Creative Commons Image "Gilman tower" courtesy of Wysz on Flickr.

Professor Profile: David Elbert, the man behind the blog

David Elbert is the Acting Program Director for Environmental Studies, Advanced Academic Programs and an Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. He teaches several courses in Environmental Science and Policy including Geological Foundations of Environmental Science, Quantitative Methods in Environmental Science, and Special Topics electives dealing with environmental aspects of nuclear power.  This spring, David is running the new course Hopkins Environmental News: Modern Media of Environmental Communication (420.700) that launched this blog. We thought our readers might be interested in learning a bit about the man behind the blog and the origination of this site.


Q: How did the idea for Johns Hopkins Environmental News site (JHENS) come about?

A: I’ve been wanting to build a program publication for several years. We have so much information worth sharing with the community and even the broader world that I thought it would serve us well.  If you think about it, we have a big intellectual community.Our MS program graduates more environmental students than any other program in the University, but the whole environmental community is really big, diverse and amazingly interesting. It really sticks out that there has been no vehicle for our students to communicate.  I also have had the idea that environmental communication is central to so much in the field and so interesting in and of itself. All sciences benefit from effective communication with the public, but environmental science really stands out in how important public discourse is in defining the important problems. And the link between science, community values and policy in the environmental field is absolutely fundamental.  Stack that with the radical changes brought about by electronic publication and social media and it was time we jumped in.


Q: Is the blog taking shape the way you expected?

A: Hmmm….  No and yes.  No, in that when I started preparing for the class I created several possible visions and many related content ideas in my mind, but so far JHENS is rather different.  Yes, in that early in my brainstorming, I became committed to trying to stay out of the students’ way and let them play with it and grow it pretty organically.  I’m not really worried about it ever fitting into my personal vision for a blog and I am really looking forward to watching it evolve.


Q: What are the biggest challenges you (or the team) have had so far?

A: There are some technical challenges imposed by hosting policies at Hopkins that preclude student access to a lot of the nitty gritty of the server work.  That is a little frustrating to me for two reasons.  First, it leaves me having to do more server work than I would like.  Second, and more importantly, it puts up a barrier to students developing a better understanding of how the underlying technology works.  I don’t think it is a reasonable goal to have grad students running a blog also become experts on the technological aspects, but I do think it is important to have understanding of how systems work. It lets one better plan what they might want to do and better manage whomever is ultimately doing the technical support work for you.

Probably the biggest challenge, however, has been trying to make it work as a class while also building up the basic infrastructure this first semester. I’ve been lucky it’s a great group of students with interesting and functional backgrounds to keep things rolling.  Future classes will really have this first group to thank for putting JHENS on the map.


Q: What do you hope the students in the Environmental Communication course take away from it?

A: I hope that they enjoy the experience and feel good about what they have produced.  I hope they want some on-going connection to it. I often think about a quote from Terry Doyle that is very popular in education and ideas of “active learning” today: “The one who does the work does the learning.”  This course and this blog are something of an experiment in active learning. I’m still feeling my way with it, but I hope really doing the work rather than talking about it gives students a deeper understanding as well as some practical skills.  Moving forward I am working to incorporate some readings and discussions to pull things out more explicitly.  I think moving to a combination of active doing with broader discourse will fit well.


Q: What’s the long-term goal for JHENS?

A: To provide really interesting, useful information.  I hope JHENS will be around and our students will invent ways to give it real depth and importance while showcasing some of what makes our program great.  I did an Open House last week and as I was explaining the nature of our program and what makes Environmental Studies tick at Hopkins, I repeated something I guess I say at every Open House:  “The great thing about Hopkins Environmental Studies is our students.”  It’s the reason all of us love teaching in the program.  We have such bright, interesting, motivated, engaged students.  I am constantly learning new things from our students and love discovering what they work on and are passionate about.  As JHENS evolves my hope is to be able to get students to see it as an opportunity to expand the discussion and involve anyone on the web, a chance to take their issues and thoughts out into the world, all the while learning how communication of environmental issues defines the issues and creates the possibilities for scientific investigation and functional policy.


Q: What blogs do you follow?

A: Like most people these days, I follow many, but it varies a lot depending on other commitments.  Among my favorites are:  the Green Blog of the NY Times, Grist,  e360 from Yale, Dot Earth (NY Times), Short Sharp Science (on New Scientist), as well as many not related to environmental issues.


Q: Will this class be offered every semester?

A: That’s the plan, but it will depend on demand.  If there isn’t an actual version of the class we’ll have to develop a different model to keep the blog afloat.  As this semester’s group quickly ascertained, electronic publications live on short cycle times.  If you only release new information once a year you have a hard time getting noticed or being relevant.


Q: How can students, alumni, faculty, and other readers contribute content? 

A: We’ve got contact info and guidelines for authors on the blog. It is basically as easy as having an idea and contacting the Editorial Board (email


Q: What’s been your favorite post so far?

A: Ha!  You can’t really expect me to answer that, can you?!?  I think I am supposed to say, “I love them all equally,”  right?  Or maybe I should answer, “The one that comes out next week!”


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