ESP Students Combine Classroom Learning with Outdoor Exploration

by | 8.16.2013 at 12:36pm
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Professor Matthew Palmer discusses restoration efforts atop the former Fountain Avenue Landfill.

This summer, students from the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program have been able to get out of the classrooms and into nature, gaining exposure to many of the ecosystems in New York City and the organizations that work to protect them. The all-day field trips brought students to a variety of locations they might not have otherwise thought to visit, such as Randall’s Island, the Bronx River, a Brooklyn landfill and Pelham Bay.

Each location offered different opportunities for the students to interact with people in the environmental field and to learn about the challenges that are unique to doing conservation work in an urban area. Organized and led by Columbia Professor Matthew Palmer, the field trips are designed to reinforce the curriculum of his Urban Ecology course.

At Randall’s Island Park on July 26, students learned the specific challenges to recreating natural environments in areas once heavily industrialized, as well as the benefits these natural areas offer. The backdrop of Randall’s Island Park is a series of elevated highways and train tracks, which creates quite the juxtaposition to the man-made fresh water marsh, salt marsh, boardwalks, and rain gardens that have been created.

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Students lean in close to examine insect specimens with a NYC Parks naturalist.

At Rocking the Boat, a small non-profit that engages youth from historically underprivileged neighborhoods to repair and build boats, students got a chance to see alternative methods to protecting and improving natural areas. “[Rocking the Boat] was very inspiring; it was a nice way to mix environmental education with self-esteem development for kids,” said student Jordan Alexander. Students also learned about projects to improve the water quality in and near the Bronx River, such as the construction of oyster beds.

The final stop of the day was the Bronx River Park, which is part of a long green belt along the Bronx River that includes the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Gardens. In this peaceful wooded park students learned how invasive species are dealt with, how damned rivers can be made navigable for fish and eels again, and how river flood plains are created and disrupted.

The outdoor learning continued on Aug. 2, when students visited the Fountain Avenue Landfill in Brooklyn. This former dump site has been transformed into approximately 400 acres of grassy, rolling hills and native tree habitats through a project funded by New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection. In addition to the environmental benefits provided by the ongoing restoration, student Paul Johnson remarked that the restored landfill was “a great example of different agencies coming together to create an environment that in 10-20 years has real opportunity to be an urban open space for public use.”

The field trip then headed north to Pelham Bay to see more first-hand examples of urban restoration in different ecosystems. Efforts here include reforestation as part of New York’s Million Trees Initiative, monitoring for invasive insect species, and restoring tidal wetlands. Guest lecturer and expert naturalist Mike Feller, part of the NYC Parks Department, commented on the importance of students getting this up-close field experience, saying “not everything exists in the textbook how it exists in the field.”


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