Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1994 Issue

Certifiably Green

By Erin Bohensky '94

Some are in between careers. Others need a quick fix in environmental issues to make themselves more saleable. So these men and women have turned to Hopkins's environmental certificate program. Now they spend their weekends catching tiger salamanders and conducting soil surveys.

An hour's drive southeast from Maryland's Bay Bridge will get you to Pickering Creek Environmental Center, nestled in farm country on the Eastern Shore. Linked to the Chesapeake Bay by a series of small rivers and tributaries, Pickering Creek itself looks more like a lake, with small islands of trees growing in its middle. It is an ecotone, a blended system; this particular one is neither freshwater nor saltwater, but a combination of both. This makes for a unique wetland habitat, and a perfect showcase for the ecological concepts that Charles Stine teaches in the classroom.

When I arrive at Pickering, Stine and his 22 Principles of Ecology students are paddling their canoes off to a distant shore. From where I stand, the creek is silent, but out on the water, the aquatic life begins to speak, and Stine and his students will be there to listen. For the novice, communication with nature is like trying to breach a language barrier with a foreigner; it can be difficult, Stine has told me, but is not impossible. Instead of ears, he and his students will listen with environmental monitoring instruments: nets, pH meters, salinometers. Instead of translators, they'll interpret by measurements of water temperature, salinity, and chemistry. To the careful listener, the language of the water creatures will reveal that they are all connected to one another, and that they are all threatened by pollution, chemical imbalance, and overharvesting. Today, Stine is teaching his students to listen.

At 68, Charlie Stine has the energy level of a Little Leaguer, and in his rugby shirt and denim baseball cap, he almost looks the part. Prone to wisecracks and known simply as "Charlie" to his students, his past occupations have included being a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, photographer for the National Audubon Society, and radio announcer at WJHU. He currently splits his time between his dental practice, environmental consulting work, and teaching. "There are many joys in life associated with one's profession," he tells his students. "Do what you enjoy and somehow the money will follow. I think that's a damn good philosophy."

For the past 16 years, Stine has been teaching ecological science at the School of Continuing Studies. He is a founding father of the Certificate in Environmental Studies Program (CES), launched in 1991 when he and others at Hopkins recognized a need to reach people who didn't want to commit to the school's master's degree program in Interdisciplinary Science Studies.

"The certificate is designed for those without the time, money, or background to pursue a credit program," explains Tom Crain, CES director. Participants must complete six core courses--such as Fisheries Science and Management or Wildlife Conservation--which combine classroom lecture with field studies, as well as one elective and a final project.

Most of the 180 students who have taken part in the non- credit program are between 35 and 55 years old, Crain has found. They are men and women, he says, "who may be in- between jobs, or need a quick fix in environmental issues to make themselves more saleable." Many are self-employed or work for environmental firms. But there are also lawyers, utilities and transportation workers, architects, real estate developers--and park service employees, like Angela Olah, who is among those participating in Stine's field study on this sunny Sunday in April.

"These days the park service is really into educating kids on environmental issues, and I'd like to know more than the third-graders," says Olah, who gives nature talks and walking tours at Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County, Maryland. Her sister Monica, a veterinary technician, is also enrolled in the program, and the two are just now dragging their canoe up onto shore. (Although Stine provides canoes for his students, the Olah sisters--avid outdoorswomen--have brought their own.)

Back in their classroom sessions, the Olah sisters and their classmates have learned about concepts like biochemical cycling of nutrients, homeostatic balance, trophic levels of the food chain, and population characteristics. Now they get to see those processes spring to life.

They see how the saltmarsh peat breaks down and mixes with sand and decomposed plants, forming an impenetrable barrier to storms. They see how plants on the edge of the water are different than species inland; they are layered and zoned according to salinity and gradient.

"Out here, we see how the food chain really works. We see how one part of the ecosystem blends into the other," says Monica Olah. "When we seine, or cast our nets into the water, we really get to see that the little fish and the algae are all here. We've learned that that the bigger fish eat the little fish, which in turn eat the algae. But you don't see them until you come out here."

Sometimes what's most instructive is what the students don't see. On an earlier field trip, for instance, students discovered that the number of larvae from the endangered tiger salamander is on the low side this year. "The harsh winter and timber harvesting may be responsible for the decline," says student Jay Van Rensselaer, a medical photographer at Hopkins. Yet Stine warns against jumping to conclusions.

"The equipment gives you meaningful data," Stine explains. "But the data is absolutely meaningless unless you collect the larvae over a period of time_. And that's a point I try to get across to people: You know, don't get hysterical because it might be just a normal up and down of population."

Stine explains that larvae production normally halts during a drought (the region has experienced two in the last 15 years), then rebounds the following year to as many as 23,000 eggs. "We have to ask, are the 1,000 eggs we've counted this year a normal 'down' from natural causes like drought, or is it the result of overharvesting of timber?" Stine says. "The answer is, let's count the larvae for another 10 years."

Back at Hopkins one Monday evening, soil scientist Dan Wagner is ready to toss any prejudices about soil out the window.

