News Archive

posted 11/30/05

Environmental Science Students Dive Into Data Collection Experience
Research trips take students out on Hudson

Diane Dittrick, right, a lab director for the course, and a student filter Hudson River water through a plankton net during a field trip for the Introduction to Environmental Science, October 2005. The students will later observe the samples under a microscope.

A pile of garbage from World War II and the Little Red Light House under the George Washington Bridge were two highlights of Hudson River trips made this fall by students in Barnard College's Environmental Science program.

The trips, which allowed students from three Environmental Science classes to gain hands-on research experience on the Hudson, were funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The grant allowed the Environmental Science department to buy advanced instruments for use on the trips, and to purchase ship time aboard the Sea Wolf, a research vessel owned by Stonybrook University in Long Island, N.Y.

The three groups that went on the cruises were the Environmental Measurements class, taught by Timothy Kenna, who also organized and led all the trips; Martin Stute's Environmental Data Analysis class; and Peter Bower's Environmental Science I class.

"The students really seemed engaged," Kenna said. "They collected the samples, and they've built the data set, so they're interested in it, they have ownership of it. It's a great way to teach. You let them learn for themselves and wrestle, and there's a basis for that as an effective way to learn."

Elizabeth Sands, one of Kenna's students, agreed. "It was a great experience, to see first hand how scientists collect data in the field and what sorts of issues they come up against," she said. "It helps to cement abstract concepts when you are involved in the data collection process from step one. I can honestly say that I have learned more chemistry from the real world applications of Tim's class than I ever did in my very theoretical and impractical chemistry labs and classes."

Kenna's class of six students went out on a full-day field sampling trip in September, collecting water, sediment and plankton samples to use throughout the semester to learn about different analytical techniques.

Stute's class, more focused on mapping techniques, collected data on the depth of the Hudson in four different locations. The students in this class, who are learning about Geographical Information Systems — a program that manages geographical information — will use the data to learn how depth, flow dynamics and sediment distribution relate to each other.  

And Bower's introductory class, divided into eight sections, went on cruises in mid-October, and observed the tide, current conditions and weather, and sampled the Hudson for conductivity, temperature and depth. They also caught marine organisms, including fish, crabs, eels and plankton in an otter net, and examined them on board.

Kenna said the NSF grant is for two years, and Barnard College has agreed to provide money for three years following that. As part of the grant requirements, the classes need to undergo an assessment both at the beginning and end of the class. Ryan Kelsey, Associate Director of Education & Research at the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, has been conducting assessments of the classes and the use of the research trips by talking to students, and encouraging them to keep journals of their experiences. Final evaluations will be done at the end of the semester.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit www.earth.columbia.edu.