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Field class trains future environmental pros, serves community


Mike Vukman '96, senior environmental scientist at Stantec Consulting, left, with students Maricela Garcia and Tim Gutierrez. (Photo: Jeremy Dutra)

  • June 4, 2012

The city of Richmond was this year’s recipient of a half-day of creek repair by students in the Environmental Studies 4300 field course taught by David Larson, professor and chair of geography and environmental studies for California State University, East Bay.

Now in his 22nd year teaching the course, Larson sees the field project, one in a series of 10 weekly excursions, as a win-win, offering students service learning and community engagement experience. In all, he intends for the course to provide first-hand exposure to contemporary issues, problems, and areas of concern related to environmental studies, science and geography.

“The site offered a meaningful way for students to learn various adaptive management approaches to stream restoration while the property . . . receives three to four hours of intensive habitat enhancement by 18 students and me,” said Larson.

This year’s students learned techniques in invasive plant removal, sheet mulching, and soil bio-engineering along Baxter Creek in Booker T. Anderson Park.

Lynne Scarpa, environmental manager for the Richmond storm water program, was appreciative. “The creek banks will endure heavy storms, visitors to the park will have better access to explore the creek, and the wildlife habitat is strengthened from the efforts of the students’ enthusiasm and hard work,” she said.

The 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. field trips emphasized environmental management issues the first month, followed by wetland restoration and landfill inspections, current and future rail transit imperatives and energy efficiency and conservation programs. One recent trip afforded students rare access to BART’s Hayward Maintenance Complex and the Warm Springs Extension subway project, another took them to Mt. Tamalpais to examine open space jurisdictional issues. The final, June trip will focus on a critical sampling of Bay Area transportation systems.

Over the years, the communities of Berkeley, El Cerrito, El Sobrante,  Martinez, Oakland, Richmond, and San Pablo have benefited from the stream restoration component of the course. Since 1998, Mike Vukman ’96, an environmental studies major, now a senior environmental scientist for Stantec Consulting, has partnered with Larson in selecting the best sites for study. 

Despite the workload, Vukman relishes the collaboration with his alma mater, in part for the friendship it sustains with his former professor, in part to share his passion for stream restoration, and in part to convey the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to these challenging projects.

Vukman credits the Environmental Studies 4300 students with making a major difference to habitats, such as the Codornices Creek in Berkeley. After several years’ of work there, willow posts have stabilized the stream banks and creek bed, and the water temperature has been lowered, improving conditions for resident Rainbow and Steelhead trout.

“The use of volunteers like CSUEB students has become even more important over time, especially now that the economy has further reduced the funding resources available to local municipalities and agencies,” said Vukman.

As further testament to the Environmental Studies program’s value, four additional departmental alumni, all professionals in the field, hosted Friday visits this year. 

“When today’s students see these graduates of their home department, they’re looking at a future vision of themselves,” said Larson.

Students agree.

“Each of the field trips have allowed me to apply what I have learned in the classroom in a real-world setting, expanded my knowledge of environmental issues, and reaffirmed why I chose this major: to mitigate the damage from human impact and be an environmental steward. Collectively, all the field trips are like individual puzzle pieces to a much larger picture: how to construct a sustainable society,” said Jeremy Dutra.

Chelsey Heil added: “This class has opened up so many opportunities for my career. I have absolutely no worries of finding a job after graduation. I am incredibly thankful for this class and for Dr. Larson expanding my knowledge and experience in a way that cannot be done in a classroom.”

Student David Brosky, too, has high praise for the class, and especially its creator.

“This class is meta-academic, it bridges the gap between the academic and the professional, it gives hope that there are jobs out there for us after graduation but more importantly it gives hope that this world, our cities, our forests, our suburbs and our parks are changing for the better,” said Brosky.

Larson takes his educating role seriously. Not content to limit course content to the obvious, he expects each of the his geography and environmental studies graduates to be literate in the field, have good writing skills, excellent public speaking skills, and know where to go for information.

He also is accustomed to hearing his students say Environmental Studies 4300 is the best college course they’ve taken, and he suspects that its rigor influences the prompt job offers and advancement his graduates enjoy.

Larson is the first to admit that the course is energy-intensive, especially for him, but also enormously rewarding. 

“My favorite trips are the restoration projects," Larson said. "Collectively we’re giving back to our service area, we’re being good citizens.”

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