Think Globally, Act Locally

By Nicholas Brydon ′12

The Environmental Sciences (B.S.) and Environmental Studies (B.A.) programs, which debuted as minors in 2009-10, emerged as full-blown majors in 2011-12, providing a framework for students to specialize in Rhodes’ abundance of environmentally themed class and field experiences. Students in Environmental Studies focus more on humanities and social sciences—History, International Studies and Anthropology. On the Environmental Sciences side students zoom in on Biology, Chemistry and physical aspects of the environment, yet each is informed by courses common to both tracks. The idea is to keep the program as interdisciplinary and universally applicable as possible regardless of which track a student pursues.

What Makes Rhodes the Best Place to Study the Environment?

History Professor Jeffrey Jackson, director of the Environmental Studies and Sciences program, explains: “It might be difficult to find another school like Rhodes for studying environmental issues. Many schools are either in a large city without access to natural features like we have here—the Mississippi River, Shelby Forest and the Wolf River watershed—or they are in rural areas without exposure to urban environmental problems. Rhodes is unique because we can offer a broader range of experiences, internships and research opportunities.”

Off-campus opportunities complete the environmental course of study at Rhodes by providing a professional accent to stimulating academics, and many students take advantage of these opportunities through local connections to the college. Junior Autumn Baker, who worked at Shelby Farms State Park Conservancy, one of the nation’s largest urban parks and one of the only parks in the world featuring a roaming buffalo herd, offers these words about her experience: 

“Working for a nonprofit was fun and interesting, especially because I’m majoring in Commerce and Business and nonprofit organizations are maybe not the first things that come to mind when you think of business. I think it’s a really good idea to have some kind of work or internship experience while at Rhodes, instead of going out after graduation and walking into something totally new.” How did Autumn secure this position? “It’s all about connections.”

In the Field at Home & Abroad

From a field trip in the deserts of Namibia to conservation biology in the Grand Tetons of Yellowstone, the college demonstrates its environmental passion through internships, research opportunities and summer field experiences. 

A few summers ago Rhodes began a collaboration with the Teton Science Schools with the introduction of Rocky Mountain Ecology, a two-week summer field program in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. Professor Jackson relates the student response to this unique program: “Everybody who has been on the program raves about how much they learned and how they loved the place, so we wanted to expand our relationship with the Teton Science Schools. Summer 2012 is the first time we are offering a four-week course that enables students to conduct extensive field research based in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.” 

Junior Caroline Todd, an Environmental Studies major, traveled to Wyoming with the program to compare southern loblolly pine trees with another related species found in the Tetons. “I forgot how it felt to go outside and see stars at night—really see stars—it was breathtaking.” Writing a research report following the trip is a part of the Teton Science School field experience. All majors and minors participate in some variety of field study experience, explains Todd, who is an environmentally concerned resident of Memphis. She recently interned with Congressman Steve Cohen and spends her time in local and political activities dedicated to making Memphis a greener city. 

The Namibian Wildlife Conservation summer field study led by Biology professor Rosanna Cappellato places students in a unique environment for studying methods of conservation in the developing world. The Namibian desert offers an ideal environment for these studies thanks to the abundant variety of wildlife, not to mention the economic and political integration among government officials, conservation activists and farmers. 

Senior Kimber Jones, a veteran of the Namibian field experience, explains the conflict and one promising solution: “Conditions there are unique because the government and activist groups try to express the importance of animal diversity and preservation, but there are also economically stressed farmers who feel the need to hunt predator species in order to protect their families and livestock. How do we solve a tripartite problem like this so that everyone benefits? One promising approach is the promotion of ecotourism: Offering tours and education to visitors, for example, could serve as economic incentives to protect and preserve existing wildlife while enhancing Namibia’s political image. The field study is basically dedicated to exploring strategies like this to see what is actually effective and what is not. Ecotourism helps to convince farmers in a poor country that animals are worth more alive than dead.” 

Outside the classroom, Jones serves as the Rhodes student coordinator for Great Outdoors University, a program funded by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation that provides outdoor experiences to inner city middle and high school students. She has also participated continuously in conservation projects at the Memphis Zoo. 

Back in the classroom, the Environmental Sciences program welcomed visiting professor Christine Powell, from the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis, as the 2011-12 Cargill Scholar in Residence.

What Drives the Programs?

A cursory survey of the Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies curriculum reveals a liberal interpretation of environmental topics and courses taught by a number of different departments across campus:

  • The International Studies Department offers a course on comparative ecopolitics.
  • A recent research project led by analytical Chemistry professor Jon Russ surveyed area public schools for heavy metals in the soil.
  • The Modern Languages Department offers a course on Chinese gardens.
  • An Urban Studies course introduces topics relevant to politics and communities of urban environments.
  • In the Anthropology and Sociology Department, Kimberly Kasper is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Archaeology.
  • The Biology faculty play major roles as well. Sarah Boyle teaches a course in Independent Research in Environmental Studies, and Michael Collins teaches Ecology.
  • Tait Keller of the History Department teaches courses in Global Environment History and Environment and Society.
  • Ermanno Affuso, an Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow in the Economics Department, teaches a course in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics.
  • Students can choose from dozens of internship and research opportunities around Memphis and with programs around the world.

What philosophy drives the course offerings of these interdisciplinary programs? Professor Jackson explains, “I think we try to interpret the idea of the environment broadly, so we have an inclusive idea of what constitutes Environmental Studies and Environmental Sciences.” The result is that Rhodes’ environmental programs are not limited to trees in a forest: If a student wishes to look into something more traditional like fertilizer pollution of the Wolf River watershed, Rhodes offers a selection of courses and internship connections around Memphis to help that passion blossom into something grand and fulfilling.

Or, a student may opt to study green architecture, an emerging building style using environmentally responsible techniques for carbon neutrality and energy efficiency. There are courses and internships for this interest as well, such as Introduction to Urban Studies. While an orthodox interpretation of an environmental program may not include Urban Studies, topics like urban parks, green architecture and pollution control certainly do affect the world around us. Through its broad interpretation of environment— from the waters of the mighty Mississippi to the roaming buffalo at Shelby Farms, to sustainable architecture on campus and downtown—Rhodes encourages a truly interdisciplinary interpretation of “environment” in order to inform students of broader topics and larger questions in an environmentally concerned world.

Every summer new courses seem to sprout out of the coming year’s catalogue while alumni and internship connections likewise reach out like roots across the Mid-South. Rhodes is even incorporating principles of green architecture in the construction of West Village, a new residence hall set to open this fall. This is part of the college’s growing environmental consciousness, symbolized by the signing of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment by President Bill Troutt in August 2007. The ACUPCC commitment requires colleges to develop a plan to achieve climate neutrality by reducing emissions, purchasing or producing renewable energy and constructing new buildings according to the LEED Silver standard of sustainability.

The expansion of Rhodes’ Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies programs with new courses, local internships and field experiences demonstrates a growing awareness of and participation in environmental topics. The tenets of these budding programs demonstrate one of the most significant traits of Rhodes as a leading institution of higher education.