To develop deeper connections with various landscapes, a group of University of Arizona students and their instructor recently completed a 10-day trip through Arizona, California, Utah and Nevada.
Led by Eric Magrane, a doctoral candidate in the UA School of Geography and Development and a graduate research associate with the UA Institute of the Environment, the trip was part of a summer course in geography, the "American Landscape Field Course."
Over three weeks, students learned about some of the most iconic landscapes in the Southwest and Western regions of the U.S. through an artistic perspective while visiting iconic sites, federal public lands, national forests, state parks and former military airfields.
"I believe that in-depth experiences and encounters are at the heart of learning and that it's useful to expand the idea of what a classroom can be," Magrane said. "In the spirit of experiential learning, I wanted to get students out into the field to visit some of the amazing sites in the Southwest, particularly some sites that reflect art and environment."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency references a growing body of research indicating that Americans spend about 90 percent of their lives in built structures with little access to the natural environment. That is a startling finding, especially at a time of accelerated changes in the climate and when issues directly related to natural resources are prevalent in policy discussions.
Magrane is attuned to the need to improve understanding about environmental issues. He is a member of the Art & Environment Network, coordinated by the UA Institute of the Environment and involving artists, writers, humanities scholars and environmental scientists on and off campus. Network members work to catalyze public involvement on environmental issues and challenges through forums, exhibitions, courses, workshops and other events.
Magrane's class was supported by the UA Green Fund and included visits to the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon Dam, the art pieces "Spiral Jetty" and "Sun Tunnels," and the Nevada Museum of Art Center for Art + Environment.
Students were encouraged to think about ways that geography informs how people develop a sense of place, and how experiences and decisions are embedded in the landscape. Course discussions often were held around a campfire, as the group camped most nights of the trip.
"The landscape can be approached in so many ways," Magrane said. "The landscape tells stories. You can think about it environmentally and you can also think about it culturally. As we travel in this field course, we engage in an ongoing discussion about the different ways to think about landscape — culturally, politically, environmentally and artistically."
Magrane said students encountered diverse perspectives along the way. For example, the group received a tour of the Center for Land Use Interpretation's Wendover artist residence site from Matt Coolidge, the center's director; it explored the Center for Art + Environment’s archives with Sara Frantz, the center's archivist; and it was briefed on the history of the Great Salt Lake and on the natural history of bison by Antelope Island's Charity Gibson.
Cat Hulshoff, a second-year graduate student in art history who specializes in pre-Colombian art history, said she took interest in the course because of the experiential learning component.
"The expansion of the classroom in this sense has been invaluable," said Hulshoff, who also has a background in fine arts and American art history.
Most valuable to Hulshoff was learning about the process of map making and American exceptionalism, both within the landscape perspective, and also interacting with rangers, land managers and artistic directors.
"They have been so hospitable and willing to spend large chunks of time with us to assist in how we, as students of any number of backgrounds, can interpret the landscapes and continue them in future discourse," Hulshoff said. "The sites we visited have been made very accessible to us as learners, and it has encouraged me as a researcher to explore other avenues in the search for information and academic support."
Allison Koski, a UA senior studying regional development, said the course was beneficial from theoretical and applied perspectives.
"This class has been revolutionary from anything I have taken before and is very progressive," said Koski, adding that her background in studio art served as a complement to the class.
"A lot of the sites stress the importance of bringing in art, because art contributes to the awareness of the areas we have seen," she said, noting that each of the students' respective areas of study — history, environmental sciences, planning and art — was represented in the class.
"I definitely think that learning in this capacity is helpful for getting value out of a student's college career," Koski said. "There is something special about the structure of this class that allows us to think and discuss freely while on the road, and I feel that I have learned more valuable concepts in this class than I have in a classroom."