All the world’s a classroom

MES in the Community, Hannah Kass

Stepping out of the lecture hall and into the real world

Imagine venturing to Marseille, France to mingle with international government officials and top environmental leaders to discuss the importance of water on the political agenda. Envision kayaking down the scenic Maurice River in New Jersey to get up-close and personal with the local ecosystem.

These are some of the remarkable experiences Lindsay Shafer (Master of Environmental Studies ’13) had as part of her coursework while pursuing a master‘s at Penn. “I really enjoyed the idea of hands-on experience and being encouraged to get out into the field,” Lindsay commented.

Lindsay had the opportunity to attend the 6th World Water Forum in France with Professor Stan Laskowski and 25 peers as part of the Global Water Issues course. The World Water Forum is the largest event focusing on water resources and is hosted every three years by the World Water Council. About 20,000 people from around the world attended the five-day conference.

“It was amazing to travel internationally with other students and share what we’ve learned with each other throughout the conference week,” Lindsay said. “There were so many great forums that took place and I wished I could have attended them all. The topics I found most interesting were agricultural issues, access to water and food scarcity. Networking with international crowds was also an incredible opportunity.”

While there, Lindsay honed her writing skills by blogging about the conference for, an international site that draws more than 1,000 visitors per day. “Blogging helped strengthen my writing abilities and gave people who were not at the conference the ability to get information and insight into the topics that were being discussed,” Lindsay explained. “In the [Master of Environmental Studies] program, you write a lot of papers, but I enjoyed the challenge of the short and concise nature of blogging.”

Lindsay would blog after the sessions, and write, edit and post her articles the same day. After developing a good relationship with, she continued to blog for the website during her time as a student about other topics as well.

One of Lindsay’s favorite courses in the program, and a popular one among many Master of Environmental Studies students, was the Wetlands class with professor Dr. Sally Willig. “Sally is very enthusiastic, so knowledgeable and goes above and beyond for every single one of her students,” Lindsay said. One class took place on a kayak along the Maurice River in Cumberland County, New Jersey. The area boasts the largest stand of wild rice that attracts thousands of wintering waterfowl each year. Lindsay enjoyed studying the ecosystem and seeing the plant and animal life first-hand.

The course Clean Water – Green Cities, taught by Philadelphia Water Commissioner Howard Neukrug, allowed Lindsay the opportunity to closely work with a local urban farm as she applied for and was given a grant from the McLean Contributionship. The grant enabled Mill Creek Urban Farm to build a roof over their meeting area to aid in storm water management and to develop community-based water management information.

For her capstone, Lindsay collaborated with Dr. Lara Roman, Research Ecologist with the US Forest Service Philadelphia Field Station to develop a field manual for urban tree monitoring. The field manual guides citizen scientists and urban forest practitioners, including student interns, volunteers, non-profit employees and municipal arborists, in tracking tree growth in a uniform way. The guide describes field collection procedures for a core set of variables crucial to any long-term urban tree study, including location, date and species, and presents them in laymen terminology. 

“I was attracted to the idea of the capstone being a project, not a paper, and it gave me such valuable experience in many ways.” Lindsay said. She partnered with researchers, arborists and urban tree managers from across the country to develop the manual, wrote all of the content for the field manual and used her graphic design skills to create charts, graphs and other images.

The field manual was a success, and she has moved on to phase two of the project. “I completed the Field Manual for the Minimum Data Set for my capstone,” Lindsay said, “and I am currently working on the Site Data Set with Lara as a side project.”