Chesapeake Semester

Each fall, the Chesapeake Semester engages a group of 8-12 students in the interdisciplinary study of North America’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay.


Chesapeake Semester



Your adventure begins here.

Participants will study the complex history, ecology, and culture of the Chesapeake as a microcosm of the challenges and transitions confronting coastal communities around the world. Using the College and the shores and waters of the Chester River as base camps, students will journey in, on and around the 64,000 square mile watershed. Students who successfully complete the program and take one additional elective course receive a Chesapeake Regional Studies Minor, which is entirely unique to Washington College. 

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This “signature semester” builds on the successful tradition of linking people and the environment in both the McLain Program in Environmental Studies and the Center for Environment & Society at Washington College. Connecting students to the land and water fosters a powerful sense of place and gives students a better understanding of the human and social dimensions of environmental issues. Participants will have the opportunity to study the ecosystem in depth, analyze solutions to environmental problems, and explore the nexus between science, policy, and people’s every day life.

student taking samples

This is a four-course program for 16 credits offered only in the fall semester. It combines intensive study, fieldwork, and outdoor adventure. Students might wake to write poetry at sunrise, muck through the marsh, kayak on the river, research aquatic organisms, hike in the mountains and sleep beneath the stars, all in the same week.

Blackwater 2022

Classwork and day trips are supplemented with four themed “journeys” away from campus. On the fourth journey, participants will travel to Belize for a comparative study of culture, economics, politics, law, and ethics.

Travel Commitments

You will spend more than 50 days in the field, linking classroom discussions with firsthand experiences in the watershed.

Although the College serves as home base, you will be traveling with 8-12 other students and 2-4 instructors for much of the semester.  There will be journeys that involve 10-12 days of study and travel away from campus. Additionally there will be a number of day trips where students will return to campus in the evening. 

There will be substantial periods of classroom time leading up to your trips in the field.

Program Commitments

Participation in extracurricular activities outside of the Chesapeake Semester will most likely be minimal. Plans should be discussed with faculty advisers and program management during the application process.

This travel schedule will make participation in many extracurricular activities, on a regular basis, difficult or impossible. Athletes are still encouraged to apply, as program management will work with coaching staff to find an appropriate schedule. Please contact for Emma Cease for detailed trip descriptions. 

Personal Commitments

You should be prepared to rough it. 

Much of this program will be conducted outdoors, in varying terrain and weather conditions. Participants must be curious, open-minded, and prepared for adventure. A portion of your outdoor adventure will be spent camping, hiking, kayaking, and canoeing. At times, our field excursions will be physically and mentally rigorous. Not participating — outside of medical reasons or personal harm — is not an option. Students will learn how to be uncomfortable and happy at the same time. Students must fully committed to the outdoor rigors of the Chesapeake Semester in order to succeed.


Students will be supplied with a Chesapeake Semester Equipment List upon their acceptance into the program.

Students will create and carry the Chesapeake Semester Backpack throughout the program. Much of the semester will be outside during the fall and early winter months. Warm, waterproof clothing, hiking shoes, and athletic sandals (i.e. Keens)  will be essential to your comfort. Additionally, a high quality sleeping bag will be necessary during overnight camping trips. Tents, stoves, and other camping equipment will be provided by the College. Lodging will vary from hotels to field stations and camping.

Textbooks and Field guides

Students will be responsible for purchasing a number of books, field guides, and field notes that will accompany you on your travels. The cost of these books will be comparable to what you would expect to spend during a typical four-class semester.


Students will be required to have a valid passport for international travel. This passport must be valid for at least six months after the last date of travel to Central America. 

Who Should Apply

The Chesapeake Semester is open to rising  sophomores, juniors and seniors in any discipline at Washington College - all you need is an interest in the environment. Freshmen are encouraged to contact program management for more information and to help plan for subsequent semesters. There are no prerequisites for enrollment. A diverse range of students, with varying majors and interests, will create a dynamic learning environment.  All students will be exposed to coursework that has never been offered before at Washington College. The artist and ecologist will be pushed equally out of his or her comfort zones. Note: Upon completion of the Chesapeake Semester, students will have fulfilled the requirements for a concentration in Chesapeake Regional Studies. Like the Chesapeake Semester, this concentration is designed to complement any major course of study.

Program Fees

The Chesapeake Semester requires program fees on top of standard enrollment fees at Washington College. The program fees cover a wide range of expenses not normally covered by tuition, including time on research vessels, museum entrance fees, accommodations, food, airfare, and other travel expenses. Student program fees cover only about a third of total program costs per students.  The remaining costs are covered by Washington College.

For more information on Program Fees, please contact Emma Cease.


The Journeys


Chesapeake Semester Journey 1

Around the Chesapeake: A Sense of Place and History

This trip circumnavigating the Chesapeake will provide an orientation to the history and people of the Chesapeakeand its tidewater communities. It takes advantage of the region's rich array of museums, monuments, and historic sites as students re-discover artifacts of major archaeological digs, engage historians, and investigate how people have shaped, and been shaped by, the environment. 

