Experiential natural resource education thrives in the West

  • Sunny Tang drawing on the dunes at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, 2010.

    Chris Taylor, Land Arts of the American West
  • Northwest Indian College Biology 101 students Sandra Horton, left, and Madison Sullivan in the new laboratory at NWIC's Port Gamble S'Klallam site. They are studying relationships of form and function in various Northwest fish, including the Pacific mackerel.

    Courtesy Northwest Indian College
  • The Rocky Mountain Field Institute in the field.

    Courtesy Rocky Mountain Field Institute

The environmental conundrums facing the West have never been more complex. How do you manage global problems like climate change locally? Is there any way to stop the cheatgrass invasion? Can the forest help our economy while protecting our watershed? And what's going on with those bears east of town?

The next generation must tackle such questions, but how? One answer is to directly engage today's students in natural resource issues, training them to think across disciplinary boundaries. Below you'll find a sampling of the region's innovative, hands-on programs. It's far from comprehensive, but ranges from expeditions and field studies to conflict resolution and teacher trainings, describing programs that immerse students in their subject matter in real-world ways.

Roaming around the West:

Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI),

"All students of ecology hear about nutrient cycling, but not all of them get it when it's taught in a PowerPoint presentation in a lecture hall," says Bethany Swanson, outreach manager and field instructor for the nonprofit Wild Rockies Field Institute. "But all of them get it when they are standing on the platform of a bear observatory in southeast Alaska watching bears take fish out of the creek into the woods."

WRFI's upper-level college classes offer credit from the University of Montana via muscle-powered backpacking, kayaking, cycling or canoeing expeditions. Topics range from the ecology and policy of Alaska's Tongass rainforest to the canyons and cultures of the Colorado Plateau. Students cycle across Montana to learn about energy development, or -- between meetings with ranchers, Native American leaders and university scholars -- backpack into Montana's Great Bear Wilderness Area to see the effects of climate change on whitebark pine and pika populations.

With courses limited to 10 students, WRFI teaches 55 to 60 students each year to think critically, ask hard questions and hone their verbal and written communication skills. Many courses end with a forum where students present their work to a local community.

University of Denver Field Quarter,

Each fall, 12 to 14 University of Denver sophomores, juniors and seniors explore the West in vans from Colorado's Mount Evans to Baja, conducting field research, meeting conservationists and natural resource managers, studying geography, ecology and geology. They also spend time in either the Czech Republic or Central America to apply ethnographic techniques and examine the political ecology of economic growth.

Land Arts,

It takes 17 hours to drive from Lubbock, Texas, to the Great Salt Lake's Spiral Jetty -- a sculptural earthwork by the late artist Robert Smithson -- but one Texas Tech University College of Architecture Program heads there every year, on its 6,000-mile Land Arts of the American West tour.

"If you get in an airplane and drive two hours to see it, that is different from camping for two months and being immersed in the landscape," says instructor Chris Taylor. "In that journey comes the opportunity to see other things."

Ten students investigate petroglyphs, open-pit mines and interpretive centers, as well as works of land art such as Double Negative on Nevada's Mormon Mesa. Bill Gilbert, a professor at the University of New Mexico College of Fine Arts, started the program in 2000. The two schools ran it jointly until 2008, and now continue independently. In addition to readings, discussions and meetings with artists, art historians, filmmakers, plant managers, geologists and others, the students create works for a public exhibit.

Expedition Education Institute,

With its backseats removed to hold camping gear and a 450-book library, the Expedition Education Institute bus is a rolling classroom that travels thousands of miles through Western bioregions. For three months, 15 to 20 students study ecology, human communities and sustainability while practicing community and leadership skills.

Spring courses go from Tucson through the Navajo and Hopi Nations and into Utah's canyon country, meeting with writers, educators, leaders, activists and permaculturists along the way. In the fall course, students tour the Pacific Northwest, backpacking in southern British Columbia, exploring the Olympic Peninsula and camping for a week in the wilds of Portland to learn about local food and well-designed bike paths.

"We meet with the people that are leading the change to a more sustainable society," says Larkspur Morton, Institute director. "Our curriculum teaches students to see the challenges we face as complex interplays of economic, ecological, social and cultural factors."

Collaborative decision making

Natural Resource Conflict Resolution,

When Montana officials asked Matt McKinney at the University of Montana's Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for assistance improving the state environmental policy act, he turned to his students.

The Natural Resources Conflict Resolution certificate program teaches eight to 10 graduate students and professionals each year how to assemble the right people with the best available information to build lasting solutions. This requires technical and scientific understanding as well as knowledge about people's needs, interests, visions and cultures. Students learn negotiation, facilitation and collaborative decision-making. They study core theory and case studies and role-play stakeholders: rancher, county commissioner, conservationist.

For the capstone practicum, students working on the Montana Environmental Policy Act conducted interviews, convened and facilitated meetings with stakeholders and reported their findings. Montana state agency directors will present responses to their suggestions during the 2013 state legislative session.

Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources,

The University of Wyoming's Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources draws faculty from across the campus to offer majors and minors in environment and natural resources concurrent with other degrees, from painting to law to rangeland management. Students learn in the Tetons, Spain's Canary Islands and elsewhere as well as in the classroom. Roughly 100 undergraduate, 50 graduate and 10 law students are enrolled, with numbers growing. The curriculum emphasizes understanding issues from different stakeholder perspectives.

