Two week study in Hawaii part of new Penn State Altoona course

Terry Boyd
December 03, 2018

Penn State Altoona students have a unique opportunity in the 2019 spring semester: taking an environmental studies class that starts in Altoona and ends with 12 days of study in the Hawaiian Islands. Carolyn Mahan, professor of biology and environmental studies, and Lisa Emili, associate professor of physical geography and environmental studies and sustainability coordinator, have developed a course of classroom discussion, readings, and Zoom presentations with Hawaiian experts in a number of fields. The first portion of the course will take place in Pennsylvania, followed by two weeks of on-site study in Hawaii.

Mahan’s original vision for the course included a trip with her biology students to study evolution in the Galapagos Islands, she said, “but it was very expensive. I was talking with Jim Boone, the entomology collections manager at Bishop Museum in Hawaii, and he said that most people don’t know that Hawaii is more significant evolutionarily in terms of species diversity than the Galapagos. The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated in the world, the farthest from any land. Animals get there, they don’t, or can’t, leave, and then they diversify.”

Boone also pointed out that a trip to Hawaii would not be international and so logistically also it is easier.

“I started to explore, Mahan said. "Hawaii is the only place in the world where you can study and approach an active volcano. What made me even more interested is that Polynesians reached Hawaii 1,000–2,000 years ago. You have the whole fascinating culture to study.”

The professors stress that this is an environmental studies course, not just a “tour.” “It’s completely curated by us,” Emili said. “We’ve gone to all these amazing places, we’ve formed those relationships.”

She was surprised on one of their trips to Hawaii while creating the course to experience the long reach of Penn State.

A gentleman approached the professors when he saw Mahan in a Penn State hat.

“He is a lawyer in Hawaii and did his degree in meteorology at Penn State, a chemistry degree at Cornell, and then his law degree, said Emili. "He and his wife are well versed in volcanology and the ecology of the islands.”

When it comes to education, Emili said, “I’m a firm believer in an embedded field component.”

She wants to give her students “experiential learning, camaraderie, and exposure to experts in the field. Students will see jobs they could potentially be doing. They’re going to learn and they’re going to see that job model—curators, scientists, technicians, National Park Service resource managers, Fish and Wildlife biologists.”

Students who want to participate in this course must enroll in either a special section of ENVIR 100/SUST 200 or, with instructor approval, ENVST 497 (which can count as ENVST 400W). The course will begin mid-spring semester with weekly classes, required readings, and Zoom conferences. Once the class arrives in Hawaii on May 19, they will stay in dormitories at the University of Hawaii (on both Oahu and the Big Island) and learn from experts at the Bishop Museum, Mauna Kea Observatories, National Park Services, and University of Hawaii.  In addition students will study both ancient and modern culture of Hawaii, visit volcanoes, and study endangered species and ecosystems.

Class size is limited and the deadline to contact the professors is Dec. 7. Email or for more information.

Last Updated December 06, 2018