"What is soil?" he asks on the first evening of his Soils and the Environment class. The answers come pouring out in a muffled stream, and Wagner is impressed by the class's eager show of class participation. "Wait, one at a time!" he pleads.

"Abiotic matter," one student offers.

"Dirty fingernails," says another.

Neither is exactly right, but Wagner has to get one thing straight before he continues. If there is one universal obscenity in the language of soil science, it has just been accidentally uttered. Wagner scrawls the word "DIRT" on the chalkboard and then explains: "This is something we don't like in soil science. I won't even say it. This word and soil are not the same. We have a specific way of studying soil. "

"Sorry I mentioned it," the student apologizes.

"That's okay. It's just something I have to get out of the way at the start of every course."

The soil scientist takes his subject very seriously. As he goes on to show, soil, indeed, is something far more complex, and aesthetic, than plain old dirt; it is a collection of natural bodies, it is capable of supporting plants, and it contains living matter. "Soils," Wagner says, "are alive."

In this course, students learn to identify soil profiles and the biogeochemical cycles that determine the type of plant and animal life the soil can support. Later on, in field studies at Bushey Park in Howard County, they'll examine the difference between wetland and forest soils, then learn to make decisions about land use, like where to build a house, and where to dump waste--or not to dump it.

"The course material keeps you up-to-date, and it is tailored to issues in Maryland," says student Carla Walker, who works for an environmental consulting firm. Walker finds this kind of information helpful because her company provides technical services for the U.S. Department of Energy and for the Environmental Protection Agency. Maryland is a key player in soil studies, Wagner says, partially to redeem the exploitative practices of its past.

"Maryland is a great example of horrible land use," Wagner tells his students. "As one of the older colonies, there was intensive land use here for tobacco. Since then we've lost three to four feet of soil."

Today, says Wagner, Maryland is the leading state in soil classification--a process that describes soils according to their formative elements. Soils are formed in layers called horizons, which become increasingly dense with depth. (Generally, A is the top layer of organic matter; B, the heart of the soil profile, contains transported minerals from A; C is unaltered rock, the 'parent' material; and R is the beginning of bedrock.) These layers link the Earth's surface to the bedrock below, and like a geological calendar, they reveal facts about past climates, and may even indicate future trends. Wagner tells the class that due to plowing and erosion, in many agricultural areas the A horizon has been completely erased by the B.

By the time the final lecture rolls around, the students in Soils and the Environment are adept at soil classification. On a screen at the front of the classroom Wagner shows slides of brilliantly photographed trenches, dug into the soil to expose its layers, at sites throughout the United States. This time, when the students are asked to identify the various profiles, they shout out the answers--the right ones--in unison.

Not being worried about getting that 'A' has its advantages, believes Tom Crain.

"We aren't trying to be another credit program. I'm very interested in creative and innovative formats for students to extend the range of learning opportunities. In CES, you're not wrapped up in a grading mechanism that dictates a relationship between students and faculty. These people bring to the classroom a wealth of experience, and it changes the educational environment."

Student Jay Van Rensselaer is quick to praise this approach. Of John Wolflin, instructor of natural resources policy and conservation, Van Rensselaer says, "On the first day of class, there was no syllabus, no set curriculum. [Dr. Wolflin] asked us two questions: Why are you in the class and what do you want to do in five years? He's bringing people in to meet our specific needs."

Together, Crain and Stine continually think about ways to keep the certificate program fresh. During our afternoon outing at Pickering Creek, in fact, Crain shows up with family in tow. Once the field study is over, he and Stine will work out the specifics of expanding the use of Pickering's recreational and educational facilities in the program.

But first, Stine leads his class into Pickering's forest of giant beech trees, white oaks, tulip poplars, and loblolly pines. He wants to talk about succession, a topic important enough for him to climb atop a small hill and announce to his class: "This is my Sermon on the Mound." The class responds with a chorus of chuckles. "They're so good, they laugh at the most stupid remarks," Stine says to me. "You'd think I was giving them a grade."

The sermon begins. "This is a very lovely old-growth forest in which to talk about succession, because it exemplifies those changes in community members that can occur if a forest remains untouched. This forest is probably 150 years old, but you've got young trees, because that's part of the scheme of things. If all the trees were of the same age, everything would be like we are; they would all kick off at one time, and disease would mow them down."

Suddenly, a small visitor appears behind the mound to upstage Stine. It is Crain's 3-year-old daughter Vanessa, who has been playing among the century-old beeches.

"Hi!" she calls out to Stine.

"Come on up here on the mound," he invites, but she shakes her head. Afflicted with stagefright, she skips away.

He goes on. "When an old tree dies, it creates a phase gap, or a hole in the forest that leaves room for new trees to move in. A forest tries to attain a steady state, where the number of trees dying equals the number that are 'born,' and rate of nutrient uptake is about equal to the rate of nutrient deposition." That is the natural state, he says, governed by a drive toward balance. "The death of a large tree to lightning opens the forest canopy, lets in sunlight, and attracts new organisms. With these little patches of open woods, succession begins anew." And so, Stine says, "in an old-growth forest, there is great opportunity for young life."

Erin Bohensky '94 graduated in May with a major in The Writing Seminars and a minor in environmental studies.

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