Education News

Workshop in Sustainable Development

2009-03-16

1974 - 1999 Flax Pond Digital (GIS) Comparison: A gross trends analysis was done on Flax Pond revealing that between 1974 and 1999 a total of 15 acres of vegetated tidal wetlands were lost.

With the spring semester almost halfway through, the students enrolled in the Sustainable Development Workshop have been very involved in their research. Thus far, they have completed specialized wetlands trends-assessment GIS mapping training and conducted their first site visit to a salt marsh on Long Island with the Nature Conservancy to acquire field training and collect data for their project. This workshop is the first to be offered for undergraduate students concentrating in the Special Concentration in Sustainable Development and is modeled after many of the workshop formats offered in the M.P.A. Program in Environmental Science and Policy within the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

This 4-point capstone science and policy research workshop will require students to undertake an analytic project for the real-world client, the Nature Conservancy on Long Island (TNC). Professor Stuart Gaffin, faculty advisor for the workshop, believes that “giving the students this opportunity to work closely with outside 'clients' requires them to develop their professionalism and self management skills." Other agencies participating in this project include the Pace Land Use Law Center, NOAA Coastal Services Center and the Center for Climate systems research (CCSR) at Columbia University.

According to Sarah Newkirk, the coastal project director for the Conservancy, “The Nature Conservancy works to protect salt marsh on Long Island for both its ecological value and its value to human communities. Sea level rise, combined with intense nearshore development, has the potential to significantly reduce the acreage of salt marsh on Long Island, thereby greatly reducing these benefits.”  The Columbia Center for Climate Systems Research has been working with the Conservancy on developing a decision support tool to help local land use and natural resource managers integrate sea level rise and coastal hazard projections into their planning and protection activities. 

The project is known as the Coastal Resilience project. Through collecting datasets that reflect manmade and natural conditions of the current environment, the Conservancy is able to show future threats to these conditions by using SLR projections. “The biggest obstacle that we've encountered so far,” Newkirk explains, “is that we don't have a dataset reflecting the current status of salt marshes and the trends in their size and location over the last few decades.” In fact, the last comprehensive inventory of tidal wetlands in New York State was completed in 1974.

The student workshop will engage in helping advance this project in a number of ways. “The Sustainable Development Workshop is coming to our rescue in this regard,” Newkirk says.  The students are evaluating the current status and trends of marshes by using the Conservancy’s recent IR aerial imagery of marshes along the south shore.  “At the end of the semester,” Newkirk explains, “we will have a much clearer picture of where our salt marshes are and whether we've been losing acreage to sea level rise and other factors since 1974.”  The Conservancy will use these findings to show which resources are at risk and the threat posed by sea level rise.  With TNC as their client, students will assist in the development of a spatial database and interactive map server that provides decision support for jointly meeting biodiversity and coastal hazard mitigation objectives—a case study of these management tools.

Feedback from the students enrolled in the course has been very positive according to Professor Kevin Griffin, interim director of the Special Concentration in Sustainable Development. “The students are enjoying the structure of the workshop, as it is more similar to a job than a traditional course, which is a nice change of pace. They also are happy to have the opportunity to gain actual experience that they can apply to their careers after they graduate.”

Besides fulfilling the capstone requirement in the Special Concentration in Sustainable Development, there are many rewards for participating in such a workshop. Specifically, students will gain experience in generating predications of sea level rise and hazards, develop visualization tools for decision makers, and promote incentives for landowners to pursue conservation options that accommodate sea level rise.

Succeeding groups of undergraduate students concentrating in sustainable development will have similar opportunities to gain these skills and assist local environmental organizations. The students will carry their experiences and skills with them after graduation, perhaps even into fields motivated by their involvement with the client organization. The workshop represents another development in Columbia University’s commitment to preparing students for making a positive impact on the environment and sustainable development.