Fieldwork is an important component of environmental education and research. Every year, the Earth Institute’s Office of Academic and Research Programs provides funding to help underwrite faculty-organized field trips that augment undergraduate and graduate classroom learning experiences. For academic year 2010-2011, the Earth Institute has awarded over $30,000 to nine courses to help expand students’ intellectual horizons through travel outside the classroom.
“As an urban campus, we can’t bring all of the environments we are teaching into the classroom, but we can help faculty to bring students into those environments through the course support program,” explained Louise Rosen, director of the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute.
The travel experiences that the Earth Institute helps to support are much more targeted than traditional school field trips. For the newly-launched Tropical Biology class, taught by Professor Dustin Rubenstein for the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, approximately 18 students will travel to Kenya to gain hands-on experience in ecological research in what Rubenstein calls, “one of the world’s most biologically spectacular settings.” Students will be required to read 65 primary scientific papers, which will serve as the focus of student-led daily presentations during their time in the field.
Twenty students in the class Geological Excursion to Death Valley, which focuses on the geology of Death Valley and the adjacent areas of the California desert, will spend their spring break in Death Valley supported in part by Earth Institute funding. According to Nicholas Christie-Blick, the earth and environmental science professor who teaches the class, “Students can experience how science is done in a field setting—weighing observation against competing hypotheses and learning how to develop scientific interpretation from field observation.” Students from previous years remember this course as one of the highlights of their time at Columbia or Barnard. According to Peri Sasnett, a Columbia undergraduate and self-described budding geologist, “it was a fantastic opportunity to be able to go to such an ideal locale and learn from enthusiastic and expert teachers. The trip solidified my geologic ambitions and sparked a further passion for the subject matter.” The class also provides non-science students a chance to appreciate the value of fieldwork. According to philosophy major Brendan Ballou: “The Death Valley trip made a scientific subject not only interesting in my mind, but important.”
This spring, Professors Matthew Palmer (Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology), Kevin Griffin (Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences) and Paul Olsen (Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences) will travel to Black Rock Forest in Cornwall, New York to offer the 75 students enrolled in Environmental Biology II the opportunity to explore the active forest ecology research station. This field trip will expose students to current research efforts in areas such as forest sustainability, mercury cycling, ant ecology, tree population dynamics and carbon storage. At Black Rock Forest, students will work with researchers from four major New York area institutions: the American Museum of Natural History, the Biodiversity Research Institute, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and the Central Park Conservancy.
During the summer of 2011, with the help of Earth Institute funding, students in the M.A. Program in Climate and Society will have the opportunity to take an internship abroad, working with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world. For the past three years, interns have worked with Red Cross centers abroad as “climate experts” in order to encourage and facilitate the incorporation of climate and weather tools into disaster management strategies. The students work with the Red Cross to teach local staff how to better understand the impacts of climate change and variability, as well as issues in resource management. The architects of the internship regard this experience as “a marvelous opportunity for the students to work through how to communicate what they have learned in the course of the program and to adapt their academic knowledge to local requirements.”