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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

JBS program expands and diversifies

Published: November 9, 2012
Section: News

Two years after Brandeis began the Justice Brandeis Semester, the programs are growing in popularity and engaging new groups of students.

Fourteen students are enrolled in the Environmental Field Semester with Professor Brian Donahue (AMST), the largest number since the program’s inception, according to Professor Laura Goldin (ENVS). Over the summer, 12 students were enrolled in Ethnographic Fieldwork with Professor Elizabeth Ferry (ANTH) and 11 enrolled in Web Services and Social Networks with Tim Hickey (COSI).

Two other JBS programs ran in 2011: Civil Rights and Justice in Mississippi, with 11 students, and Filmmaking: From Screen to Print, with 10 students.

Goldin’s Environmental Health and Justice JBS began with nine students and grew to 11 last year. In JBS, students work directly with affected communities as they delve deeply into the science, law, policy and social impacts of environmental justice and health challenges facing individuals and families today. They work directly with disadvantaged communities, from Waltham and Boston to the rural coal mining mountains of Appalachia, battle issues such as toxic exposure and access to safe housing and ultimately write a publishable environmental health study addressing an urgent need.

Some participants study environmental studies; others study law and public health. There are no prerequisites to get in and people from nearly all class years can be accepted.

“Students emerging from this program are equipped to hit the ground running in addressing the complex, multi-disciplinary environmental and environment health issues we all face in the real world,” Goldin said. “The most daunting challenges must be solved using inter-disciplinary skills and knowledge. And Environmental Health and Justice JBS students have real-life experience in doing just that and can affect change even while at Brandeis. Students gain essential knowledge and practical skills in housing and toxics law, negotiation, advocacy, client counseling, study design and much more.”

One transformative moment in last semester’s JBS was when the class drove 18 hours to Harlan, Kentucky, and stopped to take a hike in the pure, untouched mountains. The next day, they saw the effects of mountaintop removal in the same region.

The Environmental Field Semester program will run again in 2013. The next selection of JBS programs will be announced soon, Goldin said.

In the Ethnographic Fieldwork JBS, students developed their own research projects and spent half of the summer out in the field with their subjects. Students studied topics as diverse as transgender communities, ultimate frisbee, sexual education programs, cancer patients, sushi restaurants and vegan families, according to Ferry. The students’ final projects included papers, posters, a zine, a website and a short film.

“They all learned how to develop their own research projects, interview and analyze data, which are all skills they would need to go on in anthropology, that are also transferable to other fields,” Ferry said.

The Web Services and Social Networks JBS gave computer science students a taste of possible careers with courses in Mobile Application Development, Mobile Game Design and The JBS Incubator, which teach them to design games and fix data issues, among other skills.

“These JBS graduates are given an opportunity to experience entrepreneurial computer science where they are developing a product for a particular population of users, they employ cutting edge technology, practices and research,” Hickey said. “Some students discover that they love the excitement and challenge of a startup environment like the JBS, others rededicate themselves to future careers in research or make plans for working in a large established company.”

“We think of the JBS as giving students a special kind of superpower: they can imagine a web or mobile application and know how to make it, how long it will take and who they will need on their team. It is a pretty empowering course in that way.”

As the programs grow in popularity and reputation, however, only a limited number of students are able to enroll, making the JBS admissions process more competitive. “Due to the intensive nature of the program and transportation needs—we go in a van to the small towns in the mountains of Kentucky—I can only accept up to 12 or 13 people at the most,” Goldin said.