For students in the George Washington University’s Environmental Resource Policy graduate program, there may be more than a grade riding on their capstone projects. The projects could influence national environmental policy.
Second-year students in the ENRP program, a two-year master’s degree program in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, spent the semester conducting research on environmental topics in partnership with the Department of Energy and Environment America, a federation of state-based, citizen-funded environmental advocacy organizations. The students conducted original research on topics relevant to the partner agencies and then made presentations that included policy recommendations to both GW faculty members and representatives from the environmental agencies.
“It’s very exciting to know that our project might affect policy—this thought is the most important thing that motivated us throughout the whole project,” said ENRP student Shu Zhang.
Students from the ENRP class of 2013 worked on four projects. One group investigated the effects of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on water quality in seven different states and conducted interviews with stakeholders to compile case studies. A second group worked on quantifying the value of the National Park Service, including its economic, environmental, educational and recreational value.
A third group performed an audit of the DOE’s remediation plan for uranium-contaminated areas in the Wind River Reservation in Riverton, Wyo. Students traveled to the site and met with members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes to discuss communications strategies and environmental improvements for the site and the community. The final group studied potential challenges in the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to combine global data about toxic chemicals in the environment, specifically mercury and benzene.
“The capstone project is an invaluable part of the ENRP program because it allows the students to connect what they've learned in the classroom with the practical realities of designing and implementing environmental policy,” said Peter Linquiti, a visiting professor of public policy and public administration and director of graduate studies for the Environmental Resource Policy Program.
Graduate student Vanessa Lester, who worked on the project about CAFOs, said her group’s aim was to collect data directly from the source—small, family-owned farms that are located in areas with many large “factory” farms and large numbers of animals. Working with their group’s mentor from Environment America, they selected seven states in which to conduct case studies. They called farm owners and conducted telephone interviews about the farmers’ experiences with CAFOs and water quality in the area.
“We wanted to paint a picture of what’s happening on the ground,” Ms. Lester said.
Some of the farmers they spoke to were effusive and others were reticent, but the students were ultimately able to compile 22 case studies of family-owned farms and their water quality experiences. The students ultimately recommended that the EPA improve its definition of what constitutes a CAFO and put more restrictions on these factory farms so that it can more effectively monitor and enforce its clean water regulations.
Students Trisha Jantzen and Megan Brumbaugh worked on determining the National Park Service’s value. For every $1 invested in the parks, the nation gets $4 of value back, Ms. Jantzen said. In 2011, that translated to 278.9 million visitors who spent $12.95 billion in local communities, supporting 251,600 jobs, $9.34 billion in labor income, and $16.5 billion in value added, according to their report. While the main reasons people visit national parks are tourism and recreation, the parks also provide education, conservation, environmental protection and national identity.
“I think what I enjoyed most about this project was getting to know the national parks better,” Ms. Jantzen said. “It was good to know that the research we were doing would be put to good use in helping protect and preserve these parks. They truly are a treasure that the public must protect.”
Ms. Jantzen and Ms. Brumbaugh recommended against drastic budget cuts to the National Park Service, arguing that the cuts do more harm than good to the nation.
Dr. Linquiti said that their work, and that of the other students in the program, is valuable far beyond the boundaries of GW.
“The capstone project is not a ‘make-work’ exercise,” he said. “We repeatedly hear from clients that the students’ work has been valuable and that the results have been incorporated in the operation of important government programs.”