Expanding Educational Horizons

In January, students at Johns Hopkins University spent two-and-a-half weeks at BIOS taking a course entitled “Bermuda: Island Sustainability” as part of their university’s Intersession program. Intersession, which is held every January between the fall and spring semesters, gives students the opportunity to participate in study abroad experiences and take courses not typically offered during the regular academic year. Photo by Chris Holder.

While the first week of January means a return to school for many, students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland can spend time between the fall and spring semesters taking intensive courses as part of the University’s “Intersession” program.

These courses, typically one to three weeks in length, are offered to degree-seeking students at no additional tuition fee, allowing them to take courses for academic credit that are typically not offered during the regular academic year. Students frequently use Intersession as an opportunity to study abroad and take courses that combine lectures from Johns Hopkins faculty with presentations from local experts, field experiences, and written or community service projects.

For the last three years, Johns Hopkins has partnered with BIOS to offer an Intersession course at the Institute. This course is the only “January Abroad” program offered during Intersession that receives support from donors who are committed to giving students hands-on learning opportunities in other countries. Their financial backing helps defray travel and room and board costs for participants, making the program accessible to students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

During the course, students used the island of Bermuda as a case study to understand the environmental and societal challenges associated with global sustainability issues. Led by professor Rebecca Kelly and teaching assistant Chris Holder, the group visited many of Bermuda’s unique ecosystems, including Blue Hole Park in Tom Moore’s Jungle, to investigate a variety of topics such as climate change, invasive species, and natural resource management. Photo by Rebecca Kelly.

The inaugural course in January 2018 focused on ocean science and the carbon cycle, while the 2019 course highlighted Bermuda’s marine and coastal ecosystems. This year, the course topic was island sustainability. Students, using Bermuda as a case study, worked to understand the environmental and societal challenges associated with global sustainability issues. The course, led by Rebecca Kelly, director of the University’s undergraduate program in environmental science and studies, and teaching assistant Chris Holder, aimed to investigate a variety of topics, such as climate change, invasive species, natural resource management, pollution control, and renewable energy.

Unlike many Intersession courses that are designed for students within a particular major, Kelly opened the program to students from any degree track. As a result, the nine students in her course represented a diverse cross section of educational interests, including biomedical engineering, computer science, East Asian studies, environmental science, mechanical engineering, and political science.

“I find the diversity of backgrounds makes for a richer class because we’re not all coming at the content from the same perspective,” Kelly said. “I love the multidisciplinary aspect and it offers me a good challenge. We have the opportunity to learn together.”

Bridgette Kim, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering and computer science, was excited to find a study abroad opportunity for engineering majors. “I didn’t expect to be able to study abroad in my degree program, but I’m interested in sustainability and thinking about studying environmental science in the future, so this was a great option,” she said.

The class also gave students the opportunity to make connections with industry and government representatives to learn how Bermuda is addressing concerns about air pollution control, wastewater management, and renewable energy. During one field excursion, the group toured BELCO’s power plant and the Tynes Bay waste-to-energy plant to see first-hand how the island deals with waste management issues. Photo by Rebecca Kelly.

The group arrived at BIOS on January 5, and the following morning began with an overview of Bermuda’s natural environment from BIOS environmental chemist and director of University Programs Andrew Peters. Each day included lectures and classroom-based learning in the morning, with field experiences in the afternoon. During their trip, students snorkeled on Bermuda’s coral reefs, toured the island’s waste-to-energy facility and desalination plant, visited local nature preserves, and explored various heritage and historical sites.

Josh Krachman, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering, chose the Intersession course to gain insight into medical issues, such as gastrointestinal infections due to poor water quality, that are closely linked with sustainability. He expressed surprise at the number of environmental issues that Bermuda’s government officials address on a small budget. He was also glad to see leadership stepping forward to address island-wide problems such as air pollution and biodiversity conservation.

“The diverse range of topics in this course really brings together students of all backgrounds,” Krachman said. “Long-term sustainability has so many different aspects, including social, economic, and environmental, and this means the solution isn’t simple. The tougher the problem, the more people are needed to come together, and this makes the education experience all the more rewarding.”

Tess Turner, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, said the course was one of the best learning opportunities she’s had, particularly because she can experience course topics first-hand through field excursions and conversations with local experts. “Getting to learn from the researchers at BIOS who are dealing with these issues is an extremely rewarding and engaging way to approach a topic,” she said.

For Kelly, holding the course at BIOS enabled her and her students to immediately become part of a welcoming community. “Even though the scope of this course reaches well beyond ocean sciences, BIOS was a fantastic host,” she said. “The staff here have such great connections with government departments, facilities, and people all over the island, which has made it very easy for us to gain access to lectures and tours that would've been impossible for me to arrange on my own.”