The wind is whipping across Seneca Lake, rocking even the steel-hulled William Scandling’s 65-foot frame as it plies the choppy water. Students collecting water samples over the side of the ship have their hair blown into fantastic patterns. Other groups settle onto the deck, cradling small blue chemical kits between their legs and jotting in notebooks endlessly harassed by the summer wind. Parts of the shore line have receded into the haze and for a few moments the world is nothing but the deep blue-black of the ancient lake.
The students are braving the lake this July morning as part of the Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute (ESSYI), an interdisciplinary program for high school students sponsored by the Hobart and William Smith Colleges. It’s kind of like a summer camp, if summer camp meant studying glacial remnants or alternative energy sources in the morning and talking art and philosophy in the afternoon.
Inside the cabin of the Scandling, the wind isn’t bothering Lisan Gresser. The Scottsdale, Arizona native is busy running through a series of chemical tests, looking for dissolved oxygen and chloride in water taken from different sources around the lake. She’s come here from the Southwest because of a strong interest in environmental science and the strength of the ESSYI program. Gresser is one of 39 students from across the country participating this summer. This morning, Seneca Lake is providing the data and she, and the groupmates, are providing the analysis.
On many days like this one, Seneca Lake can feel less like a lake and more like an ocean. Two miles wide, 35 miles long and more than 600 feet deep, the lake can awe with its size and beauty. But the lake’s ecosystem is also fragile. Invasive species such as the zebra mussel, high chloride levels and agricultural runoff all provide challenges for the ESSYI students to study, analyze and understand.
The excursion aboard the Scandling is just one small part of the ESSYI program. Other activities include visits to local nature centers and ecological preserves, studying glacial and coastal processes and investigating alternative energy sources, all under the watchful eye of Colleges faculty. John Halfman, professor of geoscience, says that he likes teaching the students from ESSYI. “They’re enthusiastic,” he says. “The experience means a lot to them.”
ESSYI, in keeping with the interdisciplinary spirit of the Colleges, interprets environmental science as broadly as possible. Education Professor Jim MaKinster, who coordinates the program, believes that a multidimensional approach serves students — and society — best. “Students come to us with the idea that everything can be solved by science,” MaKinster says. “But when you take a step back and unpack it, these are just as much political problems, social problems and cultural problems as they are scientific.”
To reflect that truth, ESSYI introduces students to a host of other topics including environmental justice, environmental economics and philosophic and religious approaches to the environment. “We stand out to the extent that we’re interdisciplinary,” says MaKinster, “and that reflects our Environmental Studies program on campus as well.”
Back on the Scandling, the wind has begun to die down and the day turns hot and sunny. Paul Golob, a Washington D.C. native, chats idly as he studies a vial of lake water. The rising senior believes that he wants to work on a career in public policy and the environment. “It seems like something where I could make a big difference,” he says.
About that, he’s absolutely right.