Restoring the world. Here.
Think globally, act locally. Long before that philosophy was being touted on bumper stickers, Mount Holyoke students were putting it into practice. One environmental studies class tackled some of the biggest global issues of our time by staying right on campus.
Their laboratory was a stream feeding into Upper Lake. The objective: improve the health of Mount Holyoke’s beloved Upper and Lower Lakes. The strategy: restore wetlands to prevent sediment and nutrient pollution from reaching the lakes. The real-life applications: water quality improvement, invasive species management, sustainable food production, and climate change mitigation, to name a few.
That, according to Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Kate Ballantine, is just the beginning.
She envisions Mount Holyoke becoming the leader in undergraduate restoration ecology studies. Restoration ecology is the science that informs the practice of ecosystem restoration, or the practice of restoring ecosystems that have been degraded, damaged, or destroyed. Since emerging in the 1980s, it has become one of the world’s fastest-growing fields.
Mount Holyoke, in Ballantine’s opinion, offers the ideal setting for restoration ecology. The College is home to the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, which was established in 1998 to formalize Mount Holyoke’s early commitment to sustainability. In addition to offering programming on environmental issues, the center oversees an outdoor curricular trail used by biology, ecology, environmental studies, physical geography, geology, and history classes.
“Plus, like a liberal arts college, restoration ecology thrives on interdisciplinary collaboration,” says Ballantine, whose specialty is biogeochemistry. “Along with environmental science, it often involves numerous branches of the natural sciences, as well as policy, engineering, psychology, education, sociology, history, social justice, and even the arts.”
Then there’s the icing on the cake: a campus that Ballantine regards as a unique and incredible field site.
“Harvard Forest is in Petersham, far from the main campus, and Smith’s environmental classroom in Whately is miles away from Northampton. But we have a field station—the lakes, streams, and fields—outside our door,” says Ballantine. “I don’t think we fully recognize the value of what is right here on campus.”
Since arriving in 2012, Ballantine has been developing a restoration master plan. She doesn’t know of any other college that has one for its ecosystems.
“The possibilities for student involvement are limitless. Furthermore, jobs—exciting and meaningful ones—are available all over the globe. Our graduates can apply to them having had real-life experience.”
Theory into practice
By design, Ballantine’s seminar challenges students to put theory into practice. She’s excited about the College’s Lynk initiative, which, like her course, connects the academic with the practical. For example, students enrolled in last spring’s inaugural class launched the lakes restoration project by working on its design and implementation.
“We organized an initiative from the ground up. This wasn’t a routine experiment that had been part of the lab work course curriculum for hundreds of students,” says Maria Paula Mugnani ’13. “All aspects—the objectives, background information, experimental design, field data gathering and analyzing—had to be planned and executed by us.”
Emily Eshleman ’13, who now is earning a master’s degree in environmental health at Harvard University, was part of the team that developed project maps using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software. “We analyzed the watershed, topography, land use, and soil types within the restoration site. I also acquired an important transferable skill: knowing how to break down a complex problem into manageable parts to find a solution.”
Ballantine’s students developed protocols to monitor changes at the site over time. These included collecting data about water quality, soil composition, plant species, and animal habitats.
Leszek Bledzki, a senior research associate for the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, noted the students’ utter dedication to their fieldwork. “They come to realize that the problems with the lakes aren’t exclusive to Mount Holyoke. These are global problems they’re addressing.”
One alum’s gift
This hands-on education is being made possible by a gift from an anonymous alum, a longtime environmental steward of the campus. Again this year, her generosity allowed Ballantine to bring experts into the classroom—they included a wetland delineation expert, a wildlife habitat expert, and an environmental forester.
Equally significant, the gift is funding seven student research opportunities this summer. The students’ work will revolve around monitoring characteristics indicative of ecosystem health and functioning, such as greenhouse gas emissions, hydrology and water quality parameters, vegetation, indicators of soil quality, and animal species.
The human dimensions of the project also will be examined. One student will develop and lead a restoration scholars program for high school girls in South Hadley, Holyoke, and Springfield. Another will do community outreach, conduct tours of the site, and spread the word through a social media marketing campaign.
Meanwhile, Ballantine will work with both students and local practitioners to apply for the permits required to do the actual restoration. The bulk of that work, which involves restoring hydrology and native vegetation, will occur during summer 2015; it, too, is funded by the alumna gift.
“Because of this one alumna, we have an unbelievable opportunity to move science and the practice of restoration forward—while also preparing students as leaders in an emerging field,” Ballantine added.
Now and forever
In April 2014, Ballantine’s students hosted a Restoration Showcase attended by the South Hadley Conservation Commission and many members of the campus community. At the event, Jazmin Locke ’14 showed attendees how to take a soil core and do a field analysis of key properties. Nearby, Claudia Mazur ’16 demonstrated the use of a probe that measures key water quality variables.
“I am extremely proud of how the students collaborated on original and challenging work. Along the way, they transitioned from consumers of information to doers and producers of information,” says Ballantine.
She’s also pleased that the 2014 class plans to stay involved with the project. “Like last year’s group, they’ve really bonded over this chance to, as one of them puts it, help heal the planet.”
As for what’s ahead, Ballantine sees student involvement continuing “forever.” She is eager for people from across campus and from local communities to lend their expertise and enthusiasm to the restoration.
She added, “It’s thrilling that their findings will contribute to broader understanding of ecosystem science and restoration practices.”
And while the prospect of changing the world certainly is compelling, Ballantine’s students also are inspired by the Mount Holyoke factor. Like her classmates, Ujwala Ramakrishna ’13 felt “supremely proud” to be contributing to the restoration of the lakes.
“We want to ensure this campus’s environmental health—and beauty—for future classes. It was a true honor to do work that had real implications for a place and community that we love.”