Diving Deep: Environmental Problem Solving Course Immerses Students in Real-World Issues

News Story categories: Environmental Studies

Scurrying along the beaches of the Chesapeake Bay, you’re unlikely to notice the tiny, sand-colored Northeastern beach tiger beetle. While unassuming, this species of beetle serves an important role for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS): a bioindicator. That means the population, or lack thereof, of the Northeastern beach tiger beetle signifies the quality of their ecosystem.

The beetles and their population figures were also central to this spring’s Environmental Problem Solving course at Randolph-Macon. Co-taught by professors Mike Fenster and Chas. Gowan since 2005-06, the course pairs students with a real-world client seeking a solution to a real-world problem. 

Past projects have ranged from investigating harmful algal blooms on Lake Anna to an assessment of culturally significant aquatic species on the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe’s ancestral land in King William County. The hands-on nature of the course gives students firsthand experience in how environmental professionals operate in the workforce and address problems in the industry.

“We haven’t analyzed it beforehand; we don’t know what the solutions are, we don’t even know details about the methods that we’re really going to use. All of that has to be worked out in real time,” Professor Gowan explains. “No lectures, no textbook, it’s not part of another class. This is the whole class.”

Environmental Studies majors are required to take the course three times: once in the fall of their first year, then twice more in the spring of both junior and senior year. They are split into teams, with each student picking an area of expertise. Mimicking the professional world, these areas of expertise aren’t limited to physical sciences like biology or geology; rather, Fenster and Gowan encourage an interdisciplinary approach in which students focus on specialties like economics, ethics, or policy.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re working in federal government, state government, nonprofits, any corporate segment of the professional world, all problems combine aspects from different disciplines,” Gowan said.

The syllabus of the course mimics the flow of a project in the field; the client submits a request for proposal, and each student team must prepare a formal presentation of how they propose to tackle the problem. The second half of the semester is spent combining the best parts of each team’s proposal and collectively working to produce a deliverable.

Northeastern beach tiger beetle
The Northeastern beach tiger beetle

An early assignment immerses students in the jargon. Gowan and Fenster give the students around 30 words and phrases for which they must find the definitions. Alumni of the program point to it as one of the things that best prepared them for their careers.

“Students don’t even know how much they’re learning,” Dr. Fenster said. “By the end of the semester, to hear them talk without having to look at notes, we feel very proud of ourselves that we’ve trained them appropriately because they sound like environmental professionals, and they act like environmental professionals.”

The results are as real as the training. The spring 2023 project delivered a population viability analysis (PVA) to the USFWS. The Northeastern beach tiger beetle is under increasing threats of extinction due to habitat loss from human development and a rise in sea levels. The analysis built on the previous work of RMC professor emeritus Barry Knisley–the leading expert on the beetle species–and identified the remaining beaches that are most critical for protection efforts.

“It is so nice having three of these hands-on courses that not only give you that real world experience with professionals, but also allow us to do work that actually makes a difference in the world,” said Mackenzie Phillips ‘23, who graduated with an environmental studies major this May and worked on the beetle and Mattaponi projects. “The work we do goes outside of the classroom, which is really gratifying.”

Building Careers

Former students have also put the program to work for them. The beetle project let students partner with Troy Andersen ‘99, a supervisor in endangered species and conservation planning for the USFWS and a former pupil of both Fenster and Gowan. Anderson knew that partnering with RMC’s environmental studies program would produce both high-quality and cost-effective work. 

The Environmental Problem Solving class with representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Andersen and colleagues came to campus to visit the class for this project, offering both project-specific information and an important example for students who may someday follow in his footsteps. 

He credits the breadth of his RMC education for giving him the tools to succeed in his career and rise to a management level. “It definitely laid a strong foundation in communicating orally and in writing, which I consider two of the most important aspects that anybody can walk into their professional career with.” Andersen reflects. “Learning how to multitask, prioritize, and get done all the things that are being asked of you–all those foundations were laid there at Randolph-Macon.”

Andersen is part of a network of alumni professionals in the field who pay it forward for students. Mackenzie Phillips will soon join him as a colleague – a wildlife refuge biologist –  at the USFWS. It’s a position she secured, in part, after meeting Andersen in 2021 while conducting research through the Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). Andersen guided her to the Directorate Fellows Program with the USFWS last summer, which she has now parlayed into a full-time role.  Fenster and Gowan believe that, beyond expertise in population models or water quality parameters, students graduate with the tools to land good jobs and to tackle whatever their careers may throw at them. “It’s learning how to solve problems,” Fenster said. “Yes, that specific problem, but—even better—any problem.”