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Conservation takes center stage in Yellowstone class

August 4, 2017

KOKOMO, Ind. — There’s nothing quite like learning in a two million acre classroom where the buffalo (or bison) roam, where the deer and the antelope play.

Twelve Indiana University Kokomo students spent a week this summer in Yellowstone National Park, observing the wolf pack and bison herd, meeting with stakeholders in controversies surrounding the park, and learning about the geology and biology of America’s first national park.

While its officially a science class, Leda Casey, senior lecturer in geology, wants students to see that conservation is an issue that affects people of all areas of study and interest.

“It’s not just scientists and foresters involved at Yellowstone,” she said. “There is a lot of policy, a lot of economics, a variety of people and business owners in and around the public lands, a lot of people who play a part in that. I hope students understand not only the value of protecting and managing public land, but also the variety of perspectives that are impacted by management decisions inside a public land.”

Meeting people who play a role in issues around the park helped Flor Valdes gain skills considering opposing viewpoints, and how to separate fact from opinion.

 “I learned when it comes to an issue, to really step back and listen to both sides, and see the best way of going about a situation, by finding some middle ground,” the Frankfort resident said. “You have to approach a situation with an open mind, and listen to both sides of an issue.”

Students worked in groups to explore one issue in-depth, to then compare it to a similar issue in Indiana in a final video project. They interviewed bison and wolf advocates and biologists, and also nearby ranchers whose herds are impacted by the wildlife migrating through their land. They met with botanists who spoke of how invasive plant species are affecting the ecosystem, and talked to a climate scientist about change in the parks.

 “You can read about these different perspectives, but when you get to sit in a cattle rancher’s living room and hear how park management policies are impacting her livelihood, it’s a different perspective,” Casey said. “This project helped connect them with the issues they learned about at Yellowstone. It was related to issues in their own back yard, so it gave them a personal investment in the strip. They made the connection to their local environment and protection of our public lands here in Indiana.”

For senior Tyler Curnutt, the trip was a can’t miss, with Casey’s knowledge of geology and input from Lina Rifai, associate professor of vertebrate biology and anatomy, on biology and birds.

“They both were able to point out different aspects of what we were seeing or exploring throughout the day. They contributed a lot to making the trip overall a learning experience and fun at the same time.”

Flor, a senior psychology major, was fascinated by watching the bison herd, and learning more about them.

“We as tourists may never think they are an issue, but to some people who live there, that’s what they’ve been facing,” she said. “I think it’s important we step back and consider both sides, especially in tough situations like that.”

Tyler is considering moving out to the area after he graduates in December. With a degree in biological and physical sciences, he’s considering careers such as ecosystem restoration, forestry, or working at a national park.

“It’s an amazing place, it’s hard to put into words how amazing it is,” he said. “Being there makes you realize how much we need those public lands. Just seeing how wild the place still is, and how untouched it still is, it makes you realize how special it is, and how much we need those places, to get back to nature, to reset ourselves and slow down a little.”

This was the first year for the class, and Casey plans to teach it again in 2018, because of demand.  She and Rifai were impressed with the students’ engagement in the issues, noting that they worked from early morning to late night, and often stayed with stakeholders they met longer than scheduled to ask more questions.

“They were interested and excited by the experience,” she said. “They’ve realized the individual part they will play in the future of protecting public lands, and having those spaces available to us.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 08/04/2017