Home Education ‘Living classroom’ offers undergrads unique environmental studies experience

‘Living classroom’ offers undergrads unique environmental studies experience

An environmental education for undergraduate students is emerging as not only a unique educational experience but a “life-changing” one. That’s what students have said about the River University. The Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, a subsidiary of Clarkson University, offers an interdisciplinary program in ecology, engineering and policy dedicated to the Hudson River, which they believe is a living classroom.

Students have the opportunity to sail for three days onboard the sloop Clearwater, which folksinger Pete Seeger made famous. River University had students from Bard, Bryn Mawr, and Oberlin colleges, RPI and Stony Brook University participate in the summer 2012 program.

John Cronin, a course instructor for the living classroom, said, “The Hudson River cannot be rivaled as a living laboratory for ecological discovery, and a multidisciplinary classroom for experiential learning.” He added, “Our summer students in River University are leaders-in-training. Through our hands-on courses they learn the innovations in law and policy, science and technology, even culture and art, that make the Hudson, and all rivers, the greatest inspiration for and testimony to modern American environmentalism.”

Cronin, the Beacon Institute Fellow at Clarkson University, has earned the title “Hero for the Planet” as designated by Time Magazine for his work as former Hudson Riverkeeper. As a lecturer, he has been quoted telling students, “If the twentieth century was the era of environmental brawn, the twenty-first century is the era of environmental brains.”

Courses at River University are set in the environment to expand student’s minds beyond the classroom walls. They are taught on the banks of the Hudson River in Beacon by Clarkson faculty. In addition to Cronin, Shane Rogers, assistant professor of civil environmental engineering at Clarkson, is an instructor, as well as Tom Langen, associate professor of biology and psychology. The program has two courses, each worth three credits toward a degree:

Life of an American River: Ecology, Policy and Place allows students to explore river function and gain familiarity with organisms and natural communities of the Hudson River watershed. It’s designed to help students better understand how humans impact rivers, and how that impact can be diminished.

Our Water Future: Sustainable Water Resource Management encourages experiential learning and a hands-on approach for students to focus on engineering and policy as it relates to the relationship between land and water uses and sustainability of water resources. Students are also able to assess and critique water management, planning, and policy on a local scale, and further provide recommendations to improve water sustainability.

Students of any major can complete the River University program. The intensity of the schedule coupled with the individual attention each student is poised to receive restricts enrollment: Only 20 students can be allowed into River University at a time.

The program premiered last summer with eight students. Some said the opportunity changed their perception of the world and they were encouraged by the information they learned about water quality and the work that could be done to improve it.

Timothy F. Sugrue, Beacon Institute’s president and CEO, said, “Students today have a sense of urgency when it comes to protecting the environment. Giving them the tools of ecology, engineering and policy to build an understanding of how humans interact with a living system like the Hudson River, we accelerate the process with experiential learning. That direct connection ignited a fire for students this summer. In 2013, we will build on that success.”

Student enrollment for the course is open until March 15. The program will run from June 10-28.

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