From Bay to Bayou
Luce Semester marks its fifth year
by Michelle Simmons
January 26, 2010
The 2009 Luce semester students engage in some “marsh mucking” on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, a rite of passage for all Luce groups. Adam Wickline ’06 (front, center), a program alum and Chesapeake Bay Foundation educator, joins in.
In December, students from the fourth semester of one of Dickinson’s most innovative environmental-education programs presented their community-based research findings to the college community. It would be the final one of its kind—at least as a Henry Luce Foundation program.
The Watershed-Based Integrated Field Semester, coined the Luce Semester because of its funding from the foundation’s five-year, $460,000 grant, immersed 69 environmental-studies students in the program (and many waterways). The first year focused on developing the curriculum: students would research watershed ecosystems and communities through classroom activities, independent study, community-based fieldwork and immersion experiences in the Chesapeake Bay and the lower Mississippi River Basin.
These two large watersheds were ideal settings for the program’s focus, said Michael Heiman, professor of environmental studies and geography. Both regions have suffered from a combination of overfishing, overdevelopment, industrialization and land loss—resulting in lower quality of life for residents as well as significant health concerns.
“The program was concerned with not just science but social science,” explained Heiman. “Our two themes were that everybody we meet is a textbook and it is a landscape of people. The students have learned the most by spending extended time with community members, agency personnel and scientists—the leading scientists in the field.”
Heiman and Candie Wilderman, professor of environmental science, were the coordinators and lead faculty, but nearly a dozen faculty and staff from the environmental-studies, sociology, history and anthropology departments and the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM) contributed to the courses.
Regular speakers included Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch and Goldman Environmental Prize recipient; Wilma Subra, a MacArthur Fellow, chemist and former scientist for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and Willie Fontenot, formerly with the Louisiana state attorney general’s office and a grassroots activist.
The semester included extended trips, from two days of paddling on the Susquehanna River to a week spent exploring the Chesapeake Bay and three weeks in the Mississippi Basin. Traveling more than 5,000 meandering miles, students saw firsthand the effects of mountaintop removal on rivers, planted marsh grass on an island preserve, toured chemical plants and learned about post-Katrina rebuilding issues from residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
Students chronicled their journey in a daily blog, which explored both the watersheds’ natural and cultural histories—from Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and chanteys to Cajun gumbo and the Delta blues. A key component of the semester, learning about the regions’ rich histories, helped students better understand how culture and environment are linked.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in New Orleans. In 2005, the first group toured the city just two months after Hurricane Katrina. For a story in the spring 2006 issue of Dickinson Magazine, Meghan Klasic ’06 noted, “A lot of undergraduates go to class, see pictures and hear lectures, and then they’re supposed to be affected by it all. We had front-row seats. The environmental issues were thrown right in our faces.” Klasic now works as a program analyst for the EPA.
The 2009 group met Robert Green from the Lower Ninth Ward who had lost his mother and granddaughter in the hurricane. He now lives in a house built by Make It Right, a nonprofit organization formed in the wake of Katrina. Despite his devastating losses, he remains optimistic. “He was the most inspiring person we talked to the whole time we were there,” said Anna Farb ’12 of Columbia, Md.
Reflecting on the course, Ashley Arayas ’11 of Sudbury, Mass., added, “When I went home for Thanksgiving break, one of the things that really struck me was how comprehensive my understanding of systems in general had become over the semester—how interdisciplinary it was, with all the facets coming together into [an] understanding of different ecosystems, different groups of people.”
Wilderman and Heiman are considering future possibilities for the program. “We’ve put so much into developing relationships over the years,” Wilderman said. “We’d like to build on this and offer it again.”
She anticipates working with Dickinson’s Community Studies Center to present the course as a Mosaic every few years. “There’s plenty of demand,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be based in environmental studies. It could be geology, anthropology. Our hope would be to engage faculty from a variety of disciplines.”
Learn more about the Luce Semester.
Learn more about the Luce Semester blog.