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Gaining Experience as an Environmental Scientist

When Mason Environmental Science and Policy professor Cynthia Smith was getting ready to teach EVPP 302 Biomes and Human Dimensions for the first time, she did a little research first.

She found that some environmental science and biology majors were having difficulty finding jobs without a graduate degree. Looking for answers, she surveyed 10 employers and found that what they wanted most was were employees who had worked on “real” research projects and had “real” field experience. So she reworked the course to include an energy audit of a campus building, which is conducted in partnership with Mason’s Offices of Sustainability and Facilities. She also incorporated a number of trips to learn what environmental scientists do in the field.

After receiving a tour from Mason Facilities and a rundown of how they operate, the EVPP 302 students conducted an energy audit of buildings around the Fairfax Campus and suggested ways to reduce energy consumption. The class gained valuable experience in operating thermal imaging equipment to discover heat leaks from windows and other spots. They compiled their findings into a 24-page report, which Facilities is using to create work orders and fix the leaks.

“One of the best parts about my job is the interaction with the students during plant tours—and getting new ideas from them that we can possibly use to save energy,” says Jeffrey Counts, superintendent of the heating and cooling plant in Facilities Management.

For one of the field trips, students donned Tyvek suits and sifted through trash at the Prince William County landfill to determine what percentage of the refuse was recyclable. Another field trip brought the class to Leesylvania State Park in Woodbridge, Virginia, where students were challenged to think of new ways to protect the park’s living shorelines from erosion and pollution. After taking a park tour, the students brainstormed ideas. They returned to the park a week later to present those ideas to Sarah Percival, the chief ranger of the park, who is taking them into consideration for future park renovations.

Students had overwhelmingly positive reactions to the class. “There is no class to compare to EVPP 302. It is eye opening, jaw dropping, and inspiring, all at the same time,” says environmental science major Melanie Sattler.“ [The class] impacted how I approach environmental science in everyday life. Every small step in the right direction matters.”

Environmental science major Meghana Varde had similar feelings, saying that. “[EVPP 302] “was definitely one of my favorite classes at Mason because I was able to get a hands-on experience and gain a better understanding of the work that professionals currently do.”