Q&A: The Value of Experiential, Field-Based Courses

Oct. 4, 2013

In the early summer of 2013, UA students in the "HIST 495F: Current Topics in U.S. History" class left their desks behind and took to the field, traveling from the heights of the rugged San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado to the depths of the Grand Canyon in a field class supported by a UA Green Fund mini grant.

Students in the course explored the environmental history of the landscapes and watersheds of the southwestern U.S. and learned lessons of political ecology and land management practices. Jesse Minor, a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant in the UA School of Geography and Development, co-instructed the course with Marcus Burtner, a 2013 graduate of the UA history department who now teaches environmental history at Northern Arizona University. 

Minor, whose interests span from fire history and restoration ecology to how people apply scientific knowledge of the environment for land management practices, shares his perspective on how students' educational experience can be enhanced by stepping out of the classroom and into the world.

Q: Why were the locations the class visited chosen? 

A: The theme of this class was the environmental history of the Four Corners region, with special focus on the ways in which human relationships with land and water have changed over several centuries. Site visits were chosen based on their ability to clarify these themes. We visited national park units that are devoted to telling stories about pre-European land use, such as Wupatki National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park. We also visited national parks devoted to protecting dramatic landscapes or encouraging motorized recreation, such as the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Q: How did the class visits impact the students' educational experience differently?

At every site the class visited, we discussed how and whose history is commemorated, how land use has changed over time, and how water is conceptualized and utilized. Water provided a unifying theme; we explored the headwaters of the San Juan River, toured several federal water storage and delivery projects, and examined how water has shaped and reshaped landscapes and how people live on the land.

Q: Based on the types of projects and the assignments the students completed for the class, how do you anticipate that they will shape the students' perceptions and learning process?

A: The nature of experiential, field-based courses such as this one is that they provide very intensive, consuming and personalized interactions with course themes and their expressions out in the world. Beyond the immediate learning that occurs during the course in the forms of readings, discussions, site visits and personal reflection, intensive field courses like this tend to create opportunities for long-term growth and realizations. This course incorporated nonfiction readings in the form of historical monograph; popular and accessible nonfiction; a novel centered on the landscapes we were exploring; interpretation and outreach materials located at public lands; guided tours; and individual exploration. Every day, the students kept a journal reflecting on their experiences, connecting readings to landscapes, and working through issues we were discussing. These diverse readings, coupled with hands-on exploration and dedicated time for reflection, allow students to come to an understanding of their world long after the course has completed.  

Q: What was the greatest adventure you and the students experienced during the trip?

A: We traveled through some really dramatic landscapes. Escaping Tucson in late May and traveling to the high desert and then into mountain terrain really drives home how diverse the Southwest's landscapes are. We spent a day above Silverton, Colo., exploring the mining ghost town of Animas Forks in a heavy snowfall. Our field vehicle developed a flat tire, which we changed in the mud of a recently-melted snowfield while watching marmots and gray jays forage among the rocks. A few days later, we found ourselves in the equally abandoned marina at Hite, Utah, walking around on the cracked mud of Powell Reservoir while an incessant wind whipped Colorado River silt into the air. It was hard not to view Hite's uselessness as a potential future for the Southwest, with insufficient flows in the Colorado River to support profligate water use.

Q: Why do you feel these experiences are important for the personal and academic development of students? 

A: Experiential, field-based educational experiences like this one fully engage students in a way that is impossible on campus and in traditional lecture or lab-based courses. In small group settings like this, students cannot be anonymous. Importantly, students in this setting are instrumental to each other's learning. Every student brings a different perspective to the course themes and their expressions in the landscape, and that diversity of lived experience and embodied knowledge really augments the learning of the group as a whole. I believe that students emerge from class experiences such as this with skills that are readily transferable to their academic coursework and to their lives outside of school. The form of total student engagement that is promoted by field courses such as this prepares students for interdisciplinary thinking and for deep reflection on important ideas that transcend the boundaries of our normal everyday lives.

Photos courtesy of Jesse Minor