A Focus on Important Things
By Daney Daniel Kepple
“I’ve always thought that retiring in the area where you have lived and worked would be a real luxury,” says Carol Ekstrom. But after 34 years at Rhodes, it turns out she won’t be doing that at all. Her husband Peter, former chair of the Anthropology/Sociology Department who retired last year, has a low tolerance for hot weather, so the couple decided long ago that they would end up in Michigan. It’s where they’ve spent many summers and have several good friends. Still, she says, “It will be hard to let go.”
There’s a great deal to let go of, for Carol Ekstrom has spent her career building bridges, programs and relationships at Rhodes. Not surprisingly, she has witnessed many changes.
One that gratifies her is the college’s recent embrace of experiential learning, a pedagogy in which she has always been involved. In the days of the three-term academic calendar, for 10 years she and Peter took students to study “rocks and ruins” in the Southwest. She then taught coral reef ecology in Honduras for another 10 years.
And, of course, technology has changed, bringing a major impact on “the ease with which we do things. We can make our own maps with GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and get anything else we need online.”
The first woman to teach science at the college, Ekstrom admits her entrance wasn’t a traditional one. Her husband began his tenure in 1974. Students on the search committee that recruited him noticed his undergraduate degree in geology and inquired whether he could teach classes in that discipline as well. He responded, “No, but I know someone who can.” His wife did just that, beginning in January 1975.
Ekstrom says that her career at Rhodes divides rather neatly into three phases.
Her early years on campus were spent building a geology program. In the beginning she taught only one course and gradually increased the offerings. Ekstrom has been the lone instructor in the geology program that is housed within the Department of Physics. Today, its offerings include four courses and supporting labs—Earth Systems Science, Evolution of the Earth, Global Environmental Change and Environmental Geology—plus a semester-long research opportunity and an internship. And that’s been just part of her job.
In 1986, she began to think about creating a minor in Earth Systems Science, a program that launched three years later.
“Ours was one of the early programs although it’s the approach most colleges take today,” she says.
She has been heavily involved in trying to develop an Environmental Studies program to augment the Rhodes curriculum. That was phase two.
Phase three might be termed the outreach era, which began when she heard something at a meeting of the neighboring Vollintine Evergreen Community Association in 2000.
“The county was applying for an EPA grant to study water quality in Cypress Creek, which runs just north of the Rhodes campus,” she recalls. “It was to be a cooperative program including three higher-ed institutions and three city schools. They included the University of Memphis, LeMoyne-Owen and Christian Brothers, but not Rhodes. I thought, ‘Cypress Creek is in our area!’ and called the grant writer. She wrote us in. I fought hard to get to work with Cypress Middle School.”
Ekstrom went on to form close relationships with the science teachers at Cypress. When the EPA funding for the Cypress Creek project lapsed, she wasted no time securing a grant from the Associated Colleges of the South to fund SWEEP (Storm Water Environmental Education Project). When the college established the Rhodes Learning Corridor with funding from the U.S. Department of Education and, later, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developement, SWEEP was incorporated into it.
Ekstrom was named coordinator for the Learning Corridor, a Rhodes partnership with nearby neighborhoods, public schools and other community and educational organizations that provides learning opportunities for Rhodes students as well as for those in the immediate community.
In that position she has developed 20 programs that provide opportunities for Rhodes students to work in the community.
Ekstrom is proud of two more involvements at Rhodes, both of which began about 10 years ago. The GIS program was initiated by a small group of faculty including Steve Ceccoli, the P.K. Seidman Distinguished Professor of Political Economy; both Ekstroms; David Kesler, Biology; and Mike Kirby, the Plough Professor of Urban Studies. These pioneers climbed the steep learning curve to implement the complex software, trained any other faculty who were willing and gradually convinced others of its wide utility as a teaching and demonstration tool.
“It was made for analyzing and displaying data,” Ekstrom says. “That was such a great collaborative effort. It was very satisfying to be involved in it.”
Another such effort arose when Ekstrom and Kesler accompanied two students and comptroller Mac McWhirter to an Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) conference at Davidson College.
“At the Sustainable Campus Development Clinic we realized that we worked very well as a team, so we decided to establish a committee to continue cross-campus communication about sustainable practices,” Ekstrom recalls. “In the van on the way back from the meeting we decided to call ourselves the Rhodes Planning Cooperative, the RPC, making sure not to mention the word ‘green’ so we wouldn’t be labeled ‘tree huggers.’”
Ekstrom then became the Rhodes ACS Environmental Fellow for three years. She led the drive to institutionalize the committee. In 2001,the Environmental Planning Cooperative (EPC), as it is now known, was made an official administrative committee with a budget and a mission statement. The EPC was the catalyst for such popular campus fixtures as the recycling project and the bike program that provides students free two-wheeled, cross-campus transportation.
Late last year Rhodes joined forces with more than 500 other institutions of higher education in an effort to reduce the carbon footprints of campuses all over the country. The effort is known as the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, and today, says Ekstrom, “Under the able leadership of Tracy Adkisson (associate director of Physical Plant), the EPC has stepped forward to oversee this effort.” Rhodes has made significant progress in this area in a short time, thanks in large measure to data gathered by the students in Ekstrom’s Geology 214 class.
Ekstrom’s Learning Corridor contract runs through July, and in May she still had big plans: “I want to start a larger solar energy project before I leave,” she said, referring to the one her students accomplished during spring semester.
That interest isn’t likely to lapse when she departs Rhodes. After an extended trip to Argentina she plans to get involved as a volunteer in environmental education in the local Michigan schools.
“In Michigan there is so much snow (an average 270 inches a year) that I will try wind generation on Lake Superior instead of solar energy,” she says. “I think of retirement as time off from multitasking, an opportunity to focus on a few important things.”