Environmental Studies students did water-quality testing in conjunction with the
FYE course, "A River Runs Through It."
Students gathered fish from Mechumps Creek in
order to study water quality.
Randolph-Macon College’s Environmental Studies Program has received the Urban Forestry
Award from The Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. The
award will be formally presented on December 7, 2009 at the Sheraton Richmond West
Hotel in Richmond, Virginia.
R-MC Professors Chas. Gowan, Ph.D. and Michael Fenster, Ph.D. (environmental studies)
will accept the award on behalf of the Environmental Studies Program.
“We are really honored to receive this award, and gladly accept it on behalf of
all the students who have worked so hard over the years to improve and protect the
environment in the Ashland area,” said Gowan. Fenster added, “The award demonstrates
that the environmental studies problem-solving curriculum enables our students to
combine excellent learning opportunities with real-world results.”
The purpose of the award is to give recognition to those groups who are leaders
in environmental protection and education. The Hanover/Caroline Soil and Water Conservation
District nominated R-MC’s Environmental Studies Program for the award. State-level
award winners will compete in a national competition.
R-MC received the award for its work restoring the natural setting and improving
the water quality of the Mechumps Creek watershed. The project began in 2003, when
Gowan and his students developed a Watershed Management Plan for the creek. “This
plan was quite a proactive approach at the time, to voluntarily develop a community-supported
management plan that had buy-in from government, business and citizens.” says Gowan.
The plan was developed by students enrolled in Gowan’s First-Year Experience (FYE)
course, “A River Runs Through It,” which was team-taught with R-MC Professor Lauren
Bell, Ph.D. (political science).
One goal in the management plan was to repair damage to the creek ecosystem caused
by development in Ashland. To help achieve this goal, Gowan received a $40,000 grant
from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to install rain gardens on
campus. Rain gardens help clean stormwater before it reaches the creek. Students
then turned their attention to repairing the damaged creek itself. A preliminary
analysis of the feasibility of restoring Mechumps Creek was performed by students
enrolled in the FYE course, “Repairing Nature,” which was team-taught with Professor
Reber Dunkel, Ph.D. (sociology).
“The Town of Ashland became the students’ ‘client,’” says Gowan. “They reported
their findings to the Town Council in 2006 and convinced the Town to proceed with
the restoration work—even at an estimated cost of $300,000.” The Town pledged the
first $100,000 towards the project, and then Gowan obtained an additional $130,000
in grants from the NFWF. Some of the grant writing was done by students in a special
course devoted to the topic and taught by R-MC Professor Jeter “Bud” Watson, J.D.
(environmental studies). The funds now available are sufficient to begin the first
phase of the restoration work, which will begin in the spring of 2010.
“The funding will allow for restoration of about 1200 linear feet of stream,” says
Gowan. “The project will involve the grading of eroding banks, installation of bio-logs,
weirs and plantings. Students will be monitoring the effects of the restoration
on fish and aquatic life in the creek for the next 10 years. I think it is really
special that this project represents the ongoing work of several cohorts of students,
each taking their turn to complete important aspects of the work, and each building
on the good work that has been done by their predecessors.”
Gowan joined the faculty at Randolph-Macon College in 1996. He earned his B.S. from
the State University of New York, his M.S. from Michigan State University and his
Ph.D. from Colorado State University. In 2008, Gowan was awarded the Paul H. Wornom,
M.D., Professorship in Biological Sciences. He is the director of the College’s
First-Year Experience program and serves on the Committee on Admissions, Credits,
and Academic Status of Students.
Fenster joined the faculty at Randolph-Macon in 1999. He earned his B.S. and M.S.
in Environmental Geology from the University of Mississippi and his Ph.D. in Geology
from Boston University. Fenster specializes in coastal geology and hydrology and
is the chair of R-MC’s Environmental Studies Program. Both Fenster and Gowan teach
the core courses within the Environmental Studies curriculum that focuses on analyzing
and solving real-world environmental problems.
For information on R-MC's environmental studies program, visit
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