A Watershed Moment for RMC’s Environmental Studies Professors

News Story categories: Environmental Studies
Profs. Gowan and Fenster at a tree planting

Randolph-Macon College’s Drs. Michael Fenster and Charles Gowan have been honored with the Excellence in Environmental Education Award by the York River and Small Coastal Basin Roundtable. This inaugural award recognizes the teaching team for their innovative undergraduate curriculum, and in particular, a project completed in the fall semester to explore harmful algal blooms (HABs) impacting the Lake Anna watershed.

The project was part of the Environmental Studies Program’s core curriculum in which each student takes three Environmental Problem Solving courses over four years. Each course asks students to tackle a real-world, interdisciplinary environmental problem for an off-campus client who needs a real solution to the problem. The problems and clients are new every year.

As is customary, Professors Fenster and Gowan sourced the project – in this case, with the Lake Anna Civic Association (LACA) as the client. The problem? The HABs, fed by an unknown nutrient source, have grown to the point of requiring swimming advisories in Lake Anna.

“Chas and I work as project managers, more than teachers,” explained Dr. Fenster.

Students work with government, business, and community leaders in order to analyze the issue from the varying perspectives. They performed environmental tests, worked with complicated data sets, and presented findings and recommendations to LACA and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The ambiguity of the coursework is intentional in order to prepare students for their careers in an interdisciplinary world. “There’s no textbook, no lectures. There’s never a point in the course where Mike and I know the answer. Your boss doesn’t withhold information from you to see if you can get it,” noted Dr. Gowan. “The boss says, ‘Here’s everything I know, and here’s what I need.’ We might do one lecture on the first day of class to tell students what we know about the problem, and then it is up to students to find solutions that work for the client.”

catherine unger taking water samples

In nominating the professors, Harry Looney, LACA Water Quality Chair, noted their resilience and ingenuity in delivering their course. “As in universities across the country, the fall semester at Randolph-Macon College was impacted by COVID-19. Dr. Fenster and Dr. Gowan demonstrated significant resilience in the face of COVID-19 constraints on their Environmental Studies Program and achieved course objectives and LACA research objectives in the face of immense adversity. Both professors are a credit to Randolph-Macon College, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the Environmental Studies discipline. LACA is proud to be a partner with RMC and these outstanding educators.”

LACA benefitted from the students’ work over two semesters. It was investigated in the fall by the first-in-the-series Freshman course, and then continued into the spring, where the Junior/Senior cohort built on the previous work.

In the end, the students’ recommendations largely centered on land use and were shared directly with a variety of stakeholders including LACA, DEQ and the Virginia Department of Health.

“I have so much respect for our students,” commented Dr. Fenster. “These students take ownership of the project such that they put the hours in. They do what’s required. That’s a part of what we’ve designed – a way to think about this as a job so that it has buy-in, genuine engagement, culpability.”

The York River Roundtable recognized Drs. Fenster and Gowan with the planting of two trees on campus to note their achievements. A river birch stands in the rain garden outside Haley Hall and a redbud was planted outside Brock Hall.