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RAFC—A New Living Lab for WC Students
The River and Field Campus—a 4,700-acre living laboratory—helps launch Washington College’s environmental programs to national prominence.
CHESTERTOWN, MD—The River and Field Campus, 4,700 acres encompassing myriad specialized ecological habitats and 2.5 miles of Chester River waterfront, is set to become a dazzling focal point of Washington College’s environmental and sustainability programming, thanks to the decision by Henry F. Sears to open the property to College oversight.
As part of the transition, the property, which is known locally as Chino Farms, will be renamed the River and Field Campus at Washington College (RAFC). A 10-minute drive from the College’s main campus, it offers students an unparalleled living classroom in subjects ranging from biology and chemistry to environmental art and anthropology.
Sears, whose family has owned the property since World War II, is a member of the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors who for decades has invited scientists and researchers from multiple institutions to conduct innovative environmental research and projects there. With his decision to bequeath the College majority shares in the corporation that owns Chino Farms, Sears is providing a one-of-a-kind living laboratory and learning platform that will propel the College to become a national leader in undergraduate environmental programming and education.
“Washington College’s excellent natural sciences curriculum and faculty, its location on the Chester River and proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, its assets like the research vessels Callinectes and Lookdown—all of these things already allow us to offer students opportunities as undergraduates that they won’t find elsewhere,” says College President Kurt Landgraf. “Thanks to Harry Sears’ vision, determination, and generosity, we are poised to expand those opportunities in a way that will create an environmental and sustainability program that will be among the most innovative and hands-on in the country.”
Already, the property is the home of the Chester River Field Research Station (CRFRS), which is overseen by the College’s Center for Environment & Society (CES) and encompasses Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory, the Natural Lands Project, the Grasslands Restoration project, and part of the Chester River Watershed Observatory. These programs will continue to grow, exploring the challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay and creating innovative solutions in conservation that can be applied to watersheds around the country and the world.
Dozens of College students already study and work at the CRFRS with faculty, where they conduct field research on diverse projects including studying the parental care of field sparrows (a species that comes to the property specifically for the restored grassland habitat there); analyzing surface runoff to better inform land managers of the best locations and methods to trap pollutants before they reach the Bay’s tributaries; comparing soil profiles in riparian and upland habitats; and surveying seed dispersal and tree diversity. In 2016, nearly 27 percent of the College’s student body visited the CRFRS. Now, thousands more acres will be utilized for new areas of study, thanks to the diversity of habitat including forests and streams that have remained nearly untouched for decades.
“The ongoing work at the Chester River Field Research Station—for example, the long-term data gathered at the Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory and the restoration of the grasslands—has been critical to the research my students and I do every summer,” says Jennie Carr, assistant professor of biology, who is studying various behaviors of field sparrows and hummingbirds. “I and other faculty are excited at the prospect of even more potential for collaboration at the River and Field Campus across disciplines and study of species that come specifically because of the habitat there.”
“This is a huge step forward for the College and our aspirations for our environmental science and sustainability programs. The size and scope of what we are doing here is just amazing,” says John Seidel, director of the CES. “Our concept is fundamentally different, approaching everything through the multidisciplinary lens of the liberal arts. And our mix of habitat restoration, ecology—all of those things make it broader and unique from what other schools are doing.”
The new arrangement also will allow for unprecedented expansion of programming for students, faculty, and staff. For instance, the College’s fledgling Eastern Shore Food Lab will create a one-of-a-kind wild food laboratory—an outdoor classroom and laboratory dedicated to experimenting with and pushing the limits of wild food resources, from wild plants, insects, and animals, to microflora. Development of a “teaching farm,” focused on ecologically centered and productive forms of farming, would support the Eastern Shore Food Lab, as well as the college campus. Throughout, multidisciplinary learning will be the driver; for instance, goats grazing in native landscapes will be the source of milk for soap that business and communications students can produce and market.
The riverfront property includes 600 acres of forest containing ecologically unique Delmarva bays, and a 90-acre waterfowl sanctuary. Nearly all of it is protected from development—a result of Sears’ decision in 2001 to partner with The Conservation Fund to create the largest conservation easement in the state of Maryland. The entire property will also be more accessible for students, faculty, and staff who want to spend time immersed in the natural world. It is the perfect venue for both recreation and the applied, hands-on learning that has become a hallmark of Washington College’s environmental programs.
“This speaks to liberal arts,” Sears says. “I’m looking for an environmental arrangement, which means someone’s thinking a little outside of the box, someone’s accepting ambiguity, someone is dealing with conflicting aspirations—all of the things I think are part of the liberal arts education.”