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W&L Awarded $600,000 Grant to Expand Environmental Studies Program

Washington and Lee University has been awarded a four-year, $600,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand and enhance place-based learning in its interdisciplinary Environmental Studies program. The grant will enable W&L to create a specialization in the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, the nation’s largest estuary and the largest Atlantic watershed, where critically important ecological services are being eroded by pollution, over-fishing and other impacts of development.

The Chesapeake Bay program will add a domestic component to the program’s already strong international program in the Brazilian Amazon, providing students an opportunity to engage in comparative analysis of two critically important watersheds, and to examine environmental policies that differ from one country to another for historical, cultural, political and environmental reasons.

“W&L’s Environmental Studies Program takes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the causes, consequences and solutions to environmental problems,” said James Kahn, John F. Herndon Professor of Economics and head of the Environmental Studies program at W&L. “The Chesapeake Bay Program provides an excellent opportunity to integrate ecology, economics, ethics, geology, public policy and many other disciplines into this framework.

“We already have a program in Brazil which provides a strong place-based learning opportunity with significant opportunities for student research and internships,” Kahn continued. “The Chesapeake Bay program provides a domestic counterpart which accomplishes the same academic goals, provides opportunities for comparisons and creates a mechanism for close ties between the University and the communities that share our watershed. To my knowledge, W&L is among the few top liberal arts universities which offer both domestic and international opportunities in this area.”

Kahn notes that the focus of the Chesapeake Bay program will be on the upper watershed and how decisions made by communities and individuals in that region affect the bay as a whole. The program is intended to help those communities make better decisions concerning a variety of ways to reduce pollution in the watershed. Students will see the difficulty of solving problems associated with the complex interactions of community dynamics, science, the economy and policy making and, over time, realize the results of those efforts.

“The Chesapeake Bay watershed program will complement our Amazonian program to result in a truly unique approach to Environmental Studies at Washington and Lee,” said June R. Aprille, W&L’s provost. “The comparisons of political, social and cultural factors that impact policy and practice in these two important environments will create very rich interdisciplinary educational opportunities. With its unusual blend of professional, pre-professional and liberal arts programs, W&L is uniquely suited to develop this kind of integrated study and research.”

The grant will make possible the expansion of W&L’s Environmental Studies program—recently elevated from a concentration to a major—in a number of ways, adding a tenure-track faculty position, increasing the number of student internships and faculty-mentored student research opportunities and more fully integrating the program with W&L’s biology department.

Environmental Studies course offerings will also increase to meet the demand among W&L students, which has risen dramatically in recent years. The program added more sections of its introductory course and has plans for new courses in aquatic ecology and environmental modeling, interdisciplinary courses which integrate science and policy and a team-taught capstone course.

Robert Humston, assistant professor of biology and the program’s newest faculty member, plans to develop a two-course sequence for the Chesapeake Bay program. “The winter term course will be a broad watershed ecology and management course, which will be classroom-based and will consider not just the structure and function of watersheds, but also the major issues facing them with respect to conservation and management,” Humston said. “The spring term course will be a field-based course that will take students from the headwater streams in the mountains to the river mouths at the bay and will explore all the concepts covered in the classroom course from the ground level.”

The addition of the Chesapeake Bay program will help more students fulfill the Environmental Studies program’s experiential learning component—an internship, a research project or an approved study abroad, leading to a capstone paper or honors thesis—that is a requirement for the major. And W&L students won’t be the only ones to benefit. Brazilian students studying at W&L as part of the U.S.-Brazil Consortium will be actively involved in the Chesapeake Bay program and eligible for funding to do research or internships with agencies and non-governmental organizations in the Chesapeake Bay areas, which will enhance their experience.

“With this generous support from the Mellon Foundation, the University’s Environmental Studies Program will move to an important new stage in its development,” said W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio. “Washington and Lee takes pride in educating students prepared for their future responsibilities as citizens and leaders, and few issues will be more central to the lives of this student generation than the environment.”