an e-newsletter for students and alumni of saint michael's biology department

Solving Environmental Problems:
A New Interdisciplinary First-Year Seminar

By Mark Tarnacki with contributions from Valerie Banschbach




Note: This story is an excerpt from the "Organic Process" article that originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of the Saint Michael's College Magazine.
Field trip to the Noble Power Windpark in Clinton and Ellenburg, NY, April 2008
In hundreds of small but collectively significant ways, facilities experts, administrators and student/faculty activists are cooperating to instill a greener mindset at Saint Michael’s. An environmental revolution that is sweeping U.S. campuses in response to concern about global climate change and sustainability is subtly but persistently changing daily life at Saint Michael’s.

Expanded sensitivity to environmental issues is showing up in curriculum. A primary example is a new first-year seminar taught by Biology Chair Valerie Banschbach and Business Chair Robert Letovsky. They wanted new students to think hard and practically about the complex ways that academically distinct disciplines merge on the world stage, so they designed and now co-teach an interdisciplinary seminar called “Solving Environmental Problems.”

Built around case studies, science labs, computer work and field trips, the seminar allows students to simulate roles in reality-based scenarios: a Cleveland airport expanding into wetlands; the cleanup of a polluted Chinese river; a race by automobile manufacturers to build the most viable “green”car and negotiation of international trade protocols. In each case, students examine how whole ecosystems can change based on the outcomes that unfold. Big money usually changes hands, and the success or failure of governments and businesses can hinge on the choices made.

“We’re trying to get them to focus on small steps that can be taken to address big problems” said Letovsky, who wrote some of the cases used in the class for his own business classes. Banschbach brings to the course valuable scientific expertise in environmental biology. The seminar represents the first lab science course developed for the First-Year Seminar program at SMC. In one of the laboratory sessions for the course, students ferment ethanol from both corn and sugarcane to better understand the controversy surrounding the production of ethanol for fuel from food crops; the lab work is integrated with a discussion of the economics and policy issues surrounding ethanol. Other laboratory work involves assessing water quality in the stream and ponds that receive runoff from the SMC campus and mining databases on population to analyze the human demographic outlook for different nations. Fieldtrips to a hydroelectric plant, wind farm and wildlife conservation area add to students’ understanding of the interplay between ecology and economics.

Working in groups of three or four, students in the course have also had the task of devising environmental action projects that might be feasible in a country of the group’s choosing, offering a concrete step toward addressing a larger environmental issue. The assignment demands thoughtful research and analysis of demographics, history and culture. At semester’s end, groups presented poster sessions about their proposals to the entire college community. Their proposed projects included an eco-tourism company for rural India, promoting recycling and garbage collection in El Salvador, developing more efficient, less polluting, technology for China’s textile industry, and low-cost cattle fences in Mongolia to stop erosion.

Banschbach knew Letovsky had experimented with other multidisciplinary courses under the title “Sustainable Development” in past years, collaborating with economist Reza Ramazani one year and biologist Doug Facey another. Given those earlier good experiences, Letovsky liked Banschbach’s idea of the environmental seminar with a laboratory component when she raised it. Banschbach taught the course for the first time with one section of 15 students in Fall of 2007. Then for spring semester of 2008, each professor directed a section of about 15 students at the same midday time, mixing them together when it made sense. During the current semester, Fall of 2008, each professor has one section and those sections frequently work together with both Professors offering their different perspectives on the topic of the day’s discussion.

In the Data Mine

One Friday in late March, both sections met together in a recently upgraded Jeanmarie computer lab/lecture hall to conduct a “data-mining” session for the group poster-presentation projects that had been assigned at the semester’s start.

The professors directed groups to the CIA World Fact Book and Population Reference Bureau web sites for demographic data that would help them better understand the countries they had chosen. The professors then circulated to answer specific questions. Colorful graphs on the computer screens told important stories to eyes training to think about how birth and death rates and other statistics reflect and impact natural environments. Handouts led them through data that would be most useful to their projects, with hints on how to best process, understand and present it.

To aid their understanding, Banschbach prompted students to think through ways they might determine the population of Saint Michael’s based on smaller samplings. She drew graphs on the white board to illustrate her points. Then Letovsky discussed problems with door-to-door census-taking such as counting the homeless or accounting for immigrants, citing recent examples from the news.

After logging their data, the two sections split to smaller seminar rooms in St. Edmunds with their individual instructors. To start they briefly processed how their newly found data might link to their projects. Then it was on to the day’s small-group discussion topic: water resources. A power-point presentation and video covered everything from toilet technology to a breakdown of the water needed directly or indirectly to produce different types of food (meat takes a whole lot more when you figure in grain to feed animals and the water it takes to grow that grain).

Later in the semester, guest speaker James O’Brien ’87 shared his experience as a highly successful entrepreneur and consultant on environmental remediation all over the world with his Boston-based company Vertex, which he founded. O’Brien majored in biology and environmental science while at Saint Michael’s.

Banschbach thinks the course is a good way to offer lab science in a format that students find extremely relevant. “Students have commented that the issues we’re dealing with are in the news every day,” she said. Letovsky agrees and adds that the notion of marrying business, public policy and science in a single college course is becoming much more common. “The whole issue of sustainable development and managing for sustainability is becoming a big item in many business schools, which are forced to bring science into the discussion,” he said. Banschbach adds, “I think the students have gotten a lot out of the course. It becomes really clear to the students how scientists work, and how that’s different from how others work to reach decisions like politicians or economists or businesspeople.”


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