Just a mile down the road from SUNY Potsdam, Claudia Basabakwinshi ’24 slips into her waders and carefully steps into the chilly water flowing through Parkhurst Brook. Extending what looks like a blue telescopic ski pole, she measures the water velocity with a flow meter, as her classmate Alyssa Card ’26 calculates the depth of the stream.
The two students are part of the first cohort in the College’s brand new environmental science program, a hands-on interdisciplinary Bachelor of Science degree program offered through the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences that prepares students for careers in environmental conservation and protection.
"I love the program. It's really exciting that we get to go on field trips almost every week, and see the nature around Potsdam while learning all the names of the rivers and the different brooks. This is the first specific science course for the major, and I’m enjoying it and excited to see where the program goes as they develop it.”
This spring, eight students have been working closely with professors Dr. Jessica Rogers and Dr. Glenn Johnson as part of their Introduction to Environmental Science course. Combining a lecture with an interactive lab, students have been exploring Northern New York while learning important skills about how to analyze the human impact on the environment.
“I think nowadays it's super important that as a society we start to gain more awareness about the roots of our issues. So much of it comes back to how we're treating the earth and the environment,” Basabakwinshi said.
The inaugural course is focused on examining water resources, while also looking at atmospheric pollution and terrestrial plant communities. As students examine waterways in the North Country, they have been learning about the health of streams and rivers, and collecting important data ranging from pH and dissolved oxygen levels, to detecting phosphate, nitrate, and chloride, to determine the level of pollution in streams and rivers.
Using a variety of tools, students have been taking water samples and measurements at four different locations as they examine the water above and below agricultural sites along Parkhurst Brook and above and below the Potsdam Water Treatment Plant in the Raquette River. Ultimately, their results will be able to paint a picture of the health of local waterways around Potsdam.
Students are also collecting invertebrates, another indicator of stream and river health. “We’ll use that to do the Environmental Protection Agency’s EPT test for stream health,” Johnson said. “The more of certain kinds of organisms, and the fewer of others, tells us if it’s a good or bad stream.” During one of their recent labs, students gathered in a parking lot on campus to measure levels of four gases—carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide—from the exhaust pipes from a variety of makes and models of cars and trucks. Using a pump to draw the exhaust into thin tubes, students measured levels of the gases emitted from everything from diesel trucks and older vehicles without catalytic converters, to newer cars with four-cylinder engines.
“What they’ve been doing, besides answering a few questions related to the sampling, is coming up with a hypothesis that we can test. The main thrust of this course is to look at water resources, but we wanted to talk about atmospheric pollution as well,” said Johnson.
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for environmental scientists is $73,320 per year, and the new bachelor’s degree is the perfect launchpad for students seeking jobs in the field, which is expected to grow by eight percent between now and 2030.
“There have been so many students who wanted to pursue this field, and now we offer it. We were seeing the careers that students thought they wanted, and the internships they were pursuing, and we didn't have a cohesive major that was preparing them for those careers. And so, this new program is basically meeting that demand,” said Rogers. “We used to have to cobble together some classes, maybe a biology minor, an environmental studies major, a secondary geology minor, and now it's a lot easier because it transfers directly to the skills that the Department of Environmental Conservation is looking for students to have in the field of environmental conservation.”
Article and photos by Jason Hunter