MPA ESP: Classroom Extends into Community

by |August 18, 2016

Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program offers its students learning experiences outside of the classroom unlike any other graduate environmental policy program. Professors organize visits with government and nonprofit entities to provide students with real-world examples of environmental

ESP Student Tour of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn

A student tour of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

programs being implemented in the New York metropolitan area. Each visit demonstrates the connections between in-class learning and examples of how policy is implemented to address environmental issues.

Over the summer semester , as part of a combined Toxicology and Chemistry field trip, ESP students visited the Gowanus Canal in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, to learn about the conservation efforts of the community advocacy group Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG .) Despite the designation of the canal as a Superfund Site, the community around the Canal is rapidly developing residential spaces and transitioning away from its industrial past. Given this challenge, students were asked by Professors’ Mike Musso and Benjamin Bostick to contemplate potential remediation strategies that would address the concerns of community members, but also be scientifically viable and economically achievable.

Learning about water treatment at the Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority

Learning about water treatment at the Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority.

To gain a better understanding of concepts in their Hydrology course, Professor Michael Puma took students to tour the Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority facility (SWPCA) facility in Stamford, CT. There, students learned how cities manage, process, and treat municipal wastewater. Students witnessed firsthand the Stamford facility’s four-step wastewater treatment process: preliminary treatment, primary treatment, biological treatment and ultraviolet disinfection.

As part of their Urban Ecology Course to learn about urban restoration programs, environmental monitoring and environmental outreach in New York City, Professor Matt Palmer arranged for students to visit multiple sites. Among them was the reuse of the Fountain Avenue Landfill , now a 297-acre ecological restoration site located along Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, New York. Students met with officials from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to learn about environmental remediation, wetland restoration, and project management at the landfill. At Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx, students got an overview of the conservation efforts of New York City Parks & Recreation, including the Million Trees NYC tree planting initiative and wetlands restoration.

Professor Matt Palmer with ESP students and Rock the Boat staff

Professor Matt Palmer with ESP students and Rock the Boat staff.

During another trip, ESP students met with the Randall’s Island Park Alliance Waterfront Stewardship Program to discuss the restoration process of the park’s saltwater marsh and biodiversity, followed by an afternoon with the non-profit Rocking the Boat on the Bronx River. Students took row boats up the Bronx River where Professor Palmer pointed out storm sewer overflows and discussed how the low-lying land along the river is vulnerable to extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy. Students were encouraged to think critically about the solutions to address these problems. Some students proposed oyster beds, rocky shorelines, and upstream detention basins, all of which were covered in class.

Neha Vaingankar, a current student from the MPA ESP Class of 2017, found the experience from the field trips to be especially rewarding. “Using New York City as an Urban Ecology classroom is really a valuable resource for our learning. It has been much more impactful to see city planning and remediation efforts in real life, as opposed to a picture on a lecture slide. Speaking with people who have worked on these projects also shows us unique perspectives on the processes involved in planning these efforts.”

All of the summer field trips have allowed students to go beyond the traditional classroom environment. Students were able to witness environmental science out in the field and explore real world solutions related to sustainability topics. Now students have a better understanding of the different methods of field work in both ecology and hydrology, and the process behind successful project implementation and management. Extending the classroom to the community is not only fun for students but also an effective way to build practical knowledge on science, policy, and management.

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