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New Environmental Science Program Puts Students in Natural Laboratory for Entire Semester

(Posted September 11, 2006)

The environmental science students will live in residence lodges while using Shuster Hall as a classroom, dining facility, meeting place and lounge.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Many colleges can build state-of-the-art education buildings, but not many can build a spectacular science facility near the shores of an 8,000-acre lake, and only Juniata College has created an entire semester of undergraduate education based on students living at Raystown Lake, the largest lake wholly within Pennsylvania.

A new experiment in residential learning begins this semester at the college's Raystown Field Station, comprised of Shuster Hall, a classroom-multipurpose building, and two newly constructed residential student lodges. Dubbed "A Semester at the Field Station," Juniata is allowing a select group of juniors and seniors to "study abroad at home" by placing them in the student lodges. They may look rustic on the outside, but the new lodges are built to give Juniata environmental science students every educational and technological convenience while minimizing the environmental impact of living and working at the lake.

"Our new academic program gives students the opportunity to live and learn in a huge outdoor laboratory that not only includes the lake environment but also the 29,000-acre natural habitat that includes and surrounds the lake," says Juniata President Thomas R. Kepple Jr. "I think it's safe to say that few if any undergraduate students at any other college or university will have the chance to spend an entire semester in a wildlife habitat immersed in a curriculum focused on the environment."

The curriculum for the semester-long experience will include four main courses as well as several electives or seminars, all taught using the natural habitat of the area around the lake. Schedules are fluid. Some courses may meet regularly two or three days a week for the entire semester, whiles others may meet for three- or four-hour sessions once a week for 10 weeks.

"If you take a class in biology, you often don't go beyond the classroom or laboratory door," says Dennis Johnson, associate professor of environmental education. "These courses are loosely interwoven in order for the students to realize not only the intricacies of the environment but also how they fit in the environment."

Johnson has adapted a seminar approach to his course, titled "A Sense of Place." A variety of faculty, will teach modules on how humans and nature have interacted over time in the Raystown area. For example, Sharon Yohn, co-director of the field station, will illustrate how water quality affects the balance of the habitat, while Larry Mutti, professor of geology, teaches how the landscape of the area was formed. Other topics that will be discussed include biodiversity and wildlife impacts. Other specialists in forest management and literature will take on modules.

Paula Martin, assistant provost and professor of environmental science, will teach the "Sustainability" course. "We want students to realize that sustainability is not just a scientific method or political policy," she says.

Martin illustrates how the students can see global impacts through examining local problems by showing how a water-quality pollution problem could drastically harm Raystown Lake's fish population, which in turn would end the lake's popularity as a fishing attraction. The collapse of fishing also would directly damage many local businesses from bait shops to hotels to restaurants.

The capstone for the sustainability experience will focus on a project tracing how a local, regional or global problem can move toward sustainability. "It's really exciting to break the mold of how I've been teaching for 15 years to try new things," she explains. "Ultimately, the immersion semester will be attractive for most of the other faculty because they'll get to experiment and try something new."

A Geographic Methods course, taught by Neil Pelkey, assistant professor of environmental science and IT, will go beyond previous College mapping opportunities. Pelkey's course opens with three two-day GIS "camps" in which students get a crash course in mapping techniques within the first five weeks, followed by detailed individual projects. They also will tackle remote sensing, which uses satellites and other sensors to determine geographic characteristics, and close-range photogrammetry, which uses digital photography to model streams three dimensionally. In addition, Pelkey is teaching a course on environmetrics, which applies statistics to environmental studies.

A fourth major course, Learning Communities, taught by Celia Cook-Huffman, professor of conflict resolution, and Lynn Cockett, assistant professor of communication, centers on a simple question: how do individuals exist and function within a community? The course will center on a series of group exercises and projects designed to foster community building and group communication. Students also will be asked to self-evaluate their role within the group and analyze how the community functions.

"We are learning beyond the walls of the classroom setting, but also bonding with the professors who teach us every day. We are eating with them, talking with them and doing research with them on a daily basis," says Adam Truax, a senior from Hagerstown, Md. studying environmental science. "No other college can top that."

The college's new lodges were built through a $200,000 grant from Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and a $300,000 grant from the R.K. Mellon Foundation. Each lodge houses eight students, although one of the finished structures features a small apartment for a resident director.

Each lodge's lower floor features two double rooms, as well as a main common living area and a small dining area. The upstairs has a kitchenette, a bathroom, a separate shower (to prevent bathroom/shower traffic tie-ups), a double room and two single rooms. Each lodge will feature a deck facing the lake.

Each lodge features a radiant-heat slab. In fact, the heat to warm each building is provided by the large boiler in Shuster Hall, a 98 percent-efficient pulse boiler that uses ethylene glycol, an environmentally safe fuel oil. Each lodge also is outfitted with energy efficient windows designed to provide more natural light as well as promote natural heating. Students will not have to "rough it" in terms of technology. Fiber optic lines and other telecommunication lines have been installed and wireless computer technology is available throughout the lodges.

The water for the two lodges will be recycled by a self-contained treatment plant called a batch reactor, which treats water and organic and inorganic waste in a series of chambers within the plant's storage tank. The organic waste is stored as sludge and is periodically emptied. The treated water is not suitable as drinking water, but it is treated to the point where it is safe for discharge. In Juniata's case, the treatment plant will discharge its water into the central meadow in front of the Lakeside Center, using drip irrigation.

Over time, students will be able to monitor all energy systems and natural resource emissions within each lodge, just as in Shuster Hall. Each lodge has been wired to accommodate monitoring equipment and will become part of the building monitoring network as funds allow.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.