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A learning environment

Barry McNamara
Professor Tim Tibbetts and a student examine a bee hive at the LeSuer Nature Preserve.
Coordinated by the biology department, Monmouth College’s environmental science program has evolved into a full-fledged, interdisciplinary major designed to give students a broad yet firm foundation that can be used as a springboard into graduate school or employment. That broad foundation is essential, as it reflects the wide variety of career options – from environmental chemistry to wildlife management to environmental law.

Each year, members of the college’s entering class cite the environmental science major as a deciding factor for choosing Monmouth. Such was the case with Elaine Durr ’04, who is currently the director of sustainability at Elon University in Elon, N.C.

“I knew I wanted to major in environmental science when I was a senior (at Illini Bluffs High School),” she said. “I’ve always had an appreciation for the environment, and I knew I wanted to be a part of preserving it for future generations. Monmouth College having an actual major in environmental science played a large role in my decision to attend.”

Both biology professor Ken Cramer, who coordinates the program, and his department colleague, Kevin Baldwin, believe it is important for students to attempt to define their interests in the environment as early as possible.

“What is it they hope to do?” asked Cramer, before reeling off such possibilities as environmental monitoring, toxicology, engineering, natural resource management, advocacy, law and politics. “Do they hope to go directly into employment, or will they first attend graduate school?”

Depending on the students’ specific interests, they can appropriately plan their elective course work and plan to do research and/or internships along the lines of their interests.

“The research project I conducted at Monmouth was a very memorable and valuable experience,” said Durr, who focused on pesticides and nutrients in Monmouth’s city water supply.

The project was a demanding one, taking more than 20 hours of Durr’s time during sampling weeks, but she said it was worthwhile.

“Looking back on it now, I am extremely glad I conducted the study. It taught me a great deal about research methods, chemistry and project and data management, among other things.”

Cramer’s arrival on campus in 1993 coincided with the college’s decision to replace its environmental studies major with one in environmental science.

“My predecessor in biology decided to make it stronger in the science component,” he explained. “A few years ago, we did a revision and a tweaking of the major to provide separate tracks in environmental policy and environmental science.”

An attractive element of the program is its interdisciplinary nature, which requires students to take courses in at least eight different departments. Several of the courses, including Hydrogeology, Environmental Economics and Environmental Politics, were designed specifically for the program. Other course work includes courses such as Ecology, Calculus, Statistics, Analytical Chemistry, Population and Argumentation. Additionally, all majors are required to complete an independent research project.

Because the program is interdisciplinary, it makes use of classrooms, laboratories and learning spaces throughout the campus. However, two labs in the Haldeman-Thiessen Science Center have been designated specifically as environmental science rooms. One of the labs is reserved for the independent projects.

The sciences at Monmouth have traditionally involved intensive hands-on laboratory work in the natural sciences, which the college is well equipped to support, thanks to such off-campus locations as the Educational Garden, the LeSuer Nature Preserve and the Ecological Field Station.

On the eastern border of campus, just past the college’s Founders Village apartments, a garden with a variety of vegetables and other plants has been installed. The plot also includes a grape arbor, an orchard and a beehive.

Located just six blocks from the north end of campus, the nature preserve is used for field studies, course projects and senior research. Several acres are being restored to native prairie and a large stream bisects the area. Riparian and flood plain forest also offer abundant opportunities for research in the expanding field of ecological restoration.

The Ecological Field Station is located on the banks of the Mississippi River, about 30 minutes from campus. Two boats, both with 20-hp motors, are stored at the station for use in work on the Mississippi or on local lakes.

“The location of the station gives us easy access to the river and to a variety of terrestrial environments, including deciduous forest and conifer plantations,” said Cramer. “A variety of field sampling and collecting gear is stored at the station, including live-capture traps for birds and mammals and new instrumentation for water analysis.”

The college also maintains Hamilton’s Pond, a small, freshwater pond across the street from the campus, and Spring Grove Prairie, a native prairie plot for field projects.

Students looking to get WAY off-campus can participate in two programs offered by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. One is Tropical Field Research, a semester-long program in Costa Rica, and a second ACM program related to environmental science has just been added. Cramer has been part of the organization of the new program in Brazil, which will begin this fall.

Additionally, said Cramer, numerous work or research internships involving environmental problems are available on a competitive basis. There are also occasional weekend trips to such places as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.

After graduating from Monmouth, Durr earned a master’s degree in earth and environmental resources management from the School of the Environment at the University of South Carolina. While attending graduate school, she became a LEED-accredited professional.

“LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an internationally recognized benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings,” she said. “I worked in the sustainable design and construction industry before taking my current position at Elon.”

At Elon, Durr proposes and prioritizes environmental projects to create a unified strategy to move the university toward sustainability in the most efficient and effective manner.

“This involves supporting and encouraging existing programs, researching proposed projects and advising on policies within the area of sustainability,” said Durr, who is also charged with raising awareness of sustainability issues and coordinating and tracking the university’s carbon reduction and sustainability plans.

The aim of Monmouth College’s environmental science major is to give students a solid foundation in the natural sciences – including mathematics – and social sciences that pertain to environmental issues and problems.

“If you are passionate about the environment and want to be a part of solving our society’s environmental challenges, I would encourage you to consider a major in environmental science,” said Durr. “The interdisciplinary nature of the major and its flexibility will serve you well, whether you are interested in a science- or policy-based career.”

“Although not all students choosing to major in environmental science are necessarily interested in pursuing scientific careers, all should have a firm foundation in the sciences that pertain to environmental concerns,” advises Cramer. “They can thus be more effective lawyers, politicians or advocates than if they lacked training in the sciences. And they will be able to talk with biologists, chemists and geologists more intelligently than those who do not have a firm grounding in these areas.”

For those who do go into science-oriented careers related to the environment, the perspective and context provided by the social science courses in the major are a necessity.

“The social implications of environmental issues cannot be ignored, and the solutions to environmental problems are increasingly economically and politically charged,” said Cramer.