KOKOMO, Ind. —
Mark Canada, executive vice chancellor of academic affairs, recently took a trip with several students and faculty to Yellowstone National Park. He has written this column to share his experience.
Does just talking about learning give you goosebumps?
Jenni Weideman is walking along a path at Yellowstone National Park. She has just hiked a trail alongside the park’s spectacular gorge and gazed down at the magnificent waterfall. She has loved geology since she was a child, but it was taking a class at IU Kokomo that made her want to study it formally. She has begun pursuing a minor in sustainability studies, and now she’s taking an immersive class that includes a field experience at America’s oldest national park.
She explains that learning in this way – immersed in the world filled with sight and sound – is a powerful way to learn. As she talks about it, she says she is getting goosebumps.
The previous day, one of her classmates wondered aloud how nice it would be if all classes could be like this one. That day, the 11 students in the class had studied geothermal features such as geysers, fumaroles, and mud pots on site – that is, right there on the land where, 640,000 years ago, a super volcano had erupted. Today, a massive magma chamber miles underground heats the earth and water, creating these awe-inspiring features.
Geology is the “core” of this course, but it’s only the beginning. Over the course of the weeklong experience in the park, part of a four-week summer course called U.S. Geology: Field Experience, the students also see much of the park’s wildlife: Bison, black bears and grizzly bears, ospreys, grey wolves, deer, lodgepole and spruce pine trees, sagebrush, and more. They take in the vibrant colors created by minerals, algae, and bacteria in the water. They consider literary, philosophical, artistic, and spiritual aspects of nature. They study fire ecology, climate change, and wolf politics. Best of all, they do all of this learning “on the ground” in a spectacular setting featuring mountains, geysers, waterfalls, rushing rivers, peaceful valleys, and even snow—in May!
It is, in short, both an immersive and an interdisciplinary experience, exactly the kind that IU Kokomo provides in its signature KEY (Kokomo Experience and You) program, which provides all students with opportunities to engage in high impact practices and other transformative learning experiences. It includes not only trips such as this one, but also retreats, internships, undergraduate research, and service-learning opportunities.
Their guides on this life-changing journey are a geologist, a biologist, and an English professor, who provide impromptu lectures throughout the trip.
“The course content emphasizes the critical role of interdisciplinary problem solving and collaboration to protect our public lands,” explained geologist Leda Casey, who teaches the course. Casey added that students apply what they learn to similar issues involving public lands in Indiana.
Students also learn “the complexities of managing public spaces” and skills for life. “Most importantly,” she said, “they learn that solving complex problems requires empathy, cooperation, and collaboration.”
Biologist Lina Rifai, who joined Casey and the students for the trip, noted that “experiential learning is a very powerful tool.”
“When Leda designed this course,” Rifai said, “I believe she was hoping it would provide a life changing experience for our students.” It did, she explained, but it also was transformative for her. “It has not only reminded me again why I am in higher education and in biology, but it has also been a very powerful experience to see first-hand how students are affected by this trip and this course.”
I’m the English professor. Although I came along because I oversee the KEY in my role as executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, I took the opportunity to share some of my own expertise to enrich the students’ experience. For example, I shared Henry David Thoreau’s literary response to nature in Walden with the hope that students might reflect philosophically or artistically to the phenomena they were experiencing in the park.
The students can ask any of us anything about the natural wonders they are seeing—and they do. Indeed, these are very bright, inquisitive students. They are constantly making observations, drawing on what they have learned in this class and other classes, and asking countless questions.
Experiential learning clearly appeals to them.
Hayden Rawlins, an education major, took a special interest in the biodiversity he saw at the park. “In the valley that we were in, there were wolves, elk, bison,” he said. “We saw grizzly bears, and it was just kind of amazing to see how even in nature people, animals can coexist together, and I think that was pretty impactful for how we look at life in a humanistic point of view, as well.”
While they enjoy immersive experiences, the students also build powerful connections with one another and faculty. Blayne Miller, a biological and physical sciences major who was ecstatic after seeing a grizzly and her cub, called the trip “a really cool bonding experience along with . . . an educational experience.” Rifai agrees. Many of the students, she said, told her and Casey that they started feeling like family.
Because the setting is less formal than a classroom, the conversations go in a variety of interesting, provocative, and productive directions. During the hour or so they spend at Mammoth Hot Springs, for example, the students and their teachers discuss topics ranging from the geothermal features behind the exotic shapes and colors of the springs to questions about capturing such features in the form of art.
It’s heady stuff – and the students can’t get enough of it.
“Everything is something new, and I think, oh, this is just my favorite so far,” Weideman said, “and then the next day I think this is my favorite so far, and today is my favorite so far.”
Are you getting goosebumps yet?
Story written by Mark Canada, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.