Dr. Elena Traister, center, chair of MCLA’s Department of Environmental Studies, frequently takes her students to the Hoosic River to conduct research.

Berkshires Provide ‘Living Classrooms’ for Students


On any given number of class days, Dr. Elena Traister’s environmental studies students won’t be found on campus sitting at their desks in a traditional classroom. Instead, they pull on a pair of wading boots and plunge into their studies at the nearby Hoosic River – one of many “living classrooms” where they conduct research, and more.

The point, Traister says, is to get students involved in real-world investigations as part of their college experience. The multiple “living classrooms” to be found throughout the Berkshires are a great fit for the kinds of research and activities she does with the undergraduates in her classes at MCLA.

Traister, an associate professor of environmental studies and the chair of the department, was first drawn to rivers while studying for her master’s degree and Ph.D.

“They’re interesting ecologically, and also socially. No matter where you are, you’re never too far from a river,” she explained. “Everything you do actually affects a river that’s downstream from you.”

Although many of the country’s rivers have rebounded since the Clean Water Act of 1972, Traister said there’s still much to be done to sustain them. And, for more than a decade, she’s worked – with her students alongside her – on water quality and river restoration research.

Much of this work has taken place locally, at the Hoosic River and some smaller streams found throughout the Northern Berkshires.

One long-term project that began in 2005 has Traister working with her students to examine the water quality of the Hoosic River.

“We do that using an approach called ‘bio-monitoring.’ We collect the aquatic larval form of some bugs, before they’re fully developed,” she explained. “They live in the river, then hatch out and fly away, and later reproduce back in the river again, and the life cycle continues.

“By looking at the numbers and kinds of different bugs that you find in the river, you can make an assessment as to how clean that water is,” Traister continued. “If that water is polluted, a lot of those organisms can’t survive there, so they’ll leave the river. If you see a really diverse group of bugs in the river that gives you an idea the water’s pretty good.”

Several years ago, Traister and her students conducted a major project that involved looking for bacterial sources of pollution in the Hoosic River Watershed. Their work in North Adams, Adams, Cheshire and Williamstown led to the clean-up of several sources of bacteria and pollution in the river.

Traister continues to monitor its water quality every year with the students who take her “Advanced Methods of Environmental Research” course.

Last semester she joined a professor from Columbia University – who did a comparable study in New York City – as they presented their findings together at the 12th Annual Celebrating the Living Classroom: Research, Education and Collaboration in the Hudson-Mohawk Watersheds conference, held at Vassar College.

“We looked for these sources of pollution, how students were involved, what they got out of the experience, the benefit to the watershed and the community, and how we continue to make use of that as an educational resource for environmental studies,” Traister explained.

“It was interesting to compare the different locations,” she added. “Our approaches were similar. Both were really high value learning experiences for the students with great benefits to the natural resources.”

In addition to her research, Traister is the coordinator of MCLA’s Green Living Seminar Series, presented each spring semester. Each series is organized around a central theme related to the environment and sustainability, and features lectures delivered by local, regional and national experts. For more information or to listen to podcasts of previous seminars, go to