution in African cities and map economic implications and policy options.

Travel Grants

This year the Earth Institute awarded travel grants to 15 student researchers who did overseas research in countries such as Indonesia, Bolivia, Kenya, Vietnam, Argentina, India, Mexico, Nicaragua and Nepal. Sasha Chavkin, a student at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Journalism School, will be traveling to Bolivia to research the connection between the environmental disasters of recent major floods in Santa Cruz and Trinidad and the political instability of the secessionist movements in the region.  As the incidence of natural disasters rises due to global climate change, research like this is increasingly relevant around the world in places that are experiencing the negative impacts of global warming.

Kaitlyn Gaynor (CC ’10) will be conducting research on the “vigilance behavior” of blue monkeys in western Kenya.  This behavior, in which the monkeys pause in their activities to survey the sky or check their surroundings for danger, is not fully understood by scientists.

The travel grant program allows these students and others to develop research skills and experience in field biology and field studies. Additional travel grants have been awarded to fund research on Franciscana river dolphins in Argentina and getting government to balance conservation efforts with the rights of indigenous groups dependant on endangered natural resources in the Cuc Phong National Park in Vietnam.

Field Trip Support

Every year, the Earth Institute provides specific course support funding to allow instructors and professors the opportunity to organize field trips for out-of-the-classroom learning experiences. During the 2008-2009 academic year, the Earth Institute has awarded over $37,000 in funds to twelve courses in eight different departments. One of these is Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Patricia Culligan’s undergraduate course, “Engineering for Developing Countries,” which took a trip to Ghana with her as part of the Council on International Educational Exchange. This year’s trip will offer 20 undergraduate students the opportunity to focus on collecting data on sustainable solid waste management in a neighborhood in Ghana.

Another field trip over spring break will be with Earth and Environmental Science Professor Nicholas Christie-Blick, who will take his undergraduate geology class to California’s Death Valley to gain experience in developing scientific interpretations from actual field observations. The mixed undergraduate and graduate earth and environmental engineering class on alternative energy resources, led by Professor Klaus Lackner and Professor David Walker, will be taking a tour of the waste-to-energy facility at Covanta in Rahway, New Jersey, this year. The focus of the trip is to gain an appreciation of the size and complexity of a small steam-driven generating installation. The class, which includes students from Columbia University’s undergraduate School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as well as the graduate School of International and Public Affairs, will also investigate the ways alternative disposal schemes affect our environment.

 More information about the programs and events highlighted here, as well as information about future opportunities, can be found in the research and education sections of this Web site.