Photo by Judy Watson Tracy

Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Joe Siry with students in his Eco-Justice course. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

Hands-On Environmentalism

By Warren Miller ’90MBA

Professor Joseph Siry believes immersion in field work is the key to engaging students

Ron Presswood ’85 was working as an engineer with the City of Satellite Beach in Brevard County, Florida in 2004 when a series of hurricanes devastated the area’s beaches and dunes. Fortunately, he had stayed in close touch with his Rollins faculty adviser, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Joseph Siry.

Green Thumb

Fay Pappas. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

Fay Pappas ’09
Fay O. Pappas is a senior in the Honors Degree Program majoring in political science and minoring in creative writing. In addition to launching the FORUM, she co-founded the Rollins Undergraduate Research Journal, and oversaw a revival of the Brushing Art & Literary Journal, serving as its editor-in-chief. A 2008 national finalist for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship for public service, Pappas is currently a fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington, D.C. and an active member of the Roosevelt Institution, the nation’s first student-run think-tank, where she serves on the editorial board and edits “The Policy Farm Team” blog. She hopes to attend the University of Virginia School of Law in the fall. Read her discussion about eco-justice.

A graphic image of a leaf.

That connection resulted in Siry’s bringing a group of his students to team with Presswood to restore the dunes. “We used techniques that had been tried successfully at Galveston Beach,” said Siry of the Rollins service project. “Two classes in coastal conservation went to the dunes to install a low-flow, on-demand fertilizer/irrigation system to get plants started in the harsh, saltwater environment. Those plants have helped to stabilize the dunes.”

Presswood had intended to become a developer after college—that is, until he took Siry’s Living on the Cusp: Moral and Ethical Issues course. “That course changed my whole approach—not only to environmental science, but to everything,” said Presswood, who now is an environmental consultant based in Houston, Texas. “Dr. Siry has inspired me in so many different areas.”

Siry’s combination of hands-on field work and a spirit of activism, in his own life and in that of his students, has affected the course of sustainability at Rollins and in the state. A recent example is the installation of solar panels on the roof of the Bush Science Center, a project that originated as a proposal from Siry’s students. “A small group of students who were involved with the student initiative EcoRollins proposed their plan to the College administration, and they were receptive to the idea” Siry recalled. “The students spent four years studying how best to achieve their goals and, in the end, the project was very successful. It’s saving the College money and reducing our impact on the environment.”

Siry took a leave of absence from teaching from 1999 through 2002 to work with the Natural Resources Defense Council to create the Florida Climate Alliance. During the leave, he helped assemble a coalition of local and county governments, businesses, churches, and environmental organizations to pressure the State government to write an action plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Florida was the center of the problem of global warming,” Siry explained. “No place was going to be as affected by a rise in sea level as we were. And even though states like California, North Carolina, and New York had policies, Florida didn’t.”

While this was a huge accomplishment, Siry is proudest of his continuing efforts to involve Rollins students in the rebuilding of New Orleans. Since the winter following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he and Professor of Chemistry Larry Eng-Wilmot have taken Rollins students, as well as faculty and staff, to New Orleans during winter breaks to rebuild homes for Habit for Humanity, working as part of the AmeriCorps volunteer program.

Sara Shaw and Scott Bianconi

Sara Shaw '07 and Scott Bianconi '07 at Satellite Beach, Florida

This kind of service-learning project, according to Siry, is not simply an opportunity to help others. It’s an important step toward engagement, the integration of scientific theory and human behavior, or what has become known in the discipline as social ecology. “The classroom seemed to be confining to what I wanted to teach,” Siry explained. “I began to realize that problems in environmental studies are as much social problems as scientific problems. Rollins College has made a huge commitment to community engagement and leadership and has provided the resources to support service-learning classes, such as transportation to project sites.”

According to Siry’s former student Leslie Kemp Poole ’91MLS (see Green Thumb), “Joe is a passionate and committed professor as well as environmental activist. That rubs off on his students. They know how interested he is in them and the environment. He sets an example that inspires students by not just teaching out of a book. He’s helping students have their own experiences.”

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