Students trek west for hands-on geography experience

September 22, 2017
Students at Mount St. Helens, Washington
Service project in Glacier National Park
Service project painting railing

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Viewing the recent total solar eclipse, assessing the impact of climate change on mountain goats and hiking through a high, narrow gorge to view a 100-foot waterfall were just a few of the novel learning opportunities that 16 University of Wisconsin-Platteville students had during a three-week geography field experience in the western United States.

The annual excursion, designed to help students learn about the cultural, environmental and physical geography of the western United States, is part of the Field Geography of the Western United States course. The course follows in the long tradition of field geography, in which geography is taught in place, in the field, observing the features and issues being discussed.

“Learning can be done in all different kinds of ways, but one of the most powerful ways of learning is to directly observe and interact with the subjects that you are studying,” said Dr. Rich Waugh, professor of geography at UW-Platteville and coordinator of the trip. “For example, climate change becomes more real when you learn about it while observing thousands of acres of trees killed by climate change, or when your own data shows a population crash among high-elevation animals like mountain goats and pikas. Historically, the Western Trip has helped students focus on directions in careers and life. In many cases, it opened their eyes to possibilities that they didn’t know existed. The power of learning in the field is that it is so visceral that lives actually have been changed as a result.”

Along their journey, students examined a variety of themes, including Native American culture, national parks and park policy, regional physical geography, water use, climate change and biogeography. They explored the themes in historic and environmental sites in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, including the Badlands, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks; Oneonta Gorge; Mount St. Helen’s; Cannon Beach; Wallowa and Big Horn mountains; Grand Tetons; Columbia River Gorge; and more.

One highlight of the trip was when the group was able to observe the solar eclipse on Aug. 21. Trip participants were treated to a spectacular total eclipse, complete with a corona and a strong diamond ring effect. In addition to understanding how and why eclipses occur, students recorded data before, during and after totality.

A second highlight of the trip was when students and professors volunteered to conduct service projects in the national parks. In Yellowstone National Park, one group of students improved park infrastructure by painting picnic benches and fences while another group of students refurbished a historical building. In Glacier National Park, the park service trained the students and professors how to observe and count two animal species living in the park, pikas and mountain goats. Students then hiked up to 14 miles into the park’s backcountry to count the animals. Data they gathered was then folded into a larger study the park was conducting to assess the impact of climate change on the animals.

"Volunteering with the National Park Service to interpret the effects of climate change with wildlife surveys was an incredible experience," said Michelle Cliff, a junior reclamation, environment and conservation major from Patch Grove, Wisconsin. "Learning about this major crisis and its effect on how it is altering the traditions and ecosystems of America's parks is truly thought-provoking."

A third highlight of the trip was when students hiked through Oneonta Gorge in Oregon, a very high, very narrow slot canyon carved by a tributary to the Columbia River to study landform development, micro-environments and biodiversity. On their return through the gorge, students were able to see a 100-plus foot waterfall dropping into a very cold plunge pool, where they later went swimming.

A fourth, final highlight of the trip was when students visited Mount St. Helens in Washington, the site of a catastrophic volcanic eruption in May 1980. They were able to see the flanks of the volcano, well within the blast zone, and discussed not only the formation and eruption styles of such volcanoes but the biogeography of plant regeneration after such an eruption.

Rebecca Ingalls, a senior biology major from Prescott, Wisconsin, said that before the trip, she had not had a lot of exposure to the various cultures of the United States. “The trip was fantastic because I had the opportunity to learn about many Native American cultures throughout the Northwestern United States. The highlight of the trip, for me, was learning about the thermophiles that live in the geysers and basins at Yellowstone National Park – bacteria are awesome. Glacier National Park was breathtaking, and being a part of the study counting pikas and mountain goats at the park was an experience not many people can say they have had. The trip was an amazing experience that I will never forget.”

Throughout the trip, students engaged in active learning activities, including reflections on the days’ experiences, small scientific experiments and substantial interactions with exhibits inside the visitor centers. Additionally, students will be evaluated by a comprehensive essay final exam.

Course program instructors included Waugh; Dr. Lynnette Dornak, assistant professor of geography at UW-Platteville; Dr. Frank King, assistant professor of ethnic studies at UW-Platteville; Dr. Mittie Nimocks Den Herder, provost emeritus; and Sarah Scott, a former UW-Platteville student who is now a geographic information systems specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Phoenix, Arizona. Scott was in charge of all trip logistics.

King said that the students thrived in the kinesthetic learning environment. “To read about or see pictures of the topography of the U.S. does not do justice to actually seeing the mountains, the vegetation and animal life, to actually drive through and witness the very spot of the Standing Rock protests,” King said. “That type of learning can enhance empathy and demands for justice. Students had conversations on climate change, racial injustice and numerous other topics that college students should talk about in and out of the classroom. I was fascinated to learn how students felt about the problems their generation will face with economic insecurity and social unrest. The issue of climate change and their fear of the future was really eye opening. The students inspired me in knowing they want to enact social change; they want to fight for justice.”

The group traveled through areas where they discussed displacement of Native Americans from their traditional lands. Separately, the students went to a Japanese internment camp where they gained an understanding of the plight of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Den Herder noted that students often shared their reactions to the mistreatment of Native Americans and Japanese Americans during conversations around their evening campfires. “They shared their thoughts and feelings about this mistreatment and how they would feel if elements of their culture (flag, language, holiday traditions, music, etc.) were denied them because they weren’t acceptable to the mainstream. The conversation was impressive – so many of the students shared personal thoughts and were empathetic in the conversation. They also were able to discuss issues of immigration, climate change, land use and the need for their active civic engagement in these and other issues facing our communities, states, country and the world.”

Student participants, from a wide variety of disciplines, included Cliff, Ingalls, Katelyn Grgich, Narisha Reddy, Megan Burbach, Brad Kruppe, Brooke Kruppe, Greg Arther, Alex Lund, Dalton Sheffler, Aaron Sincoular, Quincy Williams, Myles Mayer, Will Lindley, Jon Ley, and Cal Cizauskas.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, University Relations Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,


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