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Students pursue environmental studies
during Earth Semester
November 2, 1998

Thirty miles south of Tucson, Ariz., a sealed glass structure towering eight stories high and spanning more than three acres gleams in the arid Sonoran Desert.

Biosphere 2 Center, launched in 1996 as a research and teaching facility, is a microcosm of Biosphere 1 - better known as planet earth - and encompasses five distinct ecosystems, including a 900,000-gallon ocean, and agricultural, desert, savannah, and rain-forest zones.

UConn students and faculty will visit Biosphere 2 as part of the Earth Semester, a program that emphasizes earth stewardship and focuses on the planet as a complex interactive system, says Lisa McAdam, who coordinates the Earth Semester as one of the Study Abroad Office's study away programs.

UConn is one of 14 colleges that provide students the opportunity of studying at the Biosphere 2 Center, through partnerships with Columbia University, which manages the facility. A total of nearly 300 students have enrolled in the program since 1996.

McAdam says up to five UConn students will attend Biosphere 2 in the spring semester. Last spring, three undergraduates participated in UConn's first Earth Semester.

"It was an extraordinary experience," says Mariah Kachmarik, a seventh-semester general biology major. She describes the Biosphere as a "world within a world, cut off from the stresses of daily life."

Kachmarik was one of about 50 students participating in the Earth Semester program last spring. "It was a very diverse population," she says. "Students were from all over, and had a variety of different interests and majors."

While there, students live in apartments at a 250-acre satellite campus, a 20-minute shuttle ride from the Biosphere.

As part of the Earth Semester, students have the opportunity to conduct research on environmental issues within the Biosphere itself. The Biosphere is divided into different ecosystems enclosed in glass and metal shells, forming a series of self-sustaining biological domes, or 'biomes', connected by air lock-sealed tunnels.

For her research project, Kachmarik conducted surveys of different species of plants in the thorn scrub biome, a transition area between the rain forest and desert ecosystems. "The plants had huge spikes; they looked other-worldly," she says.

After cataloging the plants, Kachmarik co-authored a field guide of the different flora indigenous to the thorn scrub region.

Dan DeCecchis, a fourth-semester political science major, says the Earth Semester "Is a worthwhile endeavor for any student to take advantage of, whether a science major or not." DeCecchis' research project consisted of measuring the carbon dioxide produced by microbes in the soil of the agricultural biome. DeCecchis said that the Earth Semester gave him a greater respect for the environment.

In addition to their research projects, the students' curriculum during the semester includes courses in conservation biology, an earth systems science class, and a seminar on planetary management. Students also take field trips to study different environmental phenomena. Last semester, students traveled to the Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico, to collect specimens of intertidal organisms exposed in Baja's uncommonly low tides.

Gerald Berkowitz, professor and head of the plant science, will represent UConn at a conference in November at Biosphere 2 to discuss course curricula for the Earth Study program. Berkowitz has been affiliated with Biosphere 2 since 1996 as a member of the Research Advisory Board, a committee that proposes research topics for the facility. Berkowitz says the primary research application of Biosphere 2 is to measure the greenhouse effect in different biome ecosystems.

The Earth Study program "Is an opportunity for students to probe the intricacies of environmental issues such as the greenhouse effect first hand," he says. "The discoveries made today by students and researchers at the Biosphere will eventually engender tomorrow's solutions to global issues like loss of biodiversity and ozone depletion."

Jennifer Ridder