Deep Studies, Deep Impact, Beautiful Scenery

A&S students travel to Belize, the Tetons and western Washington for immersive learning experiences

By Olaoluwapo Onitiri and Richard LeComte

To bring College of Arts & Sciences students to the world, faculty members have developed high-impact educational experiences in the field, relevant to their disciplines. From the Tetons of Wyoming to the forests of Western Washington to the brilliantly heterogeneous ecosystems of Belize, A&S students have studied everything from big cats to thousands of years of geologic history to their own inner beings. Here are some examples of their explorations.

BELIZE—SPOT THAT CAT

A group of eight UK students was deep in Central America’s nation of Belize, learning how to assess wildlife populations, including big cats, using cameras. Led by Emily Croteau, lecturer in biology, students hit pay dirt on their first foray into this wild ecosphere last summer.

“I wanted to focus on conservation biology and giving the students an authentic field experience,” Croteau said. “Belize has a few different ecosystems. It has a really fascinating terrestrial ecosystem that ranges from lowland savannah areas and then into jungle habitats.”

Getting the cameras in place was not only an exciting adventure for the students, but it was also quite challenging.

“It was actually really, really exciting, the first time that we went into the jungle to recover our camera traps,” said Quincy Ipsaro, a junior biology major from Cincinnati. “The first day we did probably a seven-to-10-mile hike into the jungle just to set up the cameras. It was so, so hot and the bugs were insane. It was probably some of the toughest conditions I've ever been through.”

Croteau said the students were able to capture images of three of the five cat species as well as tapirs and agoutis.

“We had some decent results within a few days, which I never could have imagined would have happened,” she said. “We placed these cameras in savannah areas and jungle-type areas. Then we got the photos back at the end of the trip. And we did a lot of hiking, just to see the change in environments. There are really good trails in the Cockscomb basin, which is also the first jaguar preserve ever made.”

Croteau and the students brought back the photos to use as data in the survey. And the students also brought back a deeper appreciation for conservation, for which Belize is known. 

“The main thing that stood out for me is how focused all the people are on conservation,” Ipsaro said. “They really don't have as many resources as we do here in the United States, but people there are giving up land on their farms for animal sanctuaries, to make sure those animals have a proper habitat. People in Belize understand that the environment is a huge part of their economy.”

In addition to the inland trek, Crouteau and the students also explored Belize’s coastal areas, looking for invasive species of fauna in the waters.

TETONS—ERUPTIVE PAST

Ryan Thigpen, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, along with several of his students and faculty colleagues Mike McGlue, Summer Brown, Ed Woolery and Kevin Yeager, embarked on a project in the Teton Range of Wyoming during the summer of 2021.

The aim of the project was to study the possibility that the northern part of the Teton Range had collapsed into the Yellowstone hotspot—an area in the western United States that has experienced multiple supercalderas eruptions starting around 2 million years ago.

The Teton Range is bound by an active, earthquake producing normal fault caused by regional stretching of the Earth’s crust.

“It’s a very cool scientific idea, but there are a lot of broader implications for understanding active fault hazards that may have been left behind from these events” Thigpen said.

Although the project is now funded by a major grant from the National Science Foundation*, this study received seed funding from the University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Station and the Wendell H. Overcash Earth and Environmental Sciences Student Travel Fund, the latter of which was a gift from EES alumni to provide exceptional field experiences for students. This recent trip was scheduled to happen earlier but was delayed due to COVID.

The project involved gathering land and lake seismic imaging, essentially a picture of the geology beneath the surface, as well as coring of lake sediments that preserve earthquake records and bedrock data collection that tells us about the uplift history of the mountain range. Elisha Miller, a senior geology major who did some of the land and lake seismic studies, said the field work was a great deal different from the classroom experience. 

“We just learned a lot of things that I was able to apply from class because it’s different from looking at pictures of rocks,” he said. “Once you actually see it and get out on the field, it’s a different experience.”

Madison Preece, a senior geology major, described how much she enjoyed the experience.

“I think my favorite part of the Teton season is that we are really able to learn a lot from different fields of geology,” she said. 

Although the work is still in the early stages, preliminary results indicate that this team may be correct in thinking that the northern Teton Range has collapsed into the Yellowstone hotspot. To date, Thigpen said, they are still chasing the fault north, straight into Yellowstone National Park.

WASHINGTON STATE–JOURNALING JOURNEYS

Natural history writing, mindfulness and theories of “nature therapy” offered students a different look at Olympic National Park and Forest in Washington State in June 2021. Out in the woods, students had the time to look at their surroundings and write down their thoughts.

“It was primarily a hiking trip,” said Maeve Hoppen, one of the participants. “I was very interested in mindfulness, and I wanted a more active experience, which is why I chose this program.”

Beth Connors-Manke, associate professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies, led the class, which stayed 13 days at Aramark’s Lake Quinault Lodge, a rustic lodge built in 1926. Onsite class time involved writing, hiking and mindfulness activities. Students visited a diverse set of landscapes, including the Pacific coastline, the temperate rainforest and the Olympic mountain range.

“Natural history writing has long been a genre used to protect and preserve natural and wild lands,” she said. “Recent concerns about human health and environmental destruction make it important that people reconnect with the natural world. It’s pretty clear that ecological survival and human well-being are both at stake. Natural history writing allows students to bridge the two.”

Hoppen, a recent graduate who majored in linguistics with a minor in voice, said she particularly enjoyed the writing ideas Connors-Manke gave the class as part of their studies during and after explorations. 

“We would be given a prompt to chew on that related to whatever we had read in class,” Hoppen said. “We would sit down and take 10 minutes and write, and then we’d take 20 minutes to go around and share what we had written and then continue the hike. On some days, we would do the whole hike and then come back and have a reflection or a period of meditation.”

The prompts focused on attention to the natural world—each idea asking students to probe their reaction to the stunning environment. 

“Sometimes she asked us to objectively describe the environment that we were in,” she said. “Then some of them were more abstract. I think one of the more out there, super-fun prompts we had was, ‘How do you define a face?’ We’d talk about it and then go write. Or we’d pick a piece of plant life and then just sit with it and write about it—it was very free-form.”

Ultimately, Connors-Manke sees this high-impact learning experience as both educational and therapeutic.

“At its best, education is about meaning in life,” she said. “The more we build courses that combine knowledge, experience and healthy connection to the natural world—our home—the more we are serving students. Serving them intellectually, socially and psychologically.”&