Class Under Glass

Learning About the Planet at the Reborn Biosphere 2

While most college students were hanging out in the Student Union or cramming for exams, environmental science major Shannon Glynn was taking coral reef samples at the bottom of a 900,000-gallon ocean. A junior at Notre Dame in Indiana, Glynn was one of 50 college students who gathered at Biosphere 2 in the scenic Arizona desert to participate in Columbia University’s “Earth Semester,” an innovative four-and-a-half-month, 16-credit undergraduate program. Since 1996, more than 250 students from around the world have participated in the Earth Semester program.

“It was different than anything I’d ever experienced,” says Glynn. “Biosphere 2’s not just another school—it’s a community of learning.” This community is made up of a stellar faculty and students chosen through a rigorous application and interview process—no slackers here. The days are long and the work is hard. For Glynn, a typical day would begin with a hike around the campus, followed by morning classes such as Conservation Biology, Planetary Management and a course in Law, Politics and the Economics of Global Change.

Photo: Biosphere 2 Center

Biosphere 2 was constructed as a self-contained, miniature version of the Earth. Now it’s a learning center.
Photo: Biosphere 2 Center

Glynn’s afternoons and evenings were devoted to lectures on various aspects of the environment, discussion groups, or research inside the massive greenhouse before heading back to her on-site apartment with her roommate.

Once home to the most ambitious and most ridiculed experiment in closed systems living ever attempted, funded by a multimillionaire scion of the Bass family, Biosphere 2 was originally constructed as a miniature version of the much larger biosphere we call Earth. This $200 million glass-and-steel structure covers more than three acres and contains five wilderness biomes: a coastal desert, a marsh imported from the Florida Everglades, a savanna containing a freshwater stream and grasses from three continents, an equatorial rainforest and an artificial ocean.

The original experiment began in 1991 when eight “Biospherians” passed through an airlock to spend two years as human guinea pigs in the land-locked space station. They would grow their own food, recycle their own waste and sustain the delicate and diverse ecological balance through a complex system of computerized sensors. Although things went well for the first year, the second was plagued by a mysterious drop in oxygen, high levels of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide (CO2), and massive crop failures. Outside the dome, poor management undermined the project’s credibility. Regarded as pseudoscience by many academics, the Biosphere was finally shut down in 1994 amid a flurry of bad press.

Meanwhile, Columbia University was looking at the future. Realizing it wasn’t asking the tough questions about world population, the environment and the connections between science and society, the university established the Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute and, in 1996, took over the operation of Biosphere 2.

“Columbia saw the Biosphere 2 Center as an asset, whereas, at the time when it was shut down, there were a lot of jokes,” says William Harris, president and executive director of the Center. Today, under Columbia’s guidance, Biosphere 2 not only functions as a credible one-of-a-kind research facility for the study of global climate change, it’s also the western campus of the Earth Institute. “The campus represents a new direction for Columbia,” says Harris, “We don’t just talk about things that are soft and touchy-feely, we talk about substance. We’re establishing Earth stewardship as a fundamental part of core education.”

Biosphere 2’s curriculum is relentlessly interdisciplinary. “Our program has three approaches to every issue,” says Debra Colodner, director of education and academic affairs. “We combine biological and earth science with physical science and the social sciences.” The lectures and discussions are team-taught to represent each of the three disciplines.

Within Biosphere 2’s controllable environment, students are also required to conduct research, working alongside leading scientists studying the effects of climate change on various ecosystems. While Glynn’s project centered around the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels on the growth of coral reefs, other students have studied the thermal tolerance of particular rainforest vegetation, the impact of climate change and ozone depletion on biodiversity and environmental health, and western water management.

Students work under a research mentor and learn how to take samples, conduct computer modeling and analyze data. “We use the students to help with the measurements, allowing the experiments to be conducted at a higher level and giving students an invaluable learning experience,” says terrestrial research specialist John Adams, who is currently mentoring an experiment which compares cottonwood trees grown under normal conditions with those grown at elevated CO2 levels.

The Earth Semester also gives students the chance to take what they’ve learned on the road. Field trips to such diverse areas as the Colorado River and the oil fields of west Texas give students an opportunity to apply the classroom to the real world. One of the most popular field trips, according to Colodner, is to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, where students study the changes in intertidal ecology. “Using the research station out there, the students are able to look at the balance between salt and fresh water, as well as the impact pollution and changing climates have on fisheries and marine systems,” Colodner adds.

The response to this hands-on learning has been so enthusiastic that students often come back from the field trips with projects of their own. “We realized that to create a sustainable future, we had to start with ourselves,” says Glynn. To practice what they preached, she and her fellow classmates proposed and spearheaded a recycling program for the Biosphere 2 Center.

Sustainability is also on the minds of Biosphere 2 administration. In an effort to expand the program, Columbia has forged undergraduate partnerships with 12 universities across the country, including Notre Dame, Rice and Morehouse. “We hope to expand the partnerships to 20 or 25 over the next couple of years,” says Harris. Plans are also underway to add more student housing and expand enrollment to 75.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a student who hasn’t been transformed in some way,” says Harris. “This is an unsurpassed icon for planetary understanding.” Glynn agrees: “I’d go back in a minute.”