Endangered Ohia Tree forest type on the flanks of Mauna Kea Volcanon on the Big Island

Environmental Studies in Hawai'i

A new environmental studies course at Penn State Altoona includes a two-week, on-site study in Hawaii.

By: Therese Boyd

Penn State Altoona students have a unique opportunity in the spring 2019 semester: taking an environmental studies class that starts in Altoona and ends with 12 days of study in the Hawaiian Islands. Carolyn Mahan, professor of biology and environmental studies, and Lisa Emili, associate professor of physical geography and environmental studies and sustainability coordinator, have developed a course of classroom discussion, readings, and Zoom presentations with Hawai’ian experts in a number of fields. The first portion of the course will take place in Pennsylvania, followed by two weeks of on-site study in Hawai’i.

Mahan’s original vision for the course included a trip with her biology students to study evolution in the Galapagos Islands, she says, “but it was very expensive. I was talking with Jim Boone, the entomology collections manager at Bishop Museum in Hawai’i, and he said that most people don’t know that Hawai’i is more significant evolutionarily in terms of species diversity than the Galapagos. The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated in the world, the farthest from any land. Animals get there, they don’t, or can’t, leave, and then they diversify.”

Boone also pointed out that a trip to Hawai’i would not be “international and so logistically also it is easier,” Mahan says, and “I started to explore. Hawai’i is the only place in the world where you can study and approach an active volcano. What made me even more interested is that Polynesians reached Hawai’i 1,000–2,000 years ago. You have the whole fascinating culture to study.”

A black lava beach at Whittington Beach Park on the southern coast of the Big Island

Black Lava Beach

A black lava beach at Whittington Beach Park on the southern coast of the Big Island

The professors stress that this is an environmental studies course, not just a “tour.” “It’s completely curated by us,” Emili says. “We’ve gone to all these amazing places, we’ve formed those relationships.” She was surprised on one of their trips to Hawai’i to create the course to experience the long reach of Penn State. “A gentleman approached us in a parking lot” when he saw Mahan in a Penn State hat. “He is a lawyer in Hawai’i and did his degree in meteorology at Penn State, a chemistry degree at Cornell, and then his law degree. He and his wife are well versed in volcanology and the ecology of the islands.”

When it comes to education, Emili says, “I’m a firm believer in an embedded field component.” She wants to give her students “experiential learning, camaraderie, and exposure to experts in the field. Students will see jobs they could potentially be doing. They’re going to learn and they’re going to see that job model—curators, scientists, technicians, National Park Service resource managers, Fish and Wildlife biologists.”

Students who want to participate in this course must enroll in either a special section of ENVIR 100/SUST 200 or, with instructor approval, ENVST 497 (which can count as ENVST 400W). The course will begin mid-Spring semester with weekly classes, required readings, and Zoom conferences. Once the class arrives in Hawai’i on May 19, they will stay in dormitories at the University of Hawai’i (on both Oahu and the Big Island) and learn from experts at the Bishop Museum, Mauna Kea Observatories, National Park Services, and University of Hawai’i.  In addition students will study both ancient and modern culture of Hawai’i, visit volcanoes, and study endangered species and ecosystems.

Class size is limited and the deadline to contact the professors is December 7, 2018 (last day of classes). For more information about the program, contact Carolyn Mahan or Lisa Emili