The Water Connects Us: Studying and Sustaining Life In Coastal Alaska

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
June 28, 2021 - July 21, 20216/28 - 7/213 WeeksOnlineOpenOnlineJane Diener
Katie Gavenus

Course Description

Alaska’s Kachemak Bay is a special place. It is an area of diverse and surprising edges where the coastal temperate forest shifts almost imperceptibly towards boreal forest. The sea meets the land, rising and falling twice a day with the tides, and saltwater from the Pacific Ocean mixes with freshwater from rivers and glaciers. The Pacific Plate plunges beneath the North American plate, sculpting mountains, triggering earthquakes, and forming active volcanoes. The lands and waters also support productive fisheries, a robust tourism economy, harvest of giant trees and tiny peat moss, small-scale cattle operations, bountiful local farms and gardens, and traditional harvest of first foods like black bear, mountain goats, berries, fiddlehead ferns, salmon, clams, seaweed, and seal. These diverse ecosystems and human communities are woven together by the water. It flows over and through the land, is temporarily contained by people in wells and reservoirs and cisterns, cycles into and out of living things, and gathers in the Bay. This is a beautiful example of a watershed.

This course introduces students to the concept of a watershed by using the exciting Kachemak Bay ecosystems as examples. Led by instructors with access to a diverse array of locations, the course will begin in the headwaters of Kachemak Bay (including boreal forest, wildflower meadows, bog, mountain, and glacial environments). Following the flow of water, students will be led through explorations of stream, river, and coastal wetland habitat and then move into intertidal and marine ecology. Wherever students are, they are part of a watershed! This course will emphasize the socioecological systems of the Kachemak Bay watershed, how environmental changes are impacting this place, and the ways in which study of Kachemak Bay can reveal the wonders, questions, and needs in students’ own watersheds. As students learn about different ecosystems of the Kachemak Bay watershed, they will be introduced to different ways that people interact with this place. They will review a selection of key environmental challenges confronting Kachemak Bay, with special emphasis on climate change impacts. They will also learn about different ways in which communities are studying these changes, protecting the function and health of the watershed and associated ecosystems, and building community projects to adapt to the unavoidable and already-happening impacts of climate change. All of the course lessons, workshops, and assignments culminate with a final presentation that students prepare for throughout the course. Students will identify a pressing issue that they are passionate about and, with support from instructors and peers, will create an Action Plan to apply their new leadership knowledge to this issue in their home community. We encourage students to think about potential Action Plan topics before they come to this course, but most develop their ideas during the course with help of peers and in-class activities. All students are provided with a detailed Action Plan Workbook to turn their great ideas into solid, achievable, meaningful plans. For example, past students have established community gardens, written a grant to install solar panels on a school building, and coordinated ocean or beach clean-up events.

During this course, students will learn to: 1. Identify and strengthen leadership qualities that may lead to improved collaboration and problem solving. 2. Clearly communicate concepts in environmental studies and/or environmental justice to a variety of stakeholders or individuals. 3. Acknowledge, understand and gain tools to process the large spectrum of impacts caused by global climate change. 4. Develop effective, feasible, and impactful Action Plan projects that use lessons from this course to create positive change in their local communities. 5. Use research data, ecosystem observations, and local stories and explanations to examine: a. how different components of a watershed interact b. how biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) factors influence the productivity, diversity, and functioning of ecosystems 6. Understand key processes that drive social-ecological systems 7. Analyze and interpret field data, identify key limitations of data, and discuss how such data can be used alongside other methods for science communication and collaboration

Prerequisites: One unique quality of this course is the large emphasis on community development among students in each section. Therefore, this course has a synchronous component, meaning students will be expected to join for some real time lessons and class discussions at least once per week. The real time classes will be scheduled and published in advance. There are always alternative assignments available for students who are unable to attend because of time differences or technical difficulties.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEES0937

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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