Environmental Studies faculty stands up for experiential education

Intensive in-the-field programs face dwindling state support; now faculty are raising funds to keep these courses running into the future

Environmental studies professor Karen Holl’s restoration ecology class had a spirited discussion with a California State Parks resource manager.

It’s one thing to stand up at a faculty meeting and talk about the virtues of experiential education programs.

It’s another thing to pledge a chunk of your earnings to help ensure these programs’ survival, and convince everyone in your department to do the same.

That’s exactly what happened this year in the Environmental Studies program at UC Santa Cruz, where faculty members have stepped up to pool their resources and launch a fundraiser to protect the future of its experiential education courses.

Environmental Studies consistently places experiential education and field studies at the center of its teaching practices.

The department places more than 500 students in internships every year, offers labs and field trips in courses ranging from restoration ecology to environmental policy, and teaches popular field courses such as environmental Interpretation, natural history field quarter, and field methods.

Environmental studies professor Brent Haddad helped start the campaign in April when he announced he would donate $1,000 toward preserving the department’s experiential education programs.

Over the past four years, state support to the campus has been cut by 22 percent, which has resulted in extensive losses of teaching assistant and lecturer positions. Meanwhile, retiring faculty are not being replaced. At the same time, enrollments in Environmental Studies have grown by 50 percent. 

Faculty knew that they would need to raise funds to cover the costs if they were to continue teaching these hands-on courses. Haddad’s pledge sent a strong message. Now, all 16 faculty members, as well as several lecturers and emeriti faculty, have contributed to the experiential education fundraiser.

And they’re just getting started.

In fact, their project seems to be snowballing.

So far the campaign has raised $70,000 in donations and pledges from more than 70 faculty members, alumni, and family of faculty and alumni, plus a generous $100,000 matching gift from an alumnus’s family foundation.

“We have $30,000 to go to raise the match, but our ultimate goal is to raise $1 million,” said Karen Holl, professor and chair of the Environmental Studies Department, who pointed out that experiential education courses require extra time and resources to teach.

While Holl is guiding the fundraising efforts, she said that Haddad’s generosity “set the bar for everyone else.”

So far, gifts have ranged from $25 to $15,000.

UCSC’s environmental studies faculty believe the future’s environmental problem-solvers must have immersive, hands-on learning.

They know that students learn best when they leave the classroom behind and engage with the world.

“Many of us (ENVS faculty members) came to this field because of a transformative experiential course,” said Professor Erika Zavaleta. “I certainly did, so I know what a tremendous impact these kinds of classes can have.”

Zavaleta teaches an experiential field course every spring, including a 19-unit "supercourse" that is held every other year, and gets environmental studies students out to several natural reserves for over a month of immersion in the practice of ecology and conservation.  

“I wish we could offer that kind of life-changing experience to more students,” Zavaleta said. “This year, we had about 75 students come to the informational meeting for the course, but we only have 25 slots in it. This kind of experience has long been the hallmark of a UCSC education in environmental studies. We need more opportunities like this, and as a faculty we are committed both professionally and personally to helping make that happen.”

Faculty has reached out to a number of alumni who benefited from the experiential education courses. One of them is Sus Danner (Oakes, double major in environmental studies and biology ’97), who is director of protection for the Nature Conservancy in Idaho and donated $1,000 to the endowment.

“I wouldn’t have the career in conservation I have today if it weren’t for the strong foundation of field ecology I learned at UCSC,” Danner said.  “Books alone wouldn’t have given me the context or the adaptability I learned in the field. Conservation work isn’t strategic or successful without ecological research and good field methods.”

Holl was heartened by the responses, including one from alumnus Peter Stein, who made a $10,000 gift in honor of Professors Emeritus Paul Niebanck and James Pepper. 

Stein, a College Eight environmental planning graduate, was recently selected as winner of the 2011 Distinguished Social Sciences Alumni Award for his innovative and pioneering approaches to the field of conservation planning and development.

For more information on the endowment or to donate, go to the Experiential Learning Endowment page.