Every year since 1983, a group of environmental studies majors traveled to southern Africa to learn about interactions between natural resources and the people who use them.
When the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily put the brakes on the immersive experience that such foreign study programs offer, the course instructors sought to sustain the tradition of experiential learning. Led by Douglas Bolger, professor and chair of environmental studies, they debuted a local version of the course in fall 2021: the New England Domestic Study Program.
“The new program has similar themes to our Africa program. It’s very much based around community-based natural resource management and how people manage their use of the environment,” says Bolger.
Last fall, the program focused on fisheries and forestry. Students traveled along the coast of Maine and to coastal islands to interact with communities that manage a diversity of fisheries—lobstering, shellfish, aquaculture, and more.
Just as the leaves began to turn, they headed to the woods, learning about different stakeholders who manage forest areas in northern Maine before diving deep into hands-on research in ecosystem ecology at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
“The value of being in the area you’re studying is indescribable; you’re constantly learning,” says Ashley Laveriano ’24, an environmental studies major. Experiencing Hubbard Brook guided by experts allowed her to develop a greater sense of nature and understand the forest as a living history full of stories, she says.
Here, the students got their hands dirty, learning the methods necessary to figure out how much carbon is stored in a swath of forest, from mapping trees within plots to estimating above ground and soil carbon levels. “Hubbard Brook is an iconic place for ecosystem science and ideal for a research course because it is so well-mapped,” says co-instructor Flora Krivak-Tetley, a postdoctoral researcher leading projects in ecology and conservation biology.
Managing forests to store more carbon has become a big focus of forest management, says Bolger. Now, forest owners can earn revenue by selling carbon credits for agreeing not to harvest their trees, or making other changes to their management, thereby storing more carbon in the trees and in the soil.
The following week, students put their newly acquired skills to work in community projects centered around forest carbon with several land trusts. They also established experimental plots where children from the communities could learn the concepts and pursue their own research in the future.
“That was a full circle moment for us,” says Laveriano, who treasures the ability to learn by interacting with both fellow students and community members. Her independent research, the third component of the program, assimilated information she gathered in the field about how traditional ecological knowledge can be incorporated into risk management methods.
“It is exciting for students to make the transition from being consumers of knowledge, which we all get very good at in college, to being producers of knowledge,” says Krivak-Tetley. “They put their skills into action and see that there are people out in the world who can learn from that.”