College Class on Environment Redefines Field Trip Each fall semester, one college professor in Washington state takes his environmental studies class on a journey across nearly a dozen Western states. They visit people with an interest in environmental policy in the West and conduct a class in each location.

College Class on Environment Redefines Field Trip

College Class on Environment Redefines Field Trip

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Each fall semester, one college professor in Washington state takes his environmental studies class on a journey across nearly a dozen Western states. They visit people with an interest in environmental policy in the West and conduct a class in each location.


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand. What if summer camp didn't end when school began? Students at Whitman College in Washington State are living that fantasy. In a program called Semester in the West, they study public land use in the West by actually taking their classes out on the range. The Western Folklife Center's Taki Telonidis has this report.

TAKI TELONIDIS: Several students huddle over laptops in the nerve center of their mobile classroom, a converted horse trailer with solar panels and a satellite dish on the roof. Some work on assignments while others email their families and update blogs.

Unidentified Man #1: Anybody else using Internet?

TELONIDIS: Their campsite is nestled in a golden meadow surrounded by mesas in northern Nevada. The classroom is a circle of camp chairs. Sleeping bags and tents are scattered about, as are the students.

(Soundbite of guitar)

TELONIDIS: These students and their professor camp out the entire semester, no matter the weather. Faith Applewhite is majoring in environmental studies and sociology.

Ms. FAITH APPLEWHITE (Student): Sleeping outside and waking up with a frost-covered bag and knowing that everybody else went through that ten degree night also, and cooking together.

Unidentified Man #2: It's dirt cake and you eat it and it's good.

TELONIDIS: This may all sound like a good time, and it is. But it's also hard work. Semester in the West is the brainchild of Phil Brick, who teaches politics at Whitman College.

Professor PHIL BRICK (Whitman College): I want students to understand why are these lands here? What's the history of them? What's happening on the lands now?

TELONIDIS: The Westies, as they're called, examine water issues, mining, logging, and development. They carry a full course-load, earning credits in biology, writing, politics and environmental studies. They travel in a convoy of Suburbans on an 8,000 mile odyssey through 12 states.

Unidentified Man #3: Suburban two three copy.

Unidentified Man #4: Three copy.

Unidentified Woman #1: Two copy.

TELONIDIS: Today they bounce along a dirt road that climbs through a high desert range. Professor Brick's approach is to put students face to face with people on all sides of complex issues. Students ask their own questions and draw their own conclusions. Today's meeting is with activist John Marvel.

Mr. JOHN MARVEL (Activist): Okay, this is John. I'm going slowly here to point out that sagebrush was probably herbicided here.

TELONIDIS: Marvel and his organization, Western Watersheds Project, are players in one of the more contested public lands issues: cattle grazing. Marvel wants to remove cows and ranchers from public lands and restore the landscape to what it was before white settlement. To make his argument, Marvel takes the class on a series of stops in a public allotment used by a local ranch.

Mr. MARVEL: This is a wetland that has been pummeled to death literally by cows.

TELONIDIS: He points to land and streams damaged by cattle. He says grazing pushes wildlife and native grasses off the range and that the shaky economics of ranching would collapse without government money. Student Matt Cameron struggles to put perspective on today's picture.

Mr. MATT CAMERON (Student): The image of all that, like public land, just totally grazed down to nothing - I'm very confused about how to fix all these things that we've been seeing. And it's hard.

Prof. BRICK: When I take students out, my initial goal is confusion, to really set students off balance.

TELONIDIS: Professor Phil Brick.

Prof. BRICK: It's sometimes heart-wrenching for students, but I think out of that confusion comes creativity, and that creativity comes out in the students' writing.

TELONIDIS: Brick's plan is to add to his student's confusion the next morning, when they arrive at another ranch for a different perspective on grazing.

Prof. BRICK: Good morning. How are you?

TELONIDIS: Brick introduces the Westies to Steve and Robin Boyce, whose family ranch is comprised mostly of petting plants. The Boyces begin with an explanation of their approach to ranching, a relatively new method called holistic resource management. Ranch decisions take into account wildlife, economics, families, and cycles of the environment, as well as cattle.

