Using the great outdoors as a classroom

By Steve Repsys

Students at an Illinois college got a better understanding of environmental issues through a summer field study.

Oakton Community College student Nosheen Majeed found an unorthodox way to earn six college credits this summer – camping for 17 days across Midwestern and Western states.

Majeed was one of several students who enrolled in the Illinois college’s inaugural eight-week summer field study called “Plants, Society and Human Nature: Scientific and Ecocritical Perspectives.”

“In-class learning is one thing,” Majeed says. “However, on this amazing trip, I got to see things I never would have seen before, such as geysers and learning how plants can be used for medicine, food and clothing. It was great to be outdoors for days observing the physical environment. This changes your pattern of thinking as there’s not as many distractions outdoors.”

Paul Gulezian, associate professor of biology, and Marian Staats, professor of English, co-taught the honors seminar that combines biology with the humanities. For over five weeks, the course was taught in the classroom through “typical” measures, including lectures, journals and exams. The field study concluded with an outdoors adventure that included stops at sites such as Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Along the way, students hiked more than 50 miles of trails and saw nature up close.

“Students had the opportunity to understand environmental issues and problems through an integration of humanities and scientific experiences,” Gulezian explains.

The summer study also included topics such as social justice and biodiversity. Students were required to keep journals about their experiences.

“This course helped students understand the environment from unique perspectives including literature, history, poetry, essays and different philosophies,” Staats adds. “As a teacher, it was a transformative experience to see things through the eyes of the students taking joy in nature.”

A stronger connection

For some students, the outdoor exploration validated their career aspirations. Heading into the course, Ethan McIntosh was interested in water sciences.

“During the trip we got to visit a fish hatchery in Wyoming,” he says. “This was a chance of a lifetime because I was able to talk to people who ran a hatchery. I couldn’t have learned that elsewhere and it reinforced that I can see myself in a career working with fish.”

For the final project, students had to collaborate to design interactive posters that summarized their experiences.

“Now that we’re back in ‘civilization,’ many of us are going through wilderness withdrawals,” says Deb Cesarini, a student from San Paulo, Brazil. “It was great to get away from city life and immerse yourself in different ecosystems.”

“This trip was an overwhelming success,” Gulezian adds. “From an educational standpoint, it was exciting to see the students come back as mini-botanists and with an increased appreciation of nature.”

The course was made possible, in part, through a $98,957 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to enhance the college’s environmental studies concentration. The grant helped to cover the costs of items, including camping gear and fees, tents, gas and journals.

This article originally appeared in the CC Daily.


Steve Repsys

is a public relations specialist at Oakton Community College in Illinois.