State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Capstone Workshop and Bangladesh Presentations 2012

By: Deborah Sachare

Students in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development gathered at the end of the spring semester as part of the Capstone Workshop in Sustainable Development, to present their final recommendations to clients and members of the Columbia University community. The goal of the workshop is to bring together the theoretical and environmental sustainability concepts students have learned through their coursework and apply these theories to real-world cases. The capstone is a required component of the sustainable development program and this year an additional workshop, Bangladesh:  Life on a Tectonically Active Delta, was piloted to fulfill the requirement. The course, made possible through government funding to Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Research Professor Michael Steckler, allowed thirteen students to undertake international fieldwork. Under the guidance of faculty advisers Stuart Gaffin and Michael Steckler, seniors worked with three clients in New York and conducted research in Bangladesh over spring break. The projects are consistently interesting and diverse: “workshop topics deal with problems of the clients’ choosing: something that they, the clients, are wrestling with, be it measuring wetland loss rates, urban heat island mitigation or green building design. No matter the problem, the sustainable development students are able to rise to the occasion and craft a method to solve or address the problem,” says Professor Gaffin.

The new course Bangladesh:  Life on a Tectonically Active Delta, taught by Michael Steckler, allowed students to research the hazards and resource challenges facing people living in one of the most dynamic and sensitive environments on Earth. Professor Steckler has spent many years studying the region and noted that Bangladesh was a great case study opportunity for students. “Bangladesh is a fascinating country that is progressing despite facing numerous natural disasters”, stated Steckler. Visiting the country allowed students to study, among other things, river dynamics, bank erosion, effects of tropical cyclones, sea level rise and coastal land loss. Students presented their findings on three major areas of research: Shrimp Farming, Urbanization and Flooding.

Under Stuart Gaffin, students in the traditional Capstone Workshop in Sustainable Development were split into groups to work with three clients: Foodworks, Partnership for Parks (PfP), and the Rockland County Bureau of Water Supply. The Partnership for Parks group, whose work built upon the findings from the fall 2011 workshop, was tasked with analyzing the effectiveness of the organization through the use of detailed staff interviews, data analysis and survey questionnaires. The Rockland County group undertook a cost-benefit analysis of a range of possible water conservation plans for Rockland County, recommending feasible options for the county. They conducted this analysis within the framework provided by the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a national NGO devoted to the efficient and sustainable use of water. The scope of the project with Foodworks required two groups of students to analyze issues of agricultural production, processing, distribution, consumption and post-consumption. Foodworks will use this to inform a comprehensive plan for a sustainable food system in New York City.The first team focused their efforts on urban agriculture, making recommendations for sustainably farmed green roofs. The second team researched ethnic manufacturing, looking at business strategies and food production challenges of ethnic foods in New York City.

“The capstone workshop final reports are always very impressive and have spanned a very large range of environmental studies over the years. It is a testament to the effectiveness of the sustainable development major and special concentration that the students always rise to the challenge of successfully addressing such complex problems, even though they have little or no prior experience with the specific topics. The clients have always been deeply impressed by the students’ work and products they deliver,” said Gaffin.

The Capstone Workshop in Sustainable Development, is offered in both the fall and spring semesters. Bangladesh:  Life on a Tectonically Active Delta will be offered again in spring 2013. For questions about upcoming projects or for general information on the program, please contact Jessica Crespo, program coordinator, at

To watch the presentation videos, please click HERE.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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