KOKOMO, Ind. — In the shade of three tall trees, the students sit at picnic tables, backpacks on the benches or the ground next to them, books or e-readers open.
As they talk about their reading, a gaggle of geese land in the nearby grass, briefly interrupting the discussion with their honking. A light breeze carries dandelion fluff and the scent of nearby honeysuckle past them, along with the splashing noise of a fountain in the Wildcat Creek behind them.
For these eight students, Foster Park is their classroom, as part of Indiana University Kokomo's first-ever Maymester program.
Andrea Bard appreciates the chance to see more of Kokomo than what she sees on the drive from her home in Logansport.
"I'm getting to experience and do something, not just read about it," she said. "This is a breath of fresh air, and very different from any class I've taken before."
Eva White, associate professor of English, developed her creative nonfiction writing class, "Writing the Land: My Foster Park," to build on the connection between physical activity, nature, and creativity.
"We're always indoors," she said. "Being able to just be, and watch yourself be, and writing about it, is useful. I walk here all the time. It helps me recharge my batteries and get rid of stress."
Class begins with discussion of Haruki Murakami's book, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running," a memoir of the author's training for the New York Marathon, and how it impacted his writing. Then, White leads them on the Wildcat Creek Walk of Excellence, taking about an hour to walk from Foster Park through UCT Park, up the hill, around through the nearby neighborhood, and back, where they talk about their observations and write in their journals.
Along the way, each student takes notes, writing down who they see, descriptions of any animals they find, and changes in the environment.
They've followed a family of ducks, and on this particular day are delighted to find a new mother duck urging five tiny, fluffy, new ducklings into Wildcat Creek. Sofia Stout exclaims in dismay when a snake approaches the waterfowl, and sighs with relief when the reptile swims around the babies.
Stout, a communications art major from Lafayette, likes the break from more traditional academic writing, along with being in the outdoors.
"You're more focused on your thoughts, and on being descriptive," she said. "I've probably done more thinking in this class than any other I've taken. It's refreshing to get out of the academic style."
White said, though, that while they are having fun, they are also learning to be better writers. Each student produces a long essay inspired by his or her experiences each week, and will turn in a portfolio, a final polished essay, and a written reflection on his or her growth during the three-week class.
Kayla Scott, an elementary education major from Mulberry, didn't realize she had signed up for an outdoor class when she enrolled, but is enjoying the experience.
"I get tired of sitting in the classroom," she said. "This class lets me use all my senses, every time. You walk the same trail, but everyone comes back with different ideas and thoughts from what we see. I like that."
Brock Richardson, Bringhurst, who also plans to be an elementary teacher, said in addition to improving his writing, he's learning how taking students out of the classroom benefits them.
"There is a different learning environment than inside," he said. "You don't have to be sitting at a desk to learn."
IU Kokomo's new Maymester program offers student a chance to earn three credits in a short time period, in an immersive class. A few other offerings include a creative performance class, in which students will write, act in, and direct a play; urban geology, complete with fieldwork; and a public relations campaign class that involves working with a local business or nonprofit organization. Maymester continues through Thursday, June 6.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.