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By Abby Metzger
Posted February 19, 2018
In the summer of 2017, eight undergraduate students from Oregon State University traveled to Poitiers, France, as part of an environmental sciences course called L’Environnement French Style. For four weeks, the students braved language barriers, unfamiliar food and cultural differences to gain an up-close view of the environmental geography of west central France. The cohort explored diverse topics, from the relationship between technology and environmentalism, to regional ecosystems and agricultural issues.
Poitiers is ripe for such exploration. The region is layered with human modification, from a Roman aqueduct to contemporary nuclear energy sources. Modern agricultural practices are set against ancient architecture and churches. And like many places, a growing environmental ethos confronts urgent economic need.
Course instructor and tour guide extraordinaire Larry Becker said it was important to understand the region’s history when learning about current environmental policy.
“We can’t understand environmental issues unless we understand the political and cultural realm in which they are expressed,” says Becker, a professor and head of the environmental sciences undergraduate program in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State.
Students participated in several field trips that brought the region’s geography into focus. They witnessed the complex and sometimes-paradoxical dimensions of landscapes and conservation. In one field trip, students visited a biodiversity reserve. On the outside, the reserve appeared pristine. But the site was once a highly modified landscape, where mill stones were dug and harvested. Remnant pools still pit the ground.
“It was an example of contemporary environmental policy,” says Becker, “But at one time it was a medieval industrial wasteland.”
In another field trip, students toured an agricultural cooperative that featured varied farming practices. Becker stressed that the cooperative wasn’t just for “purists” growing organic, local food. Some were practicing sustainable growing methods while also tapping into global markets.
One farm, for example, was experimenting with minimal soil disturbance (called no-till). This same sustainable farm was also supplying the wheat for mainstream food products.
One student, Juan Carlos Flores-Alonso, was inspired by the cooperative approach to farming. “The cooperative provides resources and guarantees competitive pricing on the grains these farmers produce. Anyone can come in, small-scale, large-scale, sustainable, organic, conventional. You can experiment with your methods but still have good profits,” he said.
Another course participant – Jynwaye Foo – also appreciated the cooperative field trip. One farm was using GIS technology to map the land and remotely sense chlorophyll levels, which can be used to assess plant health.
“It got me thinking, why aren’t we doing that on a mass scale?” says Foo, a native of Malaysia. The environmental sciences senior at Oregon State wants to work for big business in a big city one day, where she plans to help enterprises adopt sustainable practices to maximize output. Her experience in France showed her how industries can operate more sustainably and efficiently.
Beyond teaching environmental science concepts, the course was an opportunity for self-discovery, says Becker, no matter the students’ travel or language experience.
“You learn not just the logistics about being in another country, but it’s an experience that you carry into yourself as a student, as a young person.”
Jynwaye Foo would agree. While she has traveled abroad many times, she found the cohort experience and “learning-by-doing” aspect of the course invaluable. “If you want to be immersed in the culture, you have to live and work there. So, seize the opportunity,” she advises. “Studying abroad through a university makes it easy. All you have to do is go. It really teaches you to be independent and makes you more adaptable. It teaches you social and life skills that can’t otherwise be taught inside the classroom.”
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