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Out on the Farm With SEE-U NYC

If you’re a student at a big-city university, you may think there won’t be opportunities to study agriculture and ecosystems. But if that university is Columbia, think again. The Summer Ecosystem Experiences for Undergraduates (SEE-U) program is an intensive course that gives students a chance to get outside the city and all over the world to study ecosystems and agriculture, earn science credits, and get fieldwork experience under their belts.

The students and administrators of SEE-U NYC
The students and administrators of SEE-U NYC 2019 pose on their last field trip with Karen Washington of Rise & Root Farm (front right, in hat) and a Rise & Root farm hand (left front); professor Amanda Caudill at far right. (Photo by Phebe Pierson)

This summer’s SEE-U program was organized through the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability (EICES). The program was started around 20 years ago by Professor Don Melnick, who passed away earlier this year. The program has run in Jordan and Brazil, as well as closer to home in New York City and the surrounding Hudson Valley. Each location promises a different experience, with the focus shifting depending on the character of the environment. In Brazil, students study the tropical Atlantic Forest ecosystem; in Jordan, they delve into desert ecosystems and the resource management challenges that come with water-scarce regions.

The SEE-U NYC course focuses on the agroecosystems and food systems — both urban and rural — of the NYC foodshed. Led by Amanda Caudill, an ecologist and adjunct professor at EICES, the course is centered around a series of field trips to Black Rock Forest and Hudson Valley and NYC-area farms, giving students first-hand experience and familiarity with the operations of farms and related businesses. Students perform soil tests and learn basic statistics tools to analyze their results, and each student presents a final project at the end of the class using data and information they collect throughout the course.

The SEE-U NYC 2019 course wrapped up at the end of July, after a whirlwind month of field trips, experiments, and exercises. This summer’s class was a small group of students from all kinds of majors, including history, policy, and sustainable development. One of the great things about the course, says former EICES assistant director Kelsey Wooddell, is that it is open to all majors looking to fulfill their science credits. (It is a 6-credit course.) While some students who take the course are on an environmental or sustainability track, “Even those that don’t start as such typically leave with some more green inklings,” says Wooddell, who administered the class.

Caudill agrees, and says that her favorite part of the course is watching the students put everything together. Because the course is made up of readings, lectures, field trips, and science experiments, it gives students an experiential learning opportunity unlike what they would get in a traditional classroom environment. Caudill says, “I love when the students learn that science doesn’t have to be dry and rigid. I’ve had several students say that they never thought that they were good at science, but they had never experienced it like this and they loved it.”

The course has influenced past students to change majors, get sustainability-related internships, and in one case, a student even took a semester off to work on a farm in Georgia. “I think that [the course] really opens people’s eyes to what is going on around them and how they can be a part of that,” says Caudill.

Another positive influence that Caudill and Wooddell see is how students’ perceptions about scientists change. Caudill has had students say she is not what they think of when they think “scientist.” She and Wooddell (who is also a scientist) appreciate that they are in a position to show students all the “different faces science can have.”

It was evident at the final presentations that the course had a big influence on the students. Topics ranged widely, including: soil quality in pastures versus in gardens; urban garden soil quality in low- versus high-income parts of the city; how farm management practices affect overall farm health; and differences in food access between low- and high-income neighborhoods. Each student presented with a solid understanding of the concepts covered in the course and a solid basis in data collection and analysis.

The fall semester is in full swing and the SEE-U students are getting back to their normal class schedules. But it is unlikely they’ll forget about their immersive summer experience anytime soon.

We have compiled photos from the course in the photo essay below. Browse through to see some snapshots of the students’ experiences, as well as some tidbits of knowledge they gained from the people they spoke with.

Note: Starting in the summer of 2020, SEE-U NYC courses will be taught through Columbia University’s Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement.

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