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Prof. Stephanie Pfirman

New Hudson River Ecology Course Piloted by 14 Universities
Barnard College is Leader

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Although many New Yorkers’ only hands-on experience with the Hudson River has been on a Circle Line cruise, all that will change for a lucky group of college students if some visionary educators realize their dream. This summer, an interdisciplinary team of 36 professors and researchers from 14 New York State colleges and universities piloted a five week summer field study course on the Hudson for rising college juniors using a curriculum that combines ecology, geology, art history, political science, economics, archeology, anthropology, and more.

River Summer 2005, made possible by a $76,000 grant from the Teagle Foundation, was not for those craving anonymity or four star lodgings. Each week, a revolving team of eight educators lived, studied, and taught elbow-to-elbow aboard the research vessel Seawolf as it made its way from the Upper Hudson to Manhattan and ultimately completed its journey in the Adirondacks, for a total of five weekly teaching modules. When replicated for students, possibly as early as Summer ’06, such a close-knit teaching and learning space will be “a good thing… It disconnects them from the world that they’re used to and makes them cohesive as a group,” explains Jeff Miller, Professor of Environmental Law at Pace Law School and participant in the Manhattan River Summer module.

River Summer will attempt to imbue students with an interest in preserving the Hudson as a natural resource and a cultural environment. According to co-chair Stephanie Pfirman, professor and chair of the Environmental Science Department at Barnard College, the future of the Hudson as a working river lies in “finding a balance between development and the environment.” Ultimately, Pfirman and her colleagues hope to create more aware global citizens while encouraging greater numbers of young people to pursue careers in environmental science. “Research shows that when you learn about where you live and work, it really promotes a sense of civic responsibility and engagement,” notes Pfirman, a geologist whose high school field experience on the Hudson piqued her interest in a model “where you teach and learn in your own back yard.”

Key to an understanding of the Hudson River and its complexity is River Summer’s inter-disciplinary approach to teaching and learning. Professors were encouraged not just to lecture at their colleagues, but to interact and learn from each other’s expertise. “All along our journey, people were saying, ‘I see how what you do relates to what I do’ and making a connection,” says Tim Kenna, Director of River Summer and Associate Research Scientist of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades. “We’re all looking at the river but many of us are looking at it through very different lenses…The goal is to get someone to look through your lens and for you to look through theirs.” The field geologist and art historian found such a synergy in Kaaterskill Cove in the Catskills. The art historian was fascinated to learn about the underlying structure and history of the local bedrock, while the geologist participated a sketching exercise on the exact perch where Hudson River painters developed many of their masterpieces. And Ted Eismeier, Professor of Political Science at Hamilton College, who participated in three of the five pilot modules, hopes to engage his colleagues and students in a passion for the politics of the Hudson River. His fundamental research question is, “How do we accomplish transformation of the Hudson from an industrial river to a post-industrial river while revitalizing cities like Poughkeepsie that haven’t benefited too much from the post-industrial era?”

Just as the Hudson River can be viewed through multiple lenses, River Summer seeks to be more than an interactive learning laboratory and actually to model best practice in pedagogy. According to Lisa Son, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Barnard College, who is in charge of the evaluative component of the project, teaching students to become active learners, or “metacognitive learners” in the jargon of the psychologist, is yet another goal of this project. “In the classroom, students are generally passive,” remarks Son. “Here, they become active learners, taking control of their own learning.”

So what’s next for River Summer? Following detailed oral and written feedback by participants in each of the five modules, the researchers hope to iron out any logistical and instructional snafus and design a five-week summer course for one or more groups of 16 rising college juniors. The course would be offered to students from the 36 affiliated members of the new Environmental Consortium of Hudson Valley Colleges and Universities (ECHVCU), perhaps as early as Summer 2006. Due to limited room on the Seawolf and the desire to provide the experience to as many deserving students as possible, participants would alternate between the ship and land but would travel and study together. The chairs are seeking additional grant monies to provide fellowships so that the program is all-inclusive.

And long term? “We’d like to gear this up so that it’s running every summer and we have lots of faculty who are participating in it,” says Pfirman. “After that, it really has potential for implementation in other places. It doesn’t have to be just on a river.”#



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