State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


This Summer, Global Fellows Take Theory into the Field

By Alana Masciana

Learning-by-doing may seem to be a commonplace notion in today’s educational sphere, but in truth, the modern university system often overlooks and under-utilizes experiential learning in favor of a traditional, theory-based approach. While theoretical learning is one important piece of the educational puzzle, it cannot replace the other—learning through action. The Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development’s Global Fellows Program stemmed from a recognition of the value of out-of-classroom learning, and every semester, the program funds fieldwork experiences for a handful of undergraduates majoring or concentrating in sustainable development.

In the past, students have utilized the program to fund senior thesis research and study abroad experiences focused on electricity access in Nicaragua, urban food insecurity in India, and deep well allocation in Bangladesh, among other topics. And this summer’s Global Fellows are no less ambitious.

Where better to study biodiversity than in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, home to over 20,000 species of plants and 2,200 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians? How better to evaluate renewable energy technologies than through site walk-throughs and analyses in Iceland, a country that powers itself with 100 percent renewable energy? These questions motivated Naomi Hoffman and Chelsea Jean-Michel, two of this summer’s Global Fellows, to apply for funding for international study abroad experiences.

Hoffman, a rising junior in Columbia’s School of General Studies, is traveling to Brazil this summer with the Summer Ecosystem Experience for Undergraduates (SEE-U) to study tropical forest ecology and conservation practices at the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (IPÊ). She’s always been interested in conservation and wanted to expand her understanding of how conservation fit into the larger picture of sustainable development. With IPÊ, she’s learning about the effects that human activities have on species persistence and ecosystem functioning in the Atlantic Forest, and tackling the challenge of linking environmental sustainability and socioeconomic development through dual guidance from IPÊ conservation experts and local community leaders.

For Jean-Michel, too, location-based learning seemed imperative to the realization of the academic trajectory she had set for herself. As a rising senior in Columbia College, she knew she wanted to use the summer to narrow in on a topic for her upcoming senior thesis research—and she had identified an interest in renewable energy technology—but she wasn’t entirely sure how to fit the two together. Here’s where the Global Fellows Program came in. Some time, thought, and research later, she realized that the place she could best focus on this topic was Iceland, a relative utopia for renewable energy. So, with the help of the fellowship, she set off with SIT Iceland to examine model examples of renewable energy-in-action, such as the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant, and interface with experts in the field.

Though many students, like Hoffman and Jean-Michel, take advantage of the Global Fellows Program to focus on sustainable development issues in international contexts, the program doesn’t require fieldwork to take place on foreign soil. In fact, almost as often as not, the fellowship supports endeavors to address local challenges, like those undertaken by Elise Gout and Grace Hwang—the other two Summer 2018 Global Fellows.

Both Gout and Hwang are conducting their fieldwork within the New York City region, though in vastly different spheres: the first is addressing a gap in natural disaster research, while the second is bolstering her understanding of urban farming.

Gout, a rising senior in Columbia College, is devoting her summer to senior thesis research on flood risk perception among the elderly population. Her project centers around a series of interviews with residents of Community District 14 (Queens). The decision to focus on residents ages 65 and older stemmed from a realization that there is a noticeable lack of research on the way the elderly population perceives flood risk. Along with the desire to fill that gap, Gout also wanted to analyze the effectiveness of New York City’s current disaster preparedness. The Global Fellows Program enabled her to remain in New York City for the summer, instead of returning home to San Diego.

Hwang, a rising junior in Columbia College and the final Summer 2018 Global Fellow, is utilizing her summer to explore agro-ecosystems in the New York City urban area with SEE-U. After experiencing health struggles growing up, Grace became aware that access to fresh, nutritious foods is simultaneously a challenge of environmental sustainability and an issue of inequity. Through the SEE-U NYC program, she’s studying all parts of the urban farming process, from growing to harvesting to processing to packaging to marketing to consuming to waste disposal. Ultimately, she is hoping the experience will be both a catalyst for her senior thesis, as well as a step towards her long-term goal—establishing an indoor urban farm in Chicago and making fresh, nutritious foods available to low-income communities.

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems. It is offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the sustainable development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health. To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact Program Manager Cari Shimkus at

Alana Masciana is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College.

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