Zack France was up swimming first thing in the morning, sat through all his classes and is now sitting in the chilly blackness of a late October night in the Allegheny National Forest, staring at a campfire and listening to a 100-decibel owl call ring through the forest like a wet finger rounding a glass.
The junior environmental studies major has brought along a friend, Matt Young, a freshman sport and recreation management major who is also interested in the outdoors. They speak in low voices around the fire with John Fedak, a volunteer bird bander who is hoping to catch Pennsylvania's smallest owl, the saw-whet, on its migration through the forest.
The students ask questions of Fedak, who has a grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection to help him buy equipment for this labor of love. He is part of Project Owlnet, volunteer licensed bird-banders from across the continent who gather data on the tiny owls as they migrate.
Prior to Project Owlnet, there wasn't much information on the migration of these common, but seldom-seen, birds. It is not as easy to study the migration of nocturnal raptors as it is to stand on a mountain and count birds flying by during daylight hours, as can be done with hawks.
The students are here primarily to learn - about owls, about banding, about calling the owls in and gently taking them out of the 50-foot-by-10-foot gossamer nets that run like invisible walls through the forest. If any owls are caught, the students will help measure wing length and tail width to help determine age, check under the armpits (wingpits?) for fat to see if the birds have eaten enough and determine the bird's sex and general health.
If there are no owls, as there were not yet on this evening, they will wait, burning time quietly in the woods while their fellow students back on campus play intramural sports, study in the library or hibernate in their rooms with the latest Netflix series.
On different nights, different students show up, many as faithfully as their work and study schedules allow. These are the kind of students the environmental studies major and club are attracting - those who love learning inside - and especially outside - the classroom.
In the early fall and spring, students will perform similar tasks with Fedak outside banding songbirds, although under warmer and sunnier conditions.
In September they took part in National Public Lands Day at Allegany State (N.Y.) Park, working to remove invasive plant species, and also in the Allegheny River Cleanup in Warren, Pa., taking to kayaks to clean trash out of the Conewango Creek.
In early November, they returned to Camp Allegany at the park for an annual retreat that is an entire weekend of voluntary learning, organized by the Environmental Studies Club under the guidance of its president, senior Kelsey Krepps, and enjoyed by a variety of students, faculty, families and even dogs. It's a weekend of hiking, searching for mushrooms, listening to presentations by wildlife experts and eating completely organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed meals cooked up by Dr. Stephen Robar, associate dean of academic affairs and program director for the environmental studies program, and Dr. David Schummer, visiting assistant professor of philosophy.
“It always feels a bit like Thanksgiving,” said Dr. Matt Kropf, assistant professor of energy science and director of the American Refining Group/Harry R. Halloran Jr. Energy Institute, as he loaded an antique industrial dishwasher at the camp following dinner at the retreat. “This is the only chance my students have to see me without a tie on standing in front of a PowerPoint presentation.”
Like the environmental studies major itself, the retreat is a multidisciplinary gathering of philosophers, biologists, political scientists, psychologists, physicists and other faculty and students interested in any and all of these subjects.
Students from the relatively new program head out into a variety of fields after graduating. Calvin Pfeil of Bradford joined the Navy's nuclear program after graduating in December. Eli Macugoski of Monongahela, Pa., spent last summer monitoring stream flow in coal mining areas and is now looking toward pursuing a career in environmental consulting. Alumnus Gregg Mirth '14 has returned to the retreat to tell other students about his graduate studies in geographic information systems at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Although very different, those are just the kinds of jobs the major is meant to prepare students for. Unlike programs that emphasize only environmental science, the environmental studies program takes on not only the basic science of the environment, but also introduces students to microeconomics, energy production, the place of wilderness in society, and environmental ethics and politics.
“The environmental studies major was specifically designed to be interdisciplinary,” Robar said. “Along with the breadth of coursework the students are required to take, they must also complete a set of electives that allows them to then specialize in a particular area.” Most environmental studies students also complete one, and often two, minor areas of study. And some complete the two-year petroleum technology program as well.
“At the heart of the field of environmental studies is problem resolution, and such as, students need the critical thinking and analytic skills that the program provides.”
The environmental studies, energy sciences and technology, and biology programs all work together and complement each other very well, Robar added. Students recognize that, and appreciate that, and as such all three programs are growing and strong.kmw