Headwaters to Ocean: Ecology & Geology of the Chesapeake

This natural science-themed journey will cross a series of contrasting environments that includes several hikes and paddles. Students start at the Susquehanna headwaters and follow the flow of water back eastward across ravines, creeks, fields, and towns to its ultimate outlet into the Chesapeake Bay. Throughout, students will investigate eutrophication, habitat destruction, and the implications of climate change. 
Harborview Farms 2022

Issues & Management: Fisheries, Agriculture, Development & Policy 

A combination of day trips and shorter off-campus trips constitute the third journey, optimizing local exploration of major environmental and political issues within the Chesapeake. Throughout this conceptual tour of the regulatory landscape of the Chesapeake and its user groups, students focus on issues and controversies surrounding food production and meet with those who farm, fish, build, and otherwise recreate on or around the Bay. Students will meet with oyster and dairy farmers, members of environmental advocacy groups, and riverkeepers and explore topics such as urban pollution, fisheries management, population growth and land-use planning, and citizenship. The unique interweaving of classroom-based lectures and experiential learning allows the class to have informed conversations with key players from these varied user groups, and consider the subsequent impacts to the Bay.

Belize 2022

Belize Comparative Study

On the fourth journey, students travel to Belize for a comparative study of culture, economics, politics, law, and ethics. This comparative study in Belize builds upon the experiences, principles and theories investigated in the Chesapeake, allowing comparisons with the other ecosystems across the continent. While there are certainly noticeable differences in the ecology, socioeconomics, and cultures defining the Chesapeake Bay and the tropical systems, there are common themes, similarities, and essential analogues. 

 Spotlight: Comparative Study in Belize


Students will have the opportunity to develop relationships and connections with professionals in a number of fields. Participants will be more than “a student on a field trip” and will be viewed and treated as young professionals expected to engage professors, lecturers, guides, and speakers with reciprocal sincerity.  Students should look upon the Chesapeake Semester as a unique opportunity to make connections that will they can utilize during their undergraduate career, during graduate school, and at the beginning of professional careers. Many internship opportunities  are available from our partners through the Chesapeake Semester.

The Courses

This course is one of four that make up the Chesapeake Semester. The course includes class, home, and lab exercises in the field designed to reinforce course content and introduce scientific thinking and training in data collection and analysis. It is designed to foster cross-disciplinary thinking with the Humanities and Social Science courses of the Chesapeake Semester.  A substantial amount of learning will take place in the field with particular design and focus around the second Journey, “Ridge to Ocean: Ecology and Geology of the Chesapeake.”

Course Topics

This course will explore the following topics. Some lectures will be on campus, while others will be delivered while we are on the road.

  • Geology, coastal morphology and the formation of the Chesapeake Bay
  • Defining a watershed — scale, inputs, ecological variability
  • Physical estuarine oceanography — tides, wind and waves
  • Chemical estuarine oceanography - polarity, salinity, transmission of light, thermocline, halocline and salt wedges
  • Biological estuarine oceanography - distribution of life in the marine habitat, effects of waves on marine life
  • Introduction to estuarine life - invertebrate and vertebrate phyla
  • Estuarine productivity & community structure - primary productivity of algae, salt marshes and sea grass beds; top-down (predator) and bottom-up (primary production) control of marine communities.
  • Zonation in marine habitats - physical (environmental) & biological (predators & competition) factors
  • High energy habitats - rocks & pilings, sandy beaches, dunes & maritime forests
  • Salt marshes & mud flats
  • Oyster bars & sea grass beds
  • Contaminant cycling in the Chesapeake Bay (focusing on nutrient pollutants (N and P) from agricultural sources and N pollution from cars and industry which leads to acid rain)
  • Tools for benthic habitat assessment: remote sensing and ground-truthing
  • Soil chemistry, fertility and nutrient cycling
  • Succession and disturbance in marine habitat (changes in communities over time due to natural and man-made disturbances)
  • The science and impacts of climate change


Sample Activities

  • Field study on marine research vessel.
  • Trawl and sample for marine life.
  • Salt marsh exploration and sampling
  • Collect and analyze water samples to gain an understanding of pollution in various parts of the Bay
  • Collect and analyze sediments from the foothills of Appalachia to the Atlantic Ocean for geological context
  • Bird-watching — species enumeration, to assess the relationship between diversity and land use

The focus of this course is to explore the social aspects of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, including its people, history, and their complex relationships with one another and the environment.  Students will cover a wide range of topics, drawing on the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology, economics, geographic information systems, history, political science and sociology. Students will also explore the ways in which these approaches may be informed by other disciplines, such as those in the humanities and natural sciences.  Intersections between disciplines and integrating different kinds of knowledge are essential.  A substantial amount of learning will take place in the field with particular design and focus around the first Journey “Around the Chesapeake: A Sense of Place and History.”

Course Topics

  • The Birth of an Estuary - the Ice Age landscape and the great warming
  • The First Inhabitants — Paleoindians
  • The Archaic and Woodland Traditions
  • The Chesapeake on the Eve of Contact — environment, social structure, subsistence, trade and exchange
  • The European Influx
  • The Southern Chesapeake: Virginia in the Early Years — Roanoke, Jamestown, life & death in the New World
  • Emergence of a Distinctive Economy - Tobacco & Labor
  • The North: Maryland in the Early Years — Claiborne, the Calverts and St. Mary’s City
  • Shapes in the Landscape - Settlement patterns, rural and urban landscapes, and changing environments and economies
  • African Americans in the Chesapeake
  • Tidewater architecture
  • Foodways
  • Understanding the water - maritime trades and fisheries
  • Understanding the land — agriculture, development, and changing environments
  • Sense of Place — tradition and culture; “place attachment”
  • The Bay Today


Sample Activities

  • Understanding material culture — looking at artifacts (Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum collections, WC Archaeology Lab)
  • Replicating stone tools and prehistoric fishing materials
  • Foodways: prepare a Native American feast; crabbing and a crab feast; a colonial evening (Chowning’s Tavern); visits to an oyster festival and fish fry
  • Architectural exploration — field survey of changing styles
  • Working in a boat shop
  • Oral histories or interviews

This section of the Chesapeake Semester offers a humanistic perspective on the Chesapeake Bay. You will encounter in readings, discussions, and your various field experiences, cultural artifacts of the Bay in terms of music, philosophy, the visual arts, and writing.  It is emphasized that to develop any understanding of the Bay, be it scientific, poetic, philosophical, or anthropological, the student must learn to see, hear, think, and write, as Thoreau puts it, with deeper references. In this sense, our course is an exploration not just of the humanities of the Bay—arts, ethics, literature, writing—but of the humanistic understanding that you will bring to all the components of the Chesapeake Semester, that you will demonstrate in your final project, and that you will hopefully translate into your future studies and endeavors beyond this course and the college.


Course Topics

  • The Art of Keeping a Journal
  • Vision and Site in Environmental Writing
  • Revision and Writing
  • The Environmental Literature of the Chesapeake — group discussions and discussions with regional writers
  • Art in the Exploration of Nature & the Environment
  • The Power of Scientific Illustration
  • The Peales — Art & Science
  • Traditional Art of the Chesapeake
  • Music and Culture
  • Musical Genres of the Region
  • The Influence of Religion in the Chesapeake — spirituality and stewardship
  • Environmental Ethics

Sample Activities

  • Keep a daily journal reflecting your activity and your thinking about your experiences.
  • Prepare drawings, photographs, videos or other works that reflect specific aspects of the estuary and enhance powers of observation.
  • Work with original works of art in conservation, exhibitry or collections management (Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum collections, WC Archaeology Lab)
  • Study and analyze an original work of art or music
  • Write, perform or participate in traditional or other regional music
  • Conduct interviews exploring issues such as values and environmental ethics

Course Description:

The Chesapeake Semester is a novel design of integrated experiential learning rooted in Washington College’s strong traditions in liberal learning, coupled with its rich historical heritage and natural setting.  This course builds upon three additional courses: CRS 242, CRS 240, and CRS 244 and helps to deliver elements of each course curricula in the field, dissolving disciplinary boundaries and making cross-disciplinary connections.  Environmental policy and natural resource management are key topics as students explore the rules and regulations that govern society’s use of our most precious resources. Food production and food systems are analyzed as a key but often controversial link between environment and society.  An additional area of focus for this course is the global nature of the problems that we face in the Chesapeake, using our experiences in Central America as a means to compare and contrast coastal environments around the world.  A substantial amount of learning will take place in the field with particular design and focus around “Journey 3:  Resources and Regulations of the Chesapeake.”  Finally, this course will explore the ways in which a fuller understanding of place and people can be used to construct visions for the future, empowering people to take an active role in positively influencing society’s impact on the natural world.   In doing so, students will learn the elements of becoming “student-citizen-leaders,” taking on the evolving role as they explore the Chesapeake area’s rich culture and environment.

Course Topics

The general outline for the course includes:

  • An orientation to interdisciplinary learning
  • Coastal water impairment and environmental degradation 
  • Environmental policy and management, particularly concerning the Chesapeake Bay
  • Natural resource management (using the eastern oyster as a case study)
  • Climate Change
  • Agricultural policy and management
  • Food production
  • Land-use, population, and planned growth

Broad Concepts:

  • Creative communication of complex issues and controversies (photography)
  • Student-citizen-leadership
  • Interdisciplinary understanding of controversies centered in the environment i.e. based on the science of climate change, how will the culture of coastal       communities change?
  • Learning and prioritizing information through conversation with diverse audience
  • Learning and prioritizing information through immersive learning outdoors
  • The power of comparison in learning