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Field Trip Courses

The Environmental Studies Program (ENST) regularly offers field trip courses that focus on a particular locale and/or environmental issue to study the various ways in which biological, chemical, geological, and human factors interact. These interactions are observed first-hand during a week-long field trip led by the course instructors. Funded by a generous endowment from a Vassar alumna, these courses are typically taught during the spring semester.

Recent Examples of Field Trip Courses

ENST 254:  Environmental Science in the Field: Renewable Energy Transitions in Germany (Spring 2018)

Renewable energy systems are central to reducing climate change, as outlined in contributions to the Paris climate agreement of 2015. Renewable energy systems are also a central theme in environmental science because they integrate environmental resources, environmental quality, technology, and environmental policy. Understanding how these systems function and how they are implemented is of value to students of environmental studies and environmental science. While innovation is widespread in the United States, Germany is the global leader in implementation of renewables, including Energiewende policies in recent years. Learning about renewable systems on site, in a place where the whole ecosystem of renewable production is taken seriously, can help students understand these systems in a holistic way. In this course we explore energy systems (technology, environmental considerations, physics of energy capture) and implementation (geographic distribution, environmental conditions, incentives and policies) of renewable energy in Germany. Themes include the geography of energy production, transition theory, the physics of energy capture and conversion, and environmental factors in siting facilities. Field experiences will include basic physics experiments, and visits to production sites, and visits with researchers, with regulators.  Ms. Cunningham, Ms. Magnes.

ENST 254: A Study of Ice and Fire - Iceland (Spring 2017)

Located at the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a geological hot spot astride the mid-Atlantic tectonic spreading ridge and experiences frequent volcanic eruptions. Blessed with abundant geothermal energy as well as hydropower from glacial rivers, it offers a great opportunity to study alternative energy resources. At the same time, the island nation struggles with soil erosion, invasive plant species, sustainable management of fisheries, growth of the aluminum smelting industry, and an influx of tourists. It is also affected by global climate change, which is having a disproportionate impact on sensitive Arctic ecosystems.  Ms. Menking, Mr. Schlessman.

ENST 254: Honey (Spring 2015)

The environment consists of complex and often elegant interactions between various constituents so that an interdisciplinary approach is required to understand how human interactions may affect it. In this course, we study a variety of aspects of a specific environment by considering how biological, chemical, geological, and human factors interact. We observe these interactions first hand during a weeklong field trip. This course on honey explores the underlying economic, social and political manifestations of honey in terms of honey and honey bees place in the food system as well the chemistry of honey to examine issues related to pollution, hive collapse syndrome and the future of bees in the ecosystem. Weekly exercises will introduce techniques in honey research in literature, field and in the lab. Our research field trips include to the New York City, the Hudson Valley and during the Spring Break, to Florida.  Ms. Batur, Mr. Belli.

ENST 254: Global Decline of Coral Reef Ecosystems (Spring 2010)

Coral reefs are often called the rainforests of the ocean.  They provide a variety of services from nurseries for offshore fisheries to buffers against storms and tsunamis.   These unique ecosystems are currently suffering massive declines due to environmental stressors such as elevated seawater temperature, extreme weather and oceanographic events, and exposure to human activity.  This course explores the underlying biology, geology, and oceanography of the coral reef ecosystem, both in the lab and in the field.  Weekly exercises will introduce techniques in coral research along with methods to study the effects of environmental degradation.  A research field trip during the Spring Break will be conducted at the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences.  Participants in this class must be comfortable living in tropical field conditions (wet, salty, crowded), and be confident swimmers. Ms. Schwarz, Mr. McAdoo

ENST 254: Dry: Water, Development, and Aridity in the American Southwest. (Spring 2009)

Dry, an issue especially important in an era of global warming, when arid lands are expanding in size and the question of how human beings can live with dry conditions becomes more pressing. In this course, we look at the arid lands of the American Southwest, where for the past two centuries population growth, economic productivity, especially agriculture, and urban concentrations have all required controlling, transporting, and utilizing water--especially the Colorado River--on a vast scale, at great expense, and with much political conflict. As the Colorado’s resources are reaching their limits, the American Southwest faces a future of difficult choices. Course readings focus on the ecology and hydrology of the Colorado River basin, with particular focus on human intrusions and settlements. The required week-long field trip during Spring Break visits people and places that help us understand the complexity of the issues surrounding water use in the desert Southwest. Mr. Stillman, Mr. Walker.

ENST 260: Grasslands: Human History and Ecology of the American Plains (Spring 2007)

To early newcomers from the East, the Great Plains looked like empty space, a "Great American Desert" devoid of life. Our class explores the roots of such misconceptions and their often catastrophic legacy for farmers and ranchers on the Plains, as well as for native peoples. We study the region's biodiversity, the ecological dynamics involved in grassland conservation, and visions of a different future for this critical place in the American heartland. The course includes a nine-day trip over Spring Break to study the Plains, including visits to bison re-introduction sites and to the Land Institute in Kansas, which is researching perennial grain polyculture, and observation of migrating shorebirds at Cheyenne Bottoms and sandhill cranes along the Platte. The purpose of this course is to examine in depth an issue, problem, or set of issues and problems in environmental studies, to explore the various ways in which environmental issues are embedded in multiple contexts and may be understood from multiple perspectives. Ms. Edwards, Ms. Ronsheim.

ENST 254: Environmental Science in the Field - Southern Louisiana (Fall 2006)

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated southern Louisiana in 2005.  While these were natural events, the amount of destruction they caused was also related to human activities.  Decades of cypress logging, fur trapping, and oil and gas drilling have contributed to coastal erosion, turning hurricane-retarding marshlands into open water.  In addition, dams on the Mississippi and its tributaries have starved the coast of marsh-building sediment, and groundwater withdrawals have led to land subsidence that promotes flooding.  Loss of coastal land is likely to accelerate as global warming promotes sea level rise.  This course explores the ways environmental science helps us to interpret these problems and to seek solutions in restoring Louisiana's coastal environment. The course will meet twice a week for the first half of the semester and will be followed by a nine-day field trip to Louisiana (including New Orleans) over October Break.  Upon returning to New York, we will have a couple more class periods to wrap up the course.  Ms. Cunningham, Ms. Menking