Students travel west for field experience

July 16, 2015
Group in front of Alamo
Brady, Texas
The group in front of the Rio Grande
conducting surveys in San Antonio

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Eleven students from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville learned about the physical and cultural geography of the western United States during a three-week field experience as part of the Field Geography of the Western United States course at UW-Platteville. The course has been offered at the university since 1972. 

The students were led by Dr. Richard Waugh, professor of geography at UW-Platteville, and Dr. Lynnette Dornak, assistant professor of geography at UW-Platteville. Waugh has led more than 34 of the western trips.

During the trip, students visited and toured a variety of historic and environmental sites in Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, although the focus of the trip was on Texas. Specific places visited include the St. Louis Arch, Hot Springs National Park, Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, Big Thicket National Preserve, Galveston sea wall and beach, Welder Wildlife Refuge, South Padre Island, the Alamo, Big Bend National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park and many more.

In Texas, students learned about the state’s physical and cultural geography by talking with Texans about their state as well as directly exploring the environment and culture of Texas. They explored wetlands associated with the Brazos River; hiked to the top of Guadalupe Peak, the tallest mountain in Texas; and explored the biogeography of the Big Thicket forested region of eastern Texas. Culturally, the students spent time discussing Texas secession with the Texas Nationalist Movement and Texas history with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, visited the most famous honky-tonk in Texas, located in Gruene, and explored the ancestral Native American site at Caddo Mounds.

In addition, the students conducted a human-based research project designed to explore the vernacular identity of Texas. Waugh explained that vernacular identity is how people living in a region perceive it, which is important because it drives how a culture behaves and responds to change. Students were involved in directly polling Texans about their identity, using a questionnaire, in places as varied as churches, beauty salons, city parks, beaches, grocery stores and on the street. From this, students learned how to conduct research and, in their conversations with Texans, learned a great deal about what Texas is.

During the evenings, the group camped at state and national campgrounds along the route, including Daingerfield, Village Creek, Brazos Bend, and Mustang Island State Parks and Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks.

“The importance of field geography is to actually go and see and experience, and there is no educational opportunity that quite compares to it,” said Waugh. “Students invariably return with a deeper understanding and appreciation for a region, and the topics that define that region, than they would if they accessed the region virtually.”

“Collecting and studying data for the research project helped the students became more environmentally knowledgeable because they saw, first-hand, the relationship between human actions and environmental response,” said Dornak. “For example, one question on the survey addressed the environmental perception of physical regions, and the responses to this question related closely to how Texans use the land. Culturally, Texas is a dominant state in the United States, and the students’ increased knowledge about the state will help them better assess and evaluate U.S. culture.”

“The importance of field geography is to actually go and see and experience, and there is no educational opportunity that quite compares to it. Students invariably return with a deeper understanding and appreciation for a region, and the topics that define that region, than they would if they accessed the region virtually.”

                              –Dr. Richard Waugh

Waugh said that traveling and camping for three weeks, in a wide variety of conditions, also helped the students develop self-confidence as well as an enhanced ability to problem solve and see new solutions to difficulties. “We happened to be there in the wettest May in the recorded history of Texas, and we camped several nights in terrific thunderstorms,” said Waugh. “Students realized the power of such storms, and also how to deal with the storms and their aftermath.”

UW-Platteville students who participated in the trip included Laura Grotjan, Nasser Al Humood, Tyler Edge, Andrew Green, Hussain Al Habib, Philip Schulz, Laura Scotts, Narisha Reddy, Will Lindley, Liz Tanner and Katelyn Grgich.

“This was an awesome adventure,” said Grotjan. “I would recommend this trip to anyone who enjoys seeing new places, camping and hanging out with cool people. Learning about a place by being there in person is incredibly fun and beneficial.”

In addition to the faculty, Sarah Scott and Morgan Spitzer, two former students who had previous experience on such trips, participated as faculty assistants and were involved in the logistics and education of the trip.

“Students who have participated in this trip in the past have described it as ‘life- changing,’” said Waugh. “For many, the trip resulted in new-found passions that developed into careers undreamed of when the trip started.”

As UW-Platteville pursues its vision of being recognized as the leading student-focused university for its success in achieving excellence, creating opportunities and empowering each individual, it is guided by four strategic planning priorities. The Field Geography of the Western United States field experience aligns with two of the priorities, including providing an outstanding education and fostering a community of achievement and respect.

Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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Strategic Plan in Action

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Strategic Plan is centered around the following priorities:

  • Provide an outstanding education
  • Foster a community of achievement and respect
  • Control our own destiny
  • Enrich the tri-state region

Read more about how the university is executing this plan, as well as find examples of its success on the strategic plan website.

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