Mr. STEVE BOYCE (Rancher): Like we do a bird survey every year. And it's important to us that the more species are out there the healthier the land will be.

TELONIDIS: Students take notes and ask tough questions, like James Most, who yesterday was moved by John Marvel's arguments against ranching.

Mr. JAMES MOST (Student): Why should, you know, the public be paying for them to ranch on public lands, you know, with the subsidies?

Mr. BOYCE: For what the (unintelligible) spends on this allotment, you're getting a heck of a good deal.

TELONIDIS: The Boyces have spent the past 10 years making improvements to their allotment, and they're eager to show the students some of the results. The Westies take in a very different picture from yesterday, cows grazing in a grassy meadow, a once barren riparian area now bristling with willows. Student James Most quietly pulls Robin Boyce away from the group.

Mr. MOST: Who am I to, you know, tell somebody else their life needs to change, and you know, if somebody was telling me my life needed to change, you know, so yeah, in there, in there I didn't want to you feel like I was attacking you guys, so...

Ms. BOYCE: Yeah, and I think a lot of it's just trying not to be judgmental.

TELONIDIS: Uh-huh. Today has also cooled the anger felt by Faith Applewhite.

Ms. APPLEWHITE: Twelve hours ago, I hated cows so much, I think I dreamed about them dancing around a fire with pitchforks, and now I can't even remember why.

GROUP: (Singing) Happy birthday to you...

TELONIDIS: It's evening now, and Phil Brick and the Westies are back at camp.

Prof. BRICK: My colleagues think I'm a little insane to do this and spend so much time with students, but just look at the group, and everyone's having a wonderful time, and they're learning so much, and these kids have a glow about them.

TELONIDIS: By the time dinner's over, both the son and temperature have plummeted, but school isn't over, and Professor Brick gathers the group in a circle. It's too soon for students to put into writing any conclusions about ranching. Grooming those thoughts may take days or weeks. But it is time to present insights on other issues.

Prof. BRICK: Okay, if everybody could turn off their headlamp, please? Thank you. This is our first epiphany circle, one of many we'll have...

TELONIDIS: Epiphanies are a core component of the program. Students must put into words personal and academic insights from their experiences in the field.

Prof. BRICK: The way we typically do this is we sit around in the dark until someone provides a flash of light called an epiphany, and they turn on their headlight and start reading.

Unidentified Man #5: Wilderness As an Art Masterpiece. We toured an amazing cave today. As we walked deep into the Earth's flesh...

TELONIDIS: One by one, headlamps flash and ideas flow, bringing focus to a blur of experiences over the past month, meetings with botanists and writers, visits to national parks and mines.

Unidentified Woman #2: Peering over the edge of the Berkeley Pit Copper Mine in Butte, I'm stuck by...

Unidentified Man #6: Politics in the West, especially, isn't about semantics at all, it's about getting...

Unidentified Woman #3: Why haven't I seen it so clearly until now? Perhaps because I've been caught up in the sheltered lifestyle...

TELONIDIS: Each reading is followed by comments from fellow students, until the group is again silent and the Milky Way the only source of light.

Ms. REGINA FITZSIMMONS(ph): Okay, it's called Recalling a New Environmental Penicillin. When I was 14, my family...

TELONIDIS: To the avid hikers and kayakers around her, Regina Fitzsimmons walks through her courtship with nature.

Ms. FITZSIMMONS: I can count the number of times I've hiked on two hands and the number of times I've camped on one. People who appreciate the environment are not always born and raised in the way you imagine or think best. We need all different types of people in this world. We need the music-weavers and the word-bloomers.

Prof. BRICK: You know, sometimes it's kind of like watching a child grow up. You don't really notice it, and then one day, it's like, wow. I really was kind of wondering, you know, how well she was doing, and she had never asked anyone any questions or anything, and just to hear the strength of her voice and the depth of her prose was just, you know, brought everyone to tears.

Unidentified Woman #4: It's so good to hear your voice.

TELONIDIS: Tomorrow morning, the Westies will pack up their camp and continue their journey for two more months. For NPR News, I'm Taki Telonidis.

BRAND: Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center also contributed to that story.

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