Come Sail Away With Chesapeake Semester

Students Dive Into a Program That Stresses Experience Over Textbooks
By Natalie Butz

Six students canoe down the Upper Chester River. It’s not the same river they see coming across the bridge into Chestertown. No, this portion is so narrow that the branches of the trees on either side of the river weave together, forming a dome overhead. They take PH and salinity samples and use nets to pull up aquatic samples, but this isn’t a research trip. The purpose is to scientifically contextualize essays by Henry David Thoreau as they float down the lazy stream.

Such scenes are typical in the Center for Environment and Society’s Chesapeake Semester, an interdisciplinary approach to the Chesapeake Bay. Students who participate have the opportunity to get out of the classroom and become completely immersed in the culture of the Bay.

“One thing we know that works is the experiential component of the whole course,” said program manager Mike Hardesty. “We visit with real stakeholders like active watermen and we explore how they influence the region and how the region influences them. The experiential side is what really drives the Chesapeake Semester. The aim of this course is to get students out of the classroom, get their hands dirty, and experience the bay first-hand.”

The Semester is broken down into four trips or ‘voyages,’ meant to show the broad range of perspectives surrounding the Bay and its watershed.

“We traveled to learn the past, present, and future of the watershed exploring all of the influences that play a role in the health of the bay. We were exposed to almost every aspect of the watershed, including farmers, politicians, watermen, scientists, historians, developers etc. allowing us to understand the interconnectedness of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Chesapeake Semester alum Kelsey Hallowell.

But it’s not all hard work. There is some time for play.

“Frying fish and eating crabs we caught that day on a skipjack while watching the sun set over the river,” said Hardesty when he described the opening week of the Semester. “That’s a moment during orientation where we’re not too deep into the curriculum, so you take a moment to sit back, turn off your brain and it gives you such a deep appreciation for this unique place you’re in. You think, this is gorgeous and this is in my backyard.”

The semester picks up though. Students are soon plunged into a landscape where the same things which make it ecologically unique also compound many of its problems.

“There are 11,000 miles of shoreline, but it’s not part of some giant chasm thousands of feet deep. The bay itself is only an average of 21 feet deep. The attributes that make this estuary so unique are also its Achilles’ Heel,” said Hardesty.

Such dichotomies inform much of the Semester’s curriculum. It might inspire frustration sometimes, but it ends up giving students a much more interconnected view of the Bay.

“I knew I would have a blast doing the semester, but I didn’t expect to bring away such knowledge about the various cultures around the bay, and how we are all connected by the water we live around. The semester taught me that to solve problems, everyone has to pull together as a group or nothing will get done,” said Chesapeake alum Julia Krout.

Such lessons not only improve students’ abilities as critical thinkers, but are timely given the environmental concerns surrounding the Bay.

“We’re having all these problems with runoff, but there’s no simple solution. That’s one of the interesting things I think this course brings up. Profitable industries like the poultry industry are what keep the Eastern Shore alive from an economic stand point, but they’re also causing some of its biggest problems,” said Hardesty.

The Semester usually attracts Environmental Studies Majors. But the program offers unique, and Hardesty believes largely unexplored, opportunities for any major.

“We examine the port of Baltimore specifically as an economic engine for the Chesapeake Bay and ask, “what are the things that come into play that will keep the Bay thriving as an economic port?” said Hardesty. “An environmental concern quickly comes into play with that economic motive. You might be committed to business management or another major and think these issues might not affect you, but at some point, you’re going to need to think about the environment.”

And while the course may focus on the Bay, alums can see what an impact the course has had on their life outside of Washington College.

“It is such a unique program that not only taught me about the society, environment, culture, business, economics, and politics of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Peru, but above all it taught me how to learn. Instead of just reading about a fact, issue, or process in the Chesapeake Bay, we lived and interacted with it. We approached components of the bay with multiple perspectives which taught us to ask more questions than we would ever get answers to. I learned more from constantly questioning what I saw than I ever would have if I were just reading the hard facts in a textbook,” said Chesapeake alum Kathy Thorton.

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