For five days a group of 20 undergraduate students from Barnard College in New York City (U.S.) visited BIOS as part of a new course titled “Bermuda: Case Studies in Environmental Sustainability.” Offered as an elective for students majoring in environmental science or environmental sustainability, the course combines the study of the island’s ecology, geology, and hydrology with an investigation into sustainability issues, such as biological conservation, drinking water, energy production, and waste management.
Barnard College is a residential liberal arts college for women that, since 1900, has been part of Columbia University’s educational system. This relationship, unique among higher education institutions in the U.S., provides students access to both course catalogs and the opportunity to take classes at either campus. The Environmental Science Department at Barnard and the Earth and Environmental Science Department at Columbia both offer classes with field components. However, two faculty members at Barnard saw an opportunity to develop a new course that would speak to a growing need among their students.
“Historically, the courses that included a spring break trip were focused on geology and climate science,” said environmental scientist and geochemist Martin Stute, professor in the Environmental Science Department at Barnard. “Students’ interests have shifted somewhat to issues with more societal relevance and sustainability plays a growing role in the curriculum.”
An Eye on the Islands
Many of the sustainability issues that face large cities, such as New York City, make headline news. Not only does more than half the world’s population live in cities, but many of these issues-such as air pollution, overpopulation, and waste management-are shared across urban centers around the world. Why would a course on sustainability bring students to an island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean?
“Island nations are great case studies in sustainability because they are a well-confined system that can be characterized more easily than a much larger, very complex country or city with diffuse boundaries,” Stute said. “We know what goes in and out and even a short visit can illuminate a large range of sustainability issues that a place like Bermuda faces.”
Stute was already familiar with Bermuda, having first visited in 2014 and returned on a handful of subsequent trips. He felt the island’s proximity to New York would support the course’s theme of sustainability, as the trip would have a lower carbon footprint compared with one further abroad.
After approaching his colleague Terryanne Maenza-Gmelch with the idea for a new course, they both traveled to BIOS in spring 2022 to fine-tune details of the Bermuda-based field component. In addition to her background in ecology, Maenza-Gmelch, senior lecturer in the Environmental Science Department at Barnard, brought expertise in planning and running field excursions.
Leading up to the trip, students met weekly to discuss readings that provided a broad overview of the island’s ecology and environment, and introduced social and political contexts for some key sustainability issues. This comprehensive study of Bermuda was an important part of the course and provided a foundation for the study abroad component.
“We did a lot of contrasting between Bermuda and New York City,” Stute said. “Ultimately, we hope that students see pathways for a sustainable future and can suggest potential solutions to problems faced by Bermuda and similar island nations.”
Barnard to Bermuda
From March 13 to 18, the group used BIOS as a home base while they visited various locations around the island. This arrangement provided students with the ability to practice many of the sustainability solutions they would be learning about, such as water and energy conservation and waste separation. Beyond that, students were able to engage with the Institute’s research faculty and visiting scientists.
“Staying at BIOS was a unique opportunity to experience Bermuda on a day-to-day basis with the additional expertise and knowledge of world-class scientists,” said Emma Ziessler, 21, a junior majoring in environmental science. “This was very beneficial as we were able to ask questions along the way.”
Stute and Maenza-Gmelch structured the Bermuda-based component of the course around a combination of field trips and lectures to provide students with sources of inspiration for independent research projects. These real-world case studies in sustainability, which comprise the bulk of the required coursework, are presented at the end of the semester in a conference-style poster session that is open to the wider college community.
For insight into the island’s agricultural industry the group toured Amaral Farms, one of the largest and oldest family-owned farms in Bermuda. Carlos Amaral, co-owner of the farm and president of the Bermuda Farmers Association, shared information about growing practices and local crops. A trip to Spittal Pond Nature Reserve was an opportunity to learn about geology and how terrestrial habitats are managed to provide refuge for a diversity of wildlife.
Throughout the week, the class also met for evening lectures that enhanced the topics of daytime excursions. Environmental chemist Andrew Peters spoke about Bermuda’s environment; Bermudian hydrogeologist Mark Rowe gave a lecture on Bermuda’s geology; and Jeane Nikolai, the Bermuda Government’s Director of Energy, spoke about energy production and infrastructure.
Even before leaving Bermuda, students were already conceiving potential ideas for their research projects. One plans on contrasting how New York City obtains its drinking water (from a reservoir located in upstate New York) with the rooftop collection model utilized by most homes in Bermuda. Another student is interested in comparing conservation and management strategies for birds on small islands, such as the Cahow on Bermuda’s Nonsuch Island, to those used for birds in urban environments, such as the piping plover, an endangered shorebird that nests on the beaches of Long Island in New York.
Keeping the Connection Alive
Stute and Maenza-Gmelch hope to offer the “Bermuda: Case Studies in Environmental Sustainability” course every two years at Barnard. Based on feedback from their first cohort, it appears they were able to successfully develop a new learning experience that speaks to both curriculum requirements and changing student interests.
“Coming to Bermuda highlighted sustainability issues for the class because it helped us confront issues that can often be ignored,” said Kylie Seaward, 20, a junior majoring in earth science. “Living in New York City it is easy to forget about waste as soon as it’s taken away in a garbage truck, or to assume our water resources are secure and infinite. I have a better understanding of the difficulties associated with many sustainable options, even on a smaller scale, and the amount that individual mindsets and culture can affect sustainable solutions.”
The connections between Bermuda and the Columbia University system will continue to grow in the future thanks to the generosity of BIOS board chair, Stephen Weinstein, and his family. Weinstein earned his undergraduate degree from Columbia before entering Harvard Law School and is committed to encouraging Bermudian students to explore higher education opportunities in the U.S., including with his alma mater. The Weinstein Family Scholarship will support the tuition for one Bermudian student annually that is admitted to Columbia College and eligible for financial aid.
“Each of Columbia University’s undergraduate schools, including Barnard, Columbia College, and the School of Engineering, are ‘need blind’, which means that students of modest means can access education on an equitable basis,” Weinstein said. “However, my wife and I observed that many strong Bermudian students who would thrive at a U.S. university or college might not be aware of such an opportunity.”
U.S. Consul General Karen Grissette hosted an environmental sustainability reception at her home for the visiting group from Barnard and students from The Bermuda High School (BHS), along with environmental, education, and climate risk professionals. Weinstein attended, accompanied by his daughter Charlotte, a BHS graduate and first-year student at Barnard.
“It was a thrill for us to help welcome to Bermuda these superstar young women from Barnard and to introduce them, in turn, to some of the star students at The Bermuda High School,” he said. “We hope that every Bermudian student, including the hundreds who study, intern or work at BIOS, feel empowered to explore and pursue the education path of their choosing.”