Students Study Sustainability the Down and Dirty Way

They were up a creek and covered in mud in Jan Term classes on the environment

If you study the environment and sustainability during Jan Term at Saint Mary's, you may end up knee-deep in water or covered in mud on your way to learning how to care for the world's limited resources.

Take Neil Johnston, a towering freshman accounting major who signed up for a class on "Precious Water and Watersheds" and found himself decked out in a huge pair of rubber waders that stretched up to his armpits as he sloshed about in Las Trampas Creek during a class field trip to survey the waterway.

In the process, he and the other students in the class learned how to put research methods to work on a real-life problem and also helped the county care for one of its waterways.

Getting the Big Picture

The survey, a collaboration with the Contra Costa Water District, lets the county "get a big picture of the watershed," said Michelle Luebke, the county's watershed monitoring coordinator. The data collected by the students will be used to "target problem areas for restoration and decide where to focus our conservation efforts," she said.

Along with Bachofer, Luebke supervised the students during the field trip, yelling "Try not to fall," when some strayed into the deepest part of the channel.

Once everyone had scrambled down the steep banks of the creek, the students broke into teams, with some counting different species of trees for a vegetation survey, others using GPS units to measure distances between points in the stream, charting levels of sedimentation, or collecting debris to take back to the classroom to. "I found a baseball and a fake baseball!" yelled one student who was combing the banks.

The Perfect Group for This Work

Luebke said she loves working with Saint Mary's students. "Younger kids are really interested, but their energy goes in a dozen directions," she said. "Older people are great but don't always have the physical ability to scramble around streambeds. College age is the perfect group for this purpose. They're interested and have a grasp of the process."

On other field trips, the class visited the Martinez Regional Shoreline, where Johnson said they spotted snowy egrets and beavers, and the Mountain View Sanitation District, where they learned about how the district uses a nearby marsh to "clean the water more naturally and cheaper."

Bachofer said he hoped the course would not only teach the students about the science of monitoring watersheds but also encourage them to get involved in protecting one of our planet's most precious resources. "I hope they continue to be involved in this work," he said.

The students came to the class for all sorts of reasons. Some wanted to learn more about the environment and sustainability. Some just wanted to get out of the classroom and into nature. Chelsea O'Sullivan '12, an environmental science major, said she wants to work to protect the environment after graduation. She said she grew up on California's central coast, and added, "Not everywhere is as pristine as that, so I think it's worth fighting for."

A Little Theory Provides Perspective

Back on campus, sustainability was the focus of a number of classroom courses. In Professor Craig Collins' course, "Toward a Sustainable Society," students investigated concepts like carrying capacity, ecosystems and intergenerational equity, while addressing the core question: "What would it take to make our way of life on this planet truly sustainable?"

"Global Climate Change," taught by Professor Emeritus Philip Leitner '57, a former dean of the School of Science, focused on how human activities are "pushing the climate system into uncharted territory" and asked what can be done to reduce adverse effects and adapt to the inevitable changes.

"The next decade will be critical, and the world's leaders are now struggling to develop the new policies and new technologies .... Today's students can play an essential role in this difficult and historic transition," Leitner noted.

Real Hands-On Learning

Other students on campus took a more hands-on approach to their study of sustainability - and ended up with very dirty hands.

On a warm, sunny January morning, the students in Professor Kristen Sbrogna's class on "Shelter" clambered over the terraced slopes of the school's Legacy Garden, where students grow organic fruit and vegetables. Using a large wheelbarrow, they mixed mud and straw to create adobe, one of the world's original sustainable building materials.

In the classroom, the students had learned about age-old, traditional, sustainable construction techniques, like building with straw bale and adobe. Now it was time to put their knowledge into practice. They shaped the mud-and-straw muck into long cylinders and then coiled it around and around to create an earthen oven that will become a permanent part of the garden.

"It gives them a chance to experience what it's like to work with these natural materials," Sbrogna said. Building a whole adobe house was beyond the scope of a monthlong course, so the class settled on building an oven. "The hearth is the heart of most shelters," she explained.

Sbrogna said the idea for the course arose out of her own concern about the environment and the amount of toxicity in most conventional building materials. Many of those materials, such as steel, plastic and treated lumber, consume large amounts of natural resources, such as iron ore, oil and trees, and are not fully biodegradable.

In addition to sustainability issues, the students learned about social issues associated with shelter. Brooke Mayo, a freshman psychology major, said she was interested in the class lessons that addressed social problems associated with shelter - homelessness and the disparity between rich and poor.

A Lesson in Teamwork

Despite the mud and muck - or maybe because of it - the students clearly had a great time building the oven. There was mud, straw and dust everywhere – and lots of smiles. And they learned some unanticipated lessons along the way.

"It taught us problem solving and teamwork," said Mayo. Halfway through, it seems, the oven cracked and the students had to figure out a way to patch it and make it whole again. "Mother Nature went against us," she said, "but we solved the problem,"

Of course, Mother Nature helped them solve the problem. Unlike many modern building materials, earth is malleable - and completely biodegradable. If the earthen oven the students built ever goes out of use, it can just return to the earth.

But before that, Sbrogna had a surprise in store for the students. "They don't know it yet," she said, "but we're going to be using it next week to make pizza!"

Teresa Castle
College Communications

Photo by Thomas Vo '11