For 25 years, the Science on Seneca program offered by Hobart and William Smith Colleges has sought to provide regional teachers with the skills and equipment necessary to introduce their students to the field of environmental studies through a hands-on, outdoor classroom experience. Using the valuable resource of Seneca Lake, the program enables teachers to bring students aboard HWS’ research vessel The William Scandling.
Science on the Seneca was born in 1986, during a meeting of minds between Professor Emeritus of Geoscience Don Woodrow, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Kenneth Carle, and Professor Emeritus of Geoscience William Ahrnsbrak. “The three of us would talk about how what we were teaching and doing on campus could be improved or changed,” recalls Woodrow from his home in Point Richmond, Calif. “We would ask ourselves how we could have a stronger effect on students.”
Utilizing Seneca Lake seemed like a natural progression, as all three professors had instructed courses with students on the lake. The use of a lake as a laboratory was not only a highlight for students, but it also stood out as a resource available to few universities. “I taught a sedimentology course that worked with cores taken from the lake. Kenneth Carle took his first-year chemistry course out on lake,” explains Woodrow. “We just thought it would be good to set up a program like Science on Seneca because we were trying to interest kids in science – and get students to the Colleges.”
From this idea, Woodrow and his colleagues created a program that consisted of a training course for regional teachers, a data-gathering curriculum for secondary school students, as well as handouts and a book that solidified the studies on the lake.
The program put in place 25 years ago, now an outreach effort of the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, has evolved tremendously, with advancements including an online curriculum, an online database developed by Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Stina Bridgeman that schools can query, and more. For $20 per group – an increase of only $5 since its founding – students and teachers are able to create data sets and conduct analyses using plankton tows, sediment sampling and water chemistry.
“It allows access to one of the very best natural laboratories-the Finger Lakes-at virtually no cost to the schools,” explains Associate Professor of Geoscience Meghan Brown, who currently trains teachers for the program. “Exposing students to the natural beauty of the lake and cool science of limnology can be life changing for students.”
Classes can use any of the equipment aboard the boat – something that Professor of Geoscience John Halfman, who also works to educate secondary teachers during training, notes sets this program apart from others of its kind.
“Most people are floored that we charge so little. We let high schools use our boats and equipment for basically nothing,” says Halfman.
Halfman also commented on Science on Seneca’s continued ability to attract the best and brightest students. “This program is really good at recruiting topnotch students to come here.” When students attend their day aboard the William Scandling, they are also given a tour of the HWS campus – a practice that has been implemented since the program’s inception. Over the years, the Colleges have been excited to enroll former SOS students.
“One of my former students “caught the bug” for lake studies when she was a middle school student on a SOS trip in the 1990s,” says Brown. “It was neat to have her in class years later and return to the lake at a more advanced level.”
In the end, the program is rewarding for the middle and high school teachers and students, and to those at Finger Lakes Institute who work with the program year after year.
“It is rewarding to contribute to environmental education on the lakes,” remarks Brown. “I spend just a few afternoons a year with area teachers and then they reach out to hundreds of secondary students to spread the word about why this place is so special.”