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American Today


Students Return from Galapagos Fieldwork

By Sally Acharya

Students filming in the Galapagos

Photo courtesy of Bill Gentile

Updated May 28, 2009. Are the students and professors who recently spent 10 days in the Galapagos Islands the next step in AU’s evolution?

Certainly they’re on the cutting edge of change. The spring semester may be over, but a team-taught class, Practice of Environmentalism, headed to the Galapagos Islands on May 15, where they traveled from island to island, filming and interviewing as they create real-world messages for policy makers and the public.

Most of the students are still in South America, capping off the academic adventure with a trip to the Ecuadorian rain forest.

They went to the Galapagos armed with film and snorkel gear and a semester’s worth of scientific and policy knowledge. Four teams of student scientists, policy makers, and filmmakers were charged with finding a credible research story and crafting it into a strong multimedia presentation.

For this final class project, CAS professor Kiho Kim notes, they have a lot to think about: “What’s a good message from a scientific perspective? What makes sense scientifically, in terms of global environmental politics, and as a film that captures that message?”

It’s a tall order, but students prepared all semester by studying the natural history, biology, and ecology of island environments; the global policy issues that affect how scientific issues can be addressed politically; and how those complex matters can be captured in ways that will encourage the public to listen.

“One of the things about the Galapagos is that it’s a place where people and nature are coming together in new ways for the first time,” SIS professor Simon Nicholson says. “It’s been such an isolated place. The islands are known for being pristine. But now, there’s been such an incredible tourist influx.” There are as many as 30,000 people living on the island full time, largely in connection with the tourist industry.

The notion of a Galapagos venture sparked so much enthusiasm, among both faculty and students, that it led to the creation of the course that brought together graduate students and upper-level undergraduates from film, environmental science, and environmental policy.

Deans, faculty, and students from the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Communication, and School of International Service collaborated to create the innovative class, which grew from a fall 2008 discussion with incoming graduate students at SIS about possible sites for study abroad programs.

A team of professors lent their expertise to the class: biologist Kiho Kim, CAS; environmental policy expert Simon Nicholson, SIS; and filmmaker Larry Engel, SOC.

Veteran backpack journalist Bill Gentile, SOC, and assistant dean Leeanne Dunsmore, SIS, also traveled with the class in the Galapagos. “I think this sort of multidisciplinary graduate education is what students are just jumping for,” Dunsmore said.

It proved to be well worth the effort and an eye-opening experience for faculty as well as students, though for somewhat different reasons. “This was the first time we’d been down there,” Nicholson said shortly after his return. “So we weren’t sure how feasible some of the student projects would be. Of course, there were a few hiccups, and we were expecting to have to scramble as faculty to make other arrangements. But the students really stepped up and managed very professionally. It was really a testament to how well the groups work together and how seriously they took the projects.”

Mark Petruniak, BA/SIS ’09, hopes to end up with a film he can enter in film festivals. “What we end up with isn’t just going to be something for a grade,” he says. “I want to get it seen.”