University of Arizona Institute of the Environment,

The University of Arizona's Institute of the Environment helps people live sustainably in arid and warming environments, steward dryland ecosystems, maximize solar energy potential, conserve and reuse water and adapt to a changing climate. Doctoral students can pursue a minor in global change, and graduate students can join the Institute's Carson Scholars Program, a network of graduate students and faculty conducting interdisciplinary environmental scholarship and problem-solving and communicating science.

Environmental educator education

Oregon Natural Resource Education Program,

This year, 95,000 kids will better understand Oregon forests, wildlife and climate change after 1,100 teachers got hands-on training in engaging kindergarten through 12th grade students with natural resource material. The Oregon Natural Resources Education Program at Oregon State University helps schools integrate the topic throughout grade levels, pairs teachers with scientists who bring them into the field and trains faculty at seven Oregon universities to provide natural resource material to teachers in training.

Fourth-graders at Timber Ridge School, for example, hung hummingbird feeders and carefully documented which species came to which feeders, under what circumstances. Their data went to ecologist Matt Betts, along with data from school kids in several Oregon communities. The program strives to produce students who are environmentally literate, equipped to make informed decisions that will sustain Oregon's forests, wildlife, water, and land into the future.

Teton Science School Graduate Program,

With a campus inside Grand Teton National Park, the Teton Science School Graduate Program prepares its students to facilitate place-based experiential learning and teach field ecology. Graduate students take classes and practice teaching, spending a lot of time in the snow and sagebrush with K-12 learners. Each year, 15 to 20 graduate students participate, earning academic credit valid for master's degrees at five Western universities or Antioch University.

Tribal colleges

Northwest Indian College,

Northwest Indian College's bachelor's of science in Native environmental science is "beginning to meet a critical need within tribal communities for Native American environmental scientists and natural resource professionals rooted in their culture," says director Joel Green. The program includes courses in biology, chemistry, ecology and environmental science as well as courses focused on Native American perspectives of the natural world, including ecology of the First People, Native science, and Native American fishing rights. Students also complete an internship and a thesis.

Salish Kootenai College Natural Resources Department,

Nestled in the Flathead Valley between the Kootenai and Flathead national forests, Salish Kootenai College is the only tribal college to offer bachelor's of science degrees in environmental science, forestry and hydrology. These interdisciplinary programs integrate theoretical, conceptual, computational and practical knowledge to meet the needs of tribal departments and Native American people.

Diné College Uranium Education Program, (UEP),

For decades, more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines have contaminated water, livestock and people on the Navajo Nation. "Because Navajo has no vocabulary to understand the nature of uranium and its risks, UEP has to develop a culturally sensitive program to both educate and empower Navajo citizens," explains Perry Charley, Diné College Environmental Institute's Uranium Education Program director.

Started in 1996 with a National Institute of Environmental Health Science grant, UEP educates K-12 teachers, high school and college students and community members about the public-health impacts of uranium on the reservation. UEP also places Diné College students as field research interns on a study sampling unregulated wells contaminated with radionuclides, heavy metals and bacteria. Students and researchers share their findings with affected communities to help them avoid exposure.

Field Courses

Great Basin Institute (GBI),

"There's no experience like putting someone in the middle of the Mojave Desert in May," says Jerry Keir, Great Basin Institute co-founder and director. The University of Nevada-based nonprofit pursues research, education and service on Western public lands, orchestrating the Nevada Conservation Corps, the International Conservation Volunteer Exchange, a research associate program and environmental field studies. Land-management agencies and parks in Wyoming, Idaho, California, Nevada and Utah rely on the Institute to find qualified college and graduate researchers who can work in harsh environments and deliver sound data.

When agencies need natural resource interpretation for events like Nevada's Burning Man Festival or inventories for environmental assessments of projects such as transmission lines, they turn to GBI. The Institute recently paired a graduate student from Nevada with another from Ireland on a three-year study of flying squirrels at Lake Tahoe. Other college students track tortoises in the Mojave Desert and gather data on rare plants, invasive species, recreation and wildlife.

Rocky Mountain Field Institute,

The Rocky Mountain Field Institute's tagline is "Dirt. Rocks. Fun." The Institute runs Earth Corps, where undergraduate college students spend 30 days doing service projects while learning about environmental issues onsite. This summer, 10 participants will restore trails in the South Colony Lakes Basin of Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains as they study land-management policy and wilderness systems science to earn four academic credits from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Northwest Connections,

Northwest Connections is a 15-year-old nonprofit based at a historic homestead in Montana's Swan Valley. Outdoor educator Melanie Parker and her husband, hunting guide Tom Parker, started the organization to help the local community protect its working rural landscape and wildlife habitat.

The organization monitors rare wildlife, facilitates sustainable logging projects and helps prevent housing development from fragmenting habitat on private timberland. This community-based conservation work provides a laboratory for two two-month field courses in the valley each summer and fall, with academic credit through the University of Montana. Each has room for 10 to 12 students. The courses start with natural history, outline problems with local forest and watershed restoration or wildlife ecology, show how people are building collaborative solutions and integrate jobs and the local economy.

Students in one of the courses even stay with a local family, says Melanie Parker. "They get to talk about wolves or logging or mining over coffee or when they help with the chores. For the students, it's an incredible opportunity. But also the community members report how much they appreciate being listened to."

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A field program teaches undergrads to think differently about public